Volume > Issue > Briefly: October 2014

October 2014

The Life and Pontificate of Pope Pius XII: Between History and Controversy

By Frank J. Coppa

Publisher: Catholic University of America Press

Pages: 306

Price: $29.95

Review Author: Daniel Blackman

Pius XII did not join Popes John XXIII and John Paul II in canonization this April. He remains “venerable” as of December 19, 2009, the same day John Paul was declared venerable, which highlights the delay of Eugenio Pacelli’s cause due to disputes over his role in World War II. Frank Coppa’s Life and Pontificate of Pope Pius XII tries to move away from the controversy and toward a greater and broader focus on the entire life of Pacelli — his formative influences, personal interests, and papacy after the war. Coppa’s introduction goes to lengths to critique the works of those clearly for or against the canonization of Pacelli, and he positions his biography in the field of those who want to be thoroughly academic and impartial. Coppa is neither a hagiographic cheerleader nor an anti-Pacelli zealot. The notorious John Cornwall, author of Hitler’s Pope, has called Coppa’s book “reliable,” stating that it does not attempt to draw conclusions — which one could hardly call an endorsement.

Coppa documents the history, personages, and influences of the Pacelli family, their salt-of-the-earth Catholic piety and well-established history of strong loyalty to the papacy dating from Bl. Pius IX onward. Coppa shows that there was an influential streak in the Pacelli family when it came to the law and the relationship between Church and state, beginning with grandfather Marcantonio, father Filippo, cousin Ernesto, and brother Francesco, who all held high office in the Vatican. Coppa also notes the gradual shift from Marcantonio onward, from intransigence to negotiation with the new Italian state, which may explain Eugenio’s preference for diplomacy.

Such a preference took on new significance in Eugenio’s roles as nuncio to Germany, secretary of state, and Pope. Coppa repeatedly returns to the pivotal concept of impartiality and neutrality, a concept developed by Pietro Cardinal Gasparri — a major influence on Eugenio — and supported by Pope Benedict XV. According to Coppa, a public position of impartiality was taken in order to allow the pope to condemn “principles and policies in general, without naming particular parties or embroiling the Church into partisan politics,” and to negotiate and gain the trust of both sides. This reliance upon impartiality, Coppa argues, helps us better understand the so-called silence of Pacelli during World War II. Coppa cites sources to show that Pius’s preference for diplomacy was also based on pragmatic considerations such as the fragile nature of the Church in Germany, Nazi retribution imposed upon Catholics and Jews, a desire to preserve the Concordat of 1933, the safety of the Vatican surrounded by Mussolini’s fascists, and a fear that a more confrontational approach would favor the Bolsheviks.

Coppa’s presentation of Pacelli is reinforced by his portrayal of his predecessor, Pius XI, as the confrontational, outspoken fighter-Pope, and Pacelli as the quiet, career diplomat. The latter is depicted as studious but aloof, not mixing with others, delicate and perhaps snobbish to the point that he changes seminaries and lives at home while studying for the priesthood. He is a careerist who is keen on entering the diplomatic service and avoiding disagreements and conflicts that might hamper his career progression.

Much of the supposed difference between the two Piuses is exhibited in the non-promulgation of Pius XI’s encyclical “On the Unity of the Human Race,” which Pacelli learned of after the Pontiff’s death and decided not to publish. For Coppa, this marks a clear example of difference, even conflict. Pius XII scholar Ronald J. Rychlak concludes that there is no evidence that Pacelli saw any part of the encyclical, of which three contradictory drafts existed. Other scholars argue that although the original was not promulgated — and a new pope is under no obligation to do so — much of the content was present in Pacelli’s first encyclical “On the Unity of Human Society” (note the almost identical title). We can easily imagine that if Pacelli had promulgated the encyclical of his predecessor, critics would say Pacelli needlessly provoked the Nazis and brought retribution upon the heads of Jews, all for the sake of maintaining Catholic doctrine, or something along those lines. Some of the original content of Pius XI’s encyclical would also be considered very anti-Judaic by critics, leaving Pacelli open to yet more attack.

Concerning Pacelli’s “silence,” Coppa cites non-Jewish examples in which Pacelli did not speak out publicly, to show that his silence was not motivated by anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism. One example given is the persecution of Poles. Other scholars, however, have demonstrated that Pacelli denounced atrocities in Poland. Pius was certainly not inactive in opposing Nazi injustice, but Coppa leaves this case to be made by the likes of Rychlak, Sr. Margherita Marchione, and William Doino Jr. Coppa does detail many words and gestures of support for Pacelli during the war: Newspaper editorials, rabbis, Jewish groups, academics, eyewitnesses and survivors, and leading churchmen attest to the greatness of Pacelli’s role in opposing Nazism and protecting the vulnerable. Later would come a marked change with the production of Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy, used by communists to smear Pacelli.

Coppa begins his discussion of Palestine and Israel by writing that Pacelli, like his predecessor, “did not believe, perhaps did not want to believe” that the Church’s attitude toward Jews — based on religious considerations — contributed to Nazi racism and anti-Semitism. Is Coppa saying that the hierarchy and Catholic teaching helped Hitler carry out the Holocaust? This is the politically correct attitude to take. Coppa also presents Pius as opposed to a Jewish-controlled Holy Land and to the creation of the Jewish State of Israel and the aspirations of Zionism, using the familiar “some in the Vatican were anti-Jewish” shtick.

The chapter on the cold war presents Pacelli as throwing off all quiet diplomacy and impartiality in opposing communism. Excommunications are dished out left, right, and center. Pacelli gets behind the Christian Democrats and Catholic Action in the 1948 Italian elections. Numerous verbal and written condemnations of communists in Russia, Eastern Europe, and China are listed, along with Pacelli’s support for NATO. Such a portrayal seemingly serves to highlight Pius’s alleged prior silence. To this reader, it spotlights Coppa’s understatement of Pacelli’s opposition to Nazism.

Coppa’s efforts come undone when he moves into other areas of Pius’s papacy — liturgy, Mariology, bioethics, and interest in mass media and the natural sciences — all lumped together in one chapter at the end. Perhaps the forthcoming opening of the Vatican archives will bring a new wave of scholarship and a just and truthful closure to the life and legacy of Pacelli, and may allow him to catch up with SS John XXIII and John Paul II.

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