Pope Francis and the Vatican announced Monday that it will crack open a series of secret files on World War II-era pontiff, Pope Pius XII, who is often accused of turning a blind eye to the plight of the Jewish people both before and during World War II, and ignoring Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution.”
Pius XII was Pope from 1939 to 1958, and the archives reportedly cover the whole of his papacy. CNN reports that the Vatican will release “several hundred thousand letters, cables and speeches” to help historians better quantify how Pius XII responded to the growing threat of Facism in Italy and to Hitler’s persecution of the Jewish people.
Catholic News Service reports that interest in Pope Pius XII began to peak in the late 1990s, after British journalist John Cornwell published a book called “Hitler’s Pope,” accusing Pope Pius XII of being deliberately silent in the face of Nazism and Fascism in Europe.
In 2015, a book called “Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler,” historian Mark Riebling attempted to clear Pope Piux XII’s name by claiming that the Pope had “secretly provided support for three attempts to overthrow Hitler,” including an effort by Catholics inside Germany to assassinate Adolf Hitler, commonly known as Operation Valkyrie.
The Vatican hopes to either confirm or dispel rumors around Pope Pius XII by opening its secret archives on his papacy. They are also hoping that, if Pope Pius XII’s name is cleared, it could pave the way for a potential beatification. Pius XII was declared “venerable” — the first step to sainthood — in 2009, and a cause for his canonization was opened as far back as 1967, less than a decade after he died.
Concerns about Pius XII’s wartime decisions lead the Vatican to hold off declaring Pius XII a saint, and a committee of scholars was formed to study his “life and behavior, giving particular attention to the events of World War II.” That study will reportedly be available alongside documents from the secret archives.
The announcement was made this morning in a meeting of Vatican archives personnel in Rome, 20 of whom have spent more than 13 years collecting information about Pius XII in the hopes that a full accounting of Pius XII’s documents would help solve the controversy surrounding his papacy.
“The Church is not afraid of history, rather, loves it and would like to love it more and better, as God loves it!” Pope Francis reportedly told the small group of Vatican historians gathered for the event.
Pius XII “found himself leading the Barque of Peter at one of the saddest and darkest moments of the twentieth century,” Pope Francis added. He faced “moments of serious difficulties, of tormented decisions, of human and Christian prudence, which some might have seemed reticent.”
Pope Francis cautioned against developing opinions on Pius XII before consulting the secret archives, as he believes Pius XII’s legacy has been treated with “some prejudice or exaggeration,” per a BBC report on the meeting.
Jewish leaders expressed appreciation for the Vatican’s announcement — which comes after decades of begging for further information on Pope Pius XII, often to no avail. They also expressed hope that experts from the United States and Israel will be allowed to examine the documents closely, rather than just Vatican-approved historians and scholars.
“It is particularly important that experts from the leading Holocaust memorial institutes in Israel and the US objectively evaluate as best as possible the historical record of that most terrible of times, to acknowledge both the failures as well as the valiant efforts made during the period of the Shoah,” one prominent rabbi told the BBC.
Catholics are also applauding the measure, but are cautioning that Pope Francis must also handle a more prominent task at hand: the Church’s treatment of sexual assault victims and its handling of current and past sexual assaults.