Not Hitler’s Pope, But No Saint Either

Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII: Private protest, public silence

I have a vivid memory of listening, early in 1939, aged ten, to a BBC outside broadcast direct from St Peter’s Square in Rome. The conclave following the death of Pius XI had just ended with the election of a pope on the third ballot. After a long delay, the Cardinal camerlengo (chamberlain) came to the microphone and intoned: “Habemus papam. [pause] Il Cardinale Eugenio Pacelli.” There was a tremendous shout of joy from the vast mob, for Pacelli, being Roman born and bred, was a popular choice. Nearly 20 years later, in November 1958, I was in Rome myself, for Pius XII’s unfortunate obsequies, and the election of John XXIII, convenor of the Second Vatican Council, and the birth of the modern church. I wrote a controversial article about this occasion, “Rome Goes Left”, which was reprinted in my book Statesmen and Nations

In between these two experiences was the long pontificate of Pius XII, which covered the whole of the Second World War and the first decade of the Cold War. Pius has always had passionate admirers and bitter, sometimes venomous detractors. The first group want him canonised and steps to this end have already been taken. The second accuse him of timidity, if not cowardice, in failing to speak out about Hitlerism and especially the policy of exterminating the Jews. In the early 1960s, Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Representative put this view in a vitriolic form, and the Vatican responded by beginning the process of publishing documents, initially with Pius’s letters to the German bishops. Publication of documents and commentary have continued for 50 years, without resolving the controversy to everyone’s, or indeed anyone’s, satisfaction. The latest contribution, by a Canadian historian, merely prolongs the debate. It is scrupulous in examining the documents, published and unpublished, fair-minded in listing the pressures and considerations which guided Pius’s policy, and deliberately refrains from passing judgment, except by occasional implication, on what he did, or did not do. Soldier of Christ is a well-meaning but unusually dull book, which is a penance to read. The title is particularly inept because Pius was not a soldier but a diplomat, and a diplomat who took caution, reserve, silence and inactivity to almost unbearable extremes. 

Eugenio Pacelli was an exceptionally able member of the Roman “black nobility”, who in the 19th century had risen from the middle class, chiefly through canon law, to the upper echelons of the Vatican bureaucracy. He was involved in papal diplomacy virtually from the beginning of his career, and served in Germany for over a decade until Pius XI brought him back to Rome as his Secretary of State. Pacelli admired the Germans and even to some extent understood them, though it was precisely his respect for the German qualities of legal rectitude, obedience and fidelity which led him to underestimate the barbarism and savagery which some Germans also possessed. Pacelli’s household was always run by Bavarian nuns, under the formidable Mother Pasquelina, and she encouraged his unfortunate habit of always taking his meals alone. He had many acquaintances, at a diplomatic level, but no intimate friends. Both as Secretary of State and as Pope he led an officially busy but personally isolated life, and in his last years he, not surprisingly, became the prey of clerical adventurers and crackpot doctors. 

Pacelli’s belief that secret diplomacy was always preferable to other forms of activity, particularly public outspokenness, played into the hands of men like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Pacelli was instrumental in negotiating a concordat with Germany, which Hitler never had the smallest intention of observing. Pacelli’s tactic of private, indeed secret, remonstrance but public silence suited Hitler admirably. In the 1920s the Catholic Centre Party was strong and well-organised, especially in Bavaria. Its leader, Brüning, was the most effective of the Weimar politicians. It might have failed in any event to stop Hitler but Pacelli’s policy made his task much easier, as Brüning’s bitter comments testified. Not only did Hitler persecute any Catholic who stood up to him, and suppress Catholic newspapers — all without any opposition from the Vatican — but in July 1933 the demoralised Centre Party supplied the votes to give Hitler his two-thirds majority to pass the notorious Enabling Act, on which his dictatorship was essentially based. Eventually, with Pacelli’s consent, the German Catholic bishops reversed their condemnation of Nazism, which had been their initial reaction to its odious programme. 

As Secretary of State Pacelli continued his policy of secret remonstrances and public silence. Pius XI, who as Achille Ratti had been a prominent mountaineer, used to taking risks and demonstrating his fearlessness, was anxious to denounce both the Axis dictators in unmistakable terms. Pacelli dissuaded him, at all stages, from saying  anything controversial. Thus the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, the attack on Ethiopia, including the use of poison gas, and the shocking invasion of Albania on Good Friday, all took place without a word of condemnation from the Pope. In due course, the horrors Hitler inflicted on overwhelmingly Catholic Poland, and his murder of nearly six million Jews, went without public rebuke from Rome. It is not true that Pacelli, as some of his critics argue, admired Hitler or supported his aims to the smallest degree. He hated them. It is true, on the other hand, that he did his feeble and limited best to protect the Roman Jews. But he never used the moral prestige of the Catholic Church to confront Hitler with his crimes in a dramatic and public manner. It might not have had any real effect. It might indeed have led to his seizure by Hitler and possible martyrdom. That would have made a remarkable climax to a life of service to the Church. As it was, Pius XII missed all the opportunities. As D’Arcy Osborne, the British diplomat attached to the Holy See, said succinctly, the papal policy could be summed up in two words, “anxious inactivity”.

Oddly enough, after the war Pope Pius XII, who had marked it by his public taciturnity, became increasingly loquacious. Encyclicals, pronouncements, speeches and obiter dicta flowed from him in ever-growing volume, most of them on entirely non-political subjects. He delighted in receiving and talking to Hollywood stars, sportsmen, celebrities and visiting firemen to Rome (almost his last audience was given to Alec Guinness). This was the period, of course, when the conmen crept in too. Galieazzi-Lisi, the medical “expert” who attended him in his last illness, was permitted to embalm him by what he claimed was a marvellous process, preserving all the organs intact. As a result the pope’s body went green and the papal guards protecting it complained of the smell of decomposition. There had earlier been rumours of the aged pope seeing miraculous visions, which this book says were well-founded. Thus Pius XII went to eternity in an atmosphere of eccentric religiosity verging on scandal. He was not the “Nazi pope”, as some have asserted. But his papacy was inglorious, to put it mildly. And to promote his canonisation, on the present state of the evidence, would be most imprudent.

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