From "The Defamation of Pius XII" (St. Augustine Press, 2000).

Eugenio Pacelli was elected pope in 1939, took the name of Pius XII, and reigned for almost 20 years until his death in 1958. As the Vicar of Christ on earth and the successor of St. Peter, a Pope's principal job is to evangelize the world. God so loved the world that he sent his Only Begotten Son to save it from its sins: That is the good news the Church was formed to spread. The Holy Father is primarily a spiritual leader, but just as God became incarnate in Jesus, the Church is in the world, though not of it. Thus it is no small matter that the papacy of Pius XII took place during World War II and continued into the Cold War that grew up between the awkward Allies who had defeated Hitler and the Axis powers.

It is a simple fact that no political or religious leader emerged from World War II with a nobler and more heroic record than Pius XII. Vatican City is located in a country which had a fascist dictator, Mussolini, who eventually allied himself with Hitler. Mussolini's regime may have looked less menacing than Hitler's but it was totalitarian. When Mussolini was forced to resign in 1943, German troops rushed in to fill the vacuum, occupying Rome and surrounding the Vatican. These were the hostile circumstances in which Pius XII reigned until the liberation of Rome by Allied forces in 1944. Bombs actually dropped on Vatican City; whether they were German or American bombs was never clear.

The moral problems posed by an unlimited war, predicated on the unconditional surrender of Hitler, were huge--the bombing of cities, the blurring of any distinction between combatant and civilian, the violation of the most elementary precepts of natural law. Added to this were the dreadful racial policies of the Third Reich. Hitler was a satanic figure motivated by seething resentment of Germany's defeat in World War I, a dream of an Aryan people occupying the land mass of Europe for a thousand years. Standing athwart this goal--apart from the military might of the Allies--were two things: Christianity and the Jewish people.

Hitler declared war on the Church from the beginning.

He vowed to rid first Germany and then Europe of "inferior races," most notably the Jews.

The measures taken against German Jews prior to the outbreak of hostilities were a matter of public knowledge. The brain drain of Jewish intellectuals from Nazi Germany and Austria enriched the universities of Britain and the United States. The occupation of Austria and Czechoslovakia was supinely agreed to, but the invasion of Poland brought a declaration of war on Germany by Britain and, more reluctantly, France. World War II was on.

Nazi activities in occupied territories were more difficult to monitor than they had been in peacetime Germany. But the network of papal diplomats, and the presence of the Church throughout Europe, brought the incredible news to the Pope, and he both condemned what he characterized as the extermination of peoples and announced it to the world. Again and again and again.

The identification and condemnation of Nazi atrocities continued throughout the war. It was accompanied by efforts to protect the innocent victims of a diabolical regime. The Catholic Church, under the leadership of Pius XII, is credited with saving nearly a million Jews from certain death during the war. This is an achievement not even approached by other heroic efforts. It was gratefully acknowledged during and after the war by Jewish leaders who knew what the Pope had done.

Saving nearly 1 million Jews, glorious as this was, was only one of Pius XII's personal and pontifical achievements. Nonetheless, after his death, grumbling in the Church about his defense of the deposit of the faith against Modernist tendencies became more audible, and with the call for the Second Vatican Council, the pre-conciliar Church became the bete noire of liberal and progressive Catholics. It has been suggested that this was one of the disposing conditions for the success of an amazing assault on Pius XII that was launched in 1963.

The turning point was the play "The Deputy", by Rolf Hochhuth. In it, Pius XII is portrayed as the dark opposite of his historical self. Hochhuth's Pius XII is silent about the treatment of Jews, connives in their deportation from Rome and Italy, and might as well be the Nazi Hochhuth himself once was--Nazi youth at any rate. The play flies in the face of historical facts and represents a slanderous attack on a holy and heroic figure. Hochhuth wrote a similarly slanderous play about Winston Churchill, which received the treatment it deserved. But his defamation of Pius XII has passed from the realm of sick fantasy into that of received opinion. The latest contribution to the sorry genre inaugurated by Hochhuth is John Cornwell's "Hitler's Pope."

For more than three decades, historians have patiently shown that such portrayals of Pius XII are devoid of any historical basis. All the Vatican documents covering the period are now available in 12 volumes, but far from putting the matter to rest, there is a continuing buzz that the Vatican is hiding something and is engaged in an effort to save Pius XII from the truth about his papacy.

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