In preview of beatification debates, Vatican official defends Pope Pius XII

New York

In what may amount to a preemptive strike ahead of the beatification of Pope Pius XII, the Vatican’s Secretary of State today issued a strong defense of the wartime pope, saying that the “black legend” around his alleged silence on the Nazi Holocaust reflects “violent and false ideology.”

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the number two official in the Vatican after the pope himself, spoke during a Rome presentation of a new book on Pius XII by Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli.

A rush English translation of his address is available on the NCR web site at

Far from acquiescing in the Holocaust, Bertone argued, Pius XII presided over an “enormous work of charity … opening the doors of seminaries and religious institutes, welcoming refugees and the persecuted, helping all.”

Bertone argued that while Pius XII made his anti-Nazi sentiments clear, he avoided dramatic public confrontations in order to spare both Jews and Catholics more dire persecution, and to protect the Church’s ability to work behind the scenes.

“When popes speak, they’re not thinking about assembling a positive image for posterity,” Bertone said. “They know that their every word could affect the destiny of millions of Christians, and they take to heart the welfare of men and women of flesh and bone, not the applause of historians.”

In early May, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Cause of Saints voted to approve a “decree of heroic virtue” for Pius XII. If signed by Pope Benedict XVI, the move would leave only the need to document a miracle in his path to beatification.

In that light, some observers see Bertone’s speech as a preview of points church officials are likely to make when the beatification becomes official.

Bertone’s 3,000 word speech offered six basic arguments:

•tControversies over Pius XII’s alleged silences have overshadowed other aspects of his pontificate, such as his contributions to liturgical reform, Scripture study, missionary efforts, and the church’s engagement with culture. Bertone noted that Pius XII cautiously approved of the theory of evolution, and that he remains the pope who beatified and canonized the highest percentage of women.
•tThose who attack Pius XII often do so for ideological reasons, and are guilty of what Bertone called an “attack on good sense and on rationality.”
•tFascist authorities perceived Pius II as a foe, often denying the Vatican electricity to broadcast his radio messages or paper to print his documents.
•tThe “black legend” around Pius XII took shape in the context of bitter controversies over the creation of the State of Israel, and was manipulated, Bertone argued, by forces on both sides.
•tPius XII explicitly protested the persecution of Jews, but explained in 1943 that he could not speak in more dramatic or public terms without the risk of making things worse.
•tMaterial in the Vatican archives documents thousands of instances in which the Holy See aided victims during the war who requested its help; Bertone said this enormous reservoir of material has still not been catalogued, and invited the help of charitable foundations to do so more quickly.

As one illustration of what Bertone called Pius XII’s “quiet” action on behalf of Jews, he revealed that in October 1943, the Vatican asked the Nazi authorities who had occupied Rome for permission to add more than 4,000 people to its Palatine Guard, which then numbered 575. The hope, Bertone suggested, was to thereby protect Jews in the nearby ghetto.

In the end, Bertone defined Pius XII’s as a “heroic papacy,” one that expressed itself “not only through a prophetic word, but above all through daily prophetic action.”

Bertone’s arguments did not satisfy Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, one of the leading critics of efforts to beatify the wartime pope.

“I wish they’d spend a higher percentage of their time in efforts to open the archives, and less in spinning what they’re selectively presenting,” Foxman told NCR, referring to debates over the fact that the complete Vatican archives from the years of Pius XII’s papacy have not yet been opened to researchers.

The Vatican has, however, published a 11-volume set of material from those years which it says contains everything relevant to the pope’s attitude toward the Nazis and the broader issues raised by the war.

“They’re protesting too much,” Foxman said. “We are willing to withhold our judgment, and the Vatican should withhold its, until scholars have been able to openly examine the material and see what’s there.”

Foxman, who called upon the Vatican to suspend movement towards the beatification of Pius XII, said that much of Bertone’s speech was familiar, although he had not heard a Vatican official suggest before that it needed financial help to make archival material available.

“If that’s the issue, we should have an emergency meeting and figure out ways to make it happen,” Foxman said.

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