This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Pius XII, the wartime pope whose alleged "silence" on the Holocaust has long been a sore point in Jewish/Catholic relations as well as in internal Catholic debate. While Pope Benedict XVI recently told a Jewish delegation that he is considering delaying action on possible sainthood for Pius XII until the Vatican archives from his papacy are completely open, the current pope has made no secret of his deep admiration for his predecessor. Once again this morning in Rome, Benedict XVI praised Pius XII at length in the context of an audience granted to participants in an international symposium on the teaching of Pius XII. Benedict also suggested that criticism of Pius has been "excessive" and "one-sided." The following is an NCR translation of the full text of Benedict's remarks, which were issued today by the Vatican in Italian.
Pope Benedict XVI
Remarks to Participants in the Congress on “The Legacy of the Magisterium of Pius XII and the Second Vatican Council"
I’m happy to welcome you on the occasion of the congress on “The Legacy of the Magisterium of Pius XII and the Second Vatican Council,” promoted by the Pontifical Lateran University together with the Pontifical Gregorian University. It’s an important congress, both for the theme that it treats as well as the erudite persons from various nations who are taking part. In extending to each of you my cordial greeting, I thank in particular Archbishop Rino Fisichella, Rector of the Lateran University, and Fr. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, Rector of the Gregorian University, for the kind expressions with which they’ve given voice to your common sentiments.
I appreciate the important theme upon which you’ve concentrated your attention. In recent years, when Pius XII has been discussed, attention has been excessively concentrated on one lone problem, which has been treated in a rather one-sided fashion. Apart from every other consideration, this has impeded an adequate approach to the figure of great historical and theological value who was Pope Pius XII. The totality of the impressive activity carried out by this pontiff, and, in a special way, his magisterium which you have considered in these days, is eloquent proof of the point. His magisterium is distinguished, in fact, by its vast and benevolent breadth, as well as for its exceptional quality, so that it can truly be said that it constitutes a precious legacy that has been, and continues to be, a treasure for the Church.
I spoke of the “vast and benevolent breadth” of this magisterium. It’s enough to recall, in this regard, the encyclical and the numerous speeches and radio messages contained in the twenty volumes of his teachings. He published more than forty encyclicals. Among them, Mystici Corporis, in which the pope took up the theme of the true and intimate nature of the church, is especially noteworthy. With breadth of vision, he illuminated our profound ontological union with Christ – in Him, through Him and with Him – and with all the other faithful animated by the same Spirit, who are nourished by his body, and who, transformed in him, continue and extend his salvific work in the world. Intimately connected with Mystici Corporis are two other encyclicals: Divino afflante Spiritu, on sacred scripture, and Mediator Dei, on the sacred liturgy, in which the two sources are presented to which those who belong to Christ, the head of the mystical body of the Church, must always make reference.
In this context of a broad perspective, Pius XII dealt with the various categories of persons who, for the will of the Lord, make up the Church, albeit with different vocations and responsibilities: priests, religious and laity. He issued wise norms for the formation of priests, who must be distinguished for their personal love of Christ, the simplicity and sobriety of their lives, their loyalty to their bishops, and their commitment to those for whom they have pastoral care. In the encyclical Sacra Virginitas and in other documents on religious life, Pius XII clearly illustrated the excellence of the “gift” of God given to certain persons, inviting them to consecrate themselves completely to his service and to their neighbor in the Church. In that perspective, the pope strongly insisted upon a return to the Gospel and to the authentic charisms of the Founders of various orders and religious congregations, including the necessity of some healthy reforms. On numerous occasions, Pius XII also dealt with the responsibility of the laity in the Church, taking advantage in particular of the great international congresses dedicated to this theme. He willingly confronted the problems of individual professions, indicating, for example, the duties of judges, lawyers, social workers, and physicians. For this last group, the Supreme Pontiff dedicated numerous speeches to illustrate the deontological norms that they must respect in their activity. In the encyclical Miranda prorsus, the pope underscored the great importance of the modern means of communication, which influence public opinion in an ever more incisive way. Precisely for this reason, the Supreme Pontiff, who highly valued the new invention of radio, underlined the duty of journalists to furnish information that is both true and respectful of moral norms.
Pius XII also directed his attention to the sciences, and the extraordinary progress accomplished by the sciences. While admiring these breakthroughs, the pope also pointed to the risks posed by a mode of research not attentive to moral values. A single example suffices. The speech he gave on the successful splitting of the atom is still famous; with extraordinary foresight, the pope warned of the necessity to avoid, at any cost, that these positive scientific advances not be utilized for the construction of deadly weapons which could provoke immanent catastrophe and even the total destruction of humanity. How can we also not recall his lengthy and inspired speeches concerning a hoped-for reordering of social society, at the national and international levels? He pointed to justice as the essential foundation of this new order, the true prerequisite for peaceful coexistence among peoples: opus iustitiae pax!, “Peace is a work of justice!” Equally worthy of special mention is the Marian teaching of Pius XII, which has its culmination in the proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption of Most Holy Mary, by means of which the Holy Father wanted both to underline the eschatological dimension of our existence and to exalt the dignity of women.
What to say about the quality of the teaching of Pius XII? He was against improvisation; he wrote every speech with great care, weighing every phrase and every word before pronouncing them in public. He studied the various questions before him carefully, and was in the habit of asking for advice from eminent specialists when he was dealing with a matter that required particular expertise. Pius XII was a naturally balanced and realistic man for whom facile optimism was alien, but he was also immune to the danger of pessimism which is not suited to a believer. He abhorred sterile polemics, and was profoundly distrustful of fanaticism and sentimentalism.
These interior attitudes help explain the value and the depth of his teaching, as well as its reliability. They also help explain the trusting assent to that teaching not only of the laity, but many people who don’t belong to the Church. Considering the great breadth and high quality of the magisterium of Pius XII, it’s a good question how he was able to do it, especially given the fact that he also had to dedicate himself to the numerous other responsibilities connected to the office of Supreme Pontiff: the daily governance of the Church, appointments and visits of bishops, visits of heads of state and diplomats, and the innumerable audiences granted to private persons and all kinds of groups.
Everyone recognizes that Pius XII had rare intelligence, a memory of iron, a singular aptitude for foreign languages, and notable sensitivity. It’s said that he was an accomplished diplomat, an eminent jurist, and an excellent theologian. All that is true, but it doesn’t explain everything. He also had within himself a continuing dedication and a firm will to give himself completely to God, without holding anything back, and without regard for his delicate health. This was the true motive for his behavior; everything was born from love for his Lord, Jesus Christ, and from love for the Church and for humanity. In fact, he was above all a priest in constant and intimate union with God, a priest who found the strength for his enormous workload in long stretches of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament and in silent conversation with his Creator and Redeemer. His magisterium drew its origin and its strength from there, as did all his other activity.
It should therefore not be a surprise this his teaching continues, even today, to spread light in the Church. By now fifty years have passed since his death, but his polyhedral and fecund magisterium still holds inestimable value for the Christians of today. Certainly the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, is a living and vital organism, which is not simply immobile and stuck in what it was fifty years ago. Yet development takes place coherently. For this reason, the legacy of the magisterium of Pius XII was gathered up by the Second Vatican Council and represented to the successive Christian generations. It’s well know that in the written and oral interventions presented by the Fathers of Vatican II, there were more than a thousand references to the magisterium of Pius XII. Not all the documents of the Council have footnotes, but in those documents which have them, the name of Pius XII occurs more than 200 times. This means that, with the lone exception of sacred scripture, Pius XII was the most frequently cited authoritative source at Vatican II. It’s also well know that the notes to those documents are not, in general, simply explicative references, but often constitute an integral part of the conciliar documents; they don’t simply provide support and justification for what’s affirmed in the text, but also offer an interpretive key.
We may therefore truly say that, in the person of the Supreme Pontiff Pius XII, the Lord gave an exceptional gift to his Church, for which all of us must be grateful. I renew, therefore, the expression of my appreciation for the important work you have done in the preparation and unfolding of this International Symposium on the Magisterium of Pius XII. I hope that reflection will continue on the precious legacy left to the Church by this immortal Pontiff, in order to draw from it helpful insights for the problems which are emerging today. With this wish, while I ask the Lord’s help for your work, I also heartily impart my blessing to each of you.