NEW PODCAST LIVE NOW Reflecting on the Good Friday Agreement

Opening of Vatican Archives from World War II

Published March 02, 2020 by Dr Ed Kessler MBE

Vatican Archives, Jewish-Christian Relations, Pope Pius XII, Nazi Persecution, Holocaust

Today's opening of the Vatican archives covering the period of the Holocaust, is an important moment in Jewish-Christian relations and another indication of the willingness of Pope Francis to encourage openness and change.

Will the archives support those who argue that Pope Pius XII acted in a saintly manner – his supporters propose him for sainthood - and that his actions resulted in the saving of Jewish lives? Or will they encourage those who decry the Pope's silence during WWII and argue that he was a flawed individual who failed Jews, especially the Jews of Rome, when they faced Nazi persecution?

The answer more than likely lies somewhere in between and it's this 'in between', which causes controversy. In my view, it is easily forgotten that Pope Pius XII lived in pre-Vatican II times when traditional anti-Jewish Catholic teaching was the norm, until reversed by the publication of Nostra Aetate in 1965 which transformed Catholic-Jewish relations for the better.

The Vatican traditionally waits 70 years after the end of a pontificate (for Pope Pius XII, this would be 2028) but Pope Francis has decided to open the archives earlier, (although his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, had already instructed that the documentation be prepared for consultation as early as 2006). The emeritus Pope had proclaimed Pius XII "venerable" in 2009, the first step toward sainthood on condition that a miracle be recognised. This generated controversy and in 2014 Francis indicated that a miracle hadn't been identified, suggesting that the process remained on hold.

Cardinal Josè Tolentino de Mendonça, Vatican Archivist and Librarian, said shortly before the opening that "the Church is not afraid of history", mirroring the words of Pope Francis, when he announced in October last year that the archives would open on the 80th anniversary of Eugenio Pacelli's election to the papacy – Monday 2 March 2020.

Today, 53 miles of Vatican stacked shelves, containing files with more than a million papers, will be made accessible – and many will be online.

Lisa Billig, long-standing Liaison to the Holy See who represents the American Jewish Committee, explains what scholars are keen to uncover. "Two equally passionate but opposing camps have been wrestling with each other for decades. One is composed of those who claim Pope Pacelli did his utmost to save Jewish lives while necessarily taking precautions to safeguard the Catholic populations of Europe. They want him to be declared a Saint, contrary to the opposing group who claim he failed as a moral leader and could well have raised his voice to be heard publicly and stopped the persecutions without endangering the Catholic Church."

Pope Pius XII's response to the Holocaust is of profound significance for Jewish–Christian relations. He was in Bavaria when it was declared a Soviet Republic in 1919, an experience that contributed to his antipathy towards communism. Jews were not a priority. Pius XII was also Vatican Secretary of State and responsible for the Reich Concordat of 1933 that effectively neutered Catholic opposition to the Nazis.

Whilst the Pope condemned the effects of war on its innocent victims, Pius XII failed to specify the persecution of Jews nor did he publicly protest the transportation of Rome's Jews to the concentration camps in 1943, refusing pleas for help on the grounds of neutrality.

The legacy of Rolf Hochhuth's play, The Representative which portrayed Pius as more concerned with safeguarding Vatican interests than with the fate of Jews, should not be underestimated; nor should hundreds of years of Christian anti-Jewish teaching (known as the adversus iudaeos tradition). The Pope's wartime record was criticised by academics such as Cambridge Fellow, John Cornwall, in Hitler's Pope and also by American Holocaust scholar Susan Zuccotti Under His Very Windows. Yet, he has also been defended by scholars, including Ronald Rychlak in Hitler, the War, and the Pope and by Rabbi David Dalin in The Myth of Hitler’s Pope who point out the Pope sheltered small numbers of Jews and spoke to a few officials, encouraging them to help Jews.

In my view, the Pope's behaviour was complex and inconsistent and I expect the issue will come to some kind of resolution in the years ahead - as long as discussion is conducted within the framework of respected educational institutions. The central question to be answered is whether the Pope did all he could and whether he did it soon enough.

Dr Ed Kessler MBE is Founder Director of the Woolf Institute and a leading thinker in interfaith relations, primarily, Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations.

This article will also appear in The Tablet.

Back to Blog