Excerpted from the October 1999 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.
"It is appropriate that, as the second millennium of Christianity draws to a close"--this is John Paul II, in his 1994 apostolic letter "Tertio Millennio Adveniente"--"the Church should become more fully conscious of her children's sinfulness," recalling all those times in history when they "indulged in ways of thinking and acting which were truly forms of counter-witness and scandal."
Yet when the long-awaited Vatican document examining the record of the Church in relation to the Holocaust, "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah," was published in 1998, it singled out for special praise "the wisdom of Pope Pius XII's diplomacy." This seemed to be a direct rebuttal to an oft-raised criticism of the wartime pope, whose silence in the face of the Jewish genocide had become for many an emblem of the Church's own "counter-witness and scandal."
The Vatican pronouncement came as reports surfaced that the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints was preparing to advance the cause of Pius XII toward sainthood.
If Pius XII were to be named a saint, more than the restoration of his reputation would result. His policy of silence about Nazi atrocities would be justified. He would be credited with the secret rescue of Jews that was carried out by many individual Catholics across Europe. The papal absolutism of which Pius XII was the avatar would be vindicated as John Paul II's lasting legacy.
In this context the arrival of the first serious and complete biography of Eugenio Pacelli, Pius XII, could not be more timely. John Cornwell's "Hitler's Pope," rooted in a painstaking examination of Pacelli's record as the Vatican's point man in dealing with the rise of Hitler in the 1930s and of his maneuvering as Pius XII during the war years, is a devastating refutation of the claim that this pope's diplomacy can in any way be characterized as wisdom. Instead of a portrait of a man worthy of sainthood, Cornwell lays out the story of a narcissistic, power-hungry manipulator who was prepared to lie, to appease, and to collaborate in order to accomplish his ecclesiastical purpose--which was not to save lives or even to protect the Catholic Church but, more narrowly, to protect and advance the power of the papacy.
The young priest Eugenio Pacelli was trained not as a theologian but as a canon lawyer. He was ordained in 1899 and appointed to the Vatican bureaucracy in 1901. In Europe, the structures of church and state were traditionally intermingled, with much overlap of political and religious authority. This led to Pacelli's next assignment. The task of negotiating treaties--concordats--that recognized the prerogatives of the papacy fell to him.
The most important Catholic nation in Europe in the period of the First World War, even with its Protestant majority, was Germany, and in 1917, shortly after his consecration as bishop, Pacelli went to Munich as papal nuncio. Ultimately he hoped for a concordat with the German nation itself, one that would solidify Vatican authority, especially in the matter of the appointment of bishops. Germany's Catholic bishops were accustomed to holding sway in their own sphere, and the Catholic Center Party--a political organization that dated back to the nineteenth century--was one of the most powerful institutions in Weimar. Catholic leaders of the party consistently rejected Pacelli's "urgings," in Cornwell's word, to stay out of coalitions with the left-wing Social Democrats.
The first true beneficiary of the concordats was Hitler himself: the Reichskonkordat,, agreed to on July 8, 1933, was his first bilateral treaty with a foreign power, and as such gave him much-needed international prestige. Yet the price Hitler demanded for the concordat was stiff. Hitler wanted the Center Party gone because it represented the last potential impediment to his program. It appears that Pacelli wanted it gone for the sake of his own program. That month the Center Party ceased to exist. The Reichskonkordat effectively removed the German Catholic Church--which had opposed the rise of Nazism--from any continued role of opposition to Hitler. More than that, as Hitler told his cabinet on July 14, it established a context that would be "especially significant in the urgent struggle against international Jewry."
Pacelli became Pope in 1939. As is well known, he did not openly denounce Nazi anti-Semitism as such, although he condemned Nazi racism in more general terms. Nor did he explicitly refer to the Final Solution as it unfolded, even though he was one of the first leaders outside German-controlled Europe to be informed of its full dimensions. On October 16, 1943, more than 1,200 Jews were arrested by German forces in the Jewish district of Rome, at the foot of the Vatican hill. Within a week more than a thousand of those arrested had been taken to Auschwitz and gassed. The Vatican offered shelter to hundreds of Jewish fugitives. Cornwell's examination of relevant documents, however, leads him to conclude that papal defenders exaggerate the significance of measures taken in behalf of Jews.