Soldier of Christ
The Life of Pius XII
By Robert A. Ventresca
Harvard University Press, 391 pages, $35
Pope Pius XII (1876-1958) has been treated pretty roughly by his critics. Rolf Hochhuth, the German playwright, indicted him for cowardice in the face of the Nazis and John Cornwell's biography of him referred to him as "the Nazi pope."
This new biography offers a much more nuanced and informed account. According to Robert A. Ventresca of the University of Western Ontario, Pius XII was cautious and careful for sure and certainly never bold in his criticism of the Fascists and Nazis. He was not an anti-Semite but someone who had the conventional blind spots of his generation in his attitude towards the Jews but who in the end through his "prudence" saved many Jews.
Soldier of Christ is immaculately researched, well-written and judicious in its judgments, and it deserves serious consideration in the ongoing debate about the role of the Vatican in the face of the utter immorality of Nazi policies.
Eugenio Pacelli seemed destined for the papacy. Born to the nobility of Rome, his father was a lawyer and many of his family had served the papacy.
Pacelli was ordained in 1899. He was very well versed in civil and canon law and quickly joined the Vatican secretariat.
In 1917 he was appointed papal nuncio to Bavaria and he witnessed firsthand the instabilities of the end of the war and the rise of a militant leftism that formed a provisional revolutionary government in Munich.
He drew very conservative conclusions. His abiding fear became the rise of Bolshevism and Communism. These were the barbarians at the gates and not so much the emerging Nazi movement, which of course also had its geographic origins in Bavaria. His fear of Bolshevism led him to soft-pedal his criticisms of Hitler and his gang.
In 1925 he moved to Berlin and he became familiar with the political leaders and members of the Catholic Centre Party. His main goal was to conclude a concordat with the German government similar to what the Church would conclude with Mussolini in Italy in 1929. In this Pacelli was unsuccessful.
The same year he was appointed a cardinal and brought back to Rome as secretary of state, the senior most civil servant in the Vatican's curia. This was the position he held when he became pope in March 1939, succeeding Pius XI.
Pacelli was committed to a private diplomacy in his dealings with the totalitarian regimes of his time. His argument was that to speak out and criticize Hitler directly would be counter-productive. It would only risk greater reprisals. Yet as the evidence builds up, it is amazing to notice the degree to which Pacelli, either through his advice to Pius XI or directly as Pope, countenanced an extraordinary complicity through his silence.
He counselled the Catholic Centre Party in Germany not to make trouble for Hitler; he said nothing of consequence about Kristallnacht in 1938, and when the Nazis invaded Catholic Poland in 1939 he offered pious platitudes indeed. He endured the ignominy of having the Jews of Rome carried off to the extermination camps from underneath his very own windows, so to speak.
Yet the author concludes that in the end Pacelli's course did probably save lives. He did not goad the Nazis into retribution, and there were informal, private ways in which the Vatican sanctioned local members of the church to spirit Jews to safe havens as well as to give sanctuary to Jews and resisters.
Ventresca even defends Pacelli against any knowledge and complicity in the "ratlines" that helped organize from within the church the flight of Nazis to places like Brazil and Argentina after the war.
From the work of Irving Abella and Harold Troper in Canada, we know as well that parts of the Catholic Church in Quebec were complicit in this, too. Indeed, after the war, the evidence about Pacelli, even as provided for in this book, leaves a bitter taste, for if he was not in any way responsible for the ratlines, he was responsible for his postwar silence about the Holocaust at a time when there was no longer a nasty Hitler alive to rise up and punish vulnerable German Catholics and Jews.
Allen Mills teaches politics at the University of Winnipeg.