Church 'not afraid of history': Pope Francis to open secret Pius XII archives


The Living Force
Saying the “Church is not afraid of history”, Pope Francis announced on Monday he plans to open fully the Vatican’s secret archives on the wartime pontificate of Pope Pius XII, a historic move that Jews have sought for decades.

March 4, 2019 - Church 'not afraid of history': Pope Francis to open secret Pius XII archives

Church 'not afraid of history': Pope Francis to open secret Pius...

Many Jews say Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, did not do enough to help those facing persecution by Nazi Germany. Francis’ decision was welcomed by Jewish groups and by Israel.

The Vatican maintains that Pius chose to work behind the scenes, concerned that public intervention would have worsened the situation for both Jews and Catholics in a wartime Europe dominated by Hitler.

Francis announced in a speech to members of the Vatican’s Secret Archives that the archives will open on March 2, 2020, adding that Pius’ legacy had been treated with “some prejudice and exaggeration”.

The decision to open the archives could eventually speed up the sainthood process for Pius.

The American Jewish Committee (AJC), which has sought the opening for more than 30 years, said Francis’ decision was highly significant.

Scholars could now objectively evaluate “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”, Rabbi David Rosen, the AJC’s International Director of Interreligious Affairs, told Reuters in an email.

Shoah is the Hebrew word for the Holocaust, in which some six million Jews were killed.

“We are pleased by the decision and hope it will enable free access to all relevant archives,” Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican, Oren David, told Reuters.

Sad and dark period: The pope said in his speech that Pius had to lead the Church during one of the “saddest and darkest periods of the 20th century”.

He said he was confident that “serious and objective historical research will allow the evaluation (of Pius) in the correct light,” including “appropriate criticism”.

But he said the record would also show “moments of grave difficulty, tormented decisions, human and Christian prudence, which to some could have been seen as reticence” but that were instead attempts by Pius to keep a flame of hope alive.

In 2009, former Pope Benedict angered Jews when he approved a decree recognizing Pius’s “heroic virtues”, an initial step toward the sainthood Pius’ defenders say he deserves.

Catholic scholars later wrote to Benedict urging him to freeze the sainthood cause, saying that exhaustive study of Pius’ actions during the Holocaust had to come first, otherwise Jewish-Catholic relations could be greatly harmed.

Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial center, commended Pope Francis for the decision on Monday, as did the Israeli foreign ministry and Naomi Di Segni, the head of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. Di Segni said she hoped it would “further clarify the position of the Church” during the Holocaust.

The controversy over Pius’ actions during the war exploded in 1963 when German playwright Rolf Hochhuth wrote the controversial drama “The Deputy, a Christian Tragedy”, which accused Pius of silence in the face of the Holocaust.

Between 1965 and 1981, the Vatican published 11 volumes by its Church historians on the wartime period, but outside scholars and the Jewish community pressed for direct access.

Outside historians have so far been given only partial, and mostly indirect, access, following requests on specific topics or events.

Pope Pius XII’s secret support for the attempted overthrow of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler is the subject of a new book that draws on wartime documents and interviews with the American intelligence agent who wrote them.

February 15, 2016 - Vindicated: New Documents Reveal Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler

Vindicated: New Documents Reveal Pope's Secret War Against Hitler | ChurchPOP

“Its main premise is that Pius opted to resist Hitler with covert action instead of overt protest. As a result, he became involved in three separate plots by German dissidents to remove Hitler.”

“I thought this idea – that the Church engaged in secret operations during the bloodiest years in history, in the most controversial part of its recent history – was not just a footnote; it was something worth pursuing,” he said.

Riebling tells this story in his book Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler, published by Basic Books in September 2015.

In the late 1990s, debate over whether Pius XII did enough to counter the Nazis reached a high point with the publication of the deeply controversial book, “Hitler’s Pope,” by British journalist John Cornwell. The book was highly critical of Pius XII, charging that he was culpably silent – if not an accomplice – in the rise of Nazism.

“If you read the fiercest critics of the Nazi-era Church, the major ones all concede that Pius XII hated Hitler and worked secretly to overthrow him,” Riebling said. “Yet they say this in their books in just a clause, a sentence, or a paragraph. To me, this episode merited more curiosity.”

“If ‘Hitler’s Pope’ wanted to help rid the world of Hitler, what’s the story?”

He also drew inspiration from the story of James Jesus Angleton, a famous U.S. intelligence officer who during World War II ran an operation to penetrate the Vatican for the Office of Strategic Services, the Central Intelligence Agency’s predecessor.

During research on his previous book, “Wedge: The Secret War between the FBI and CIA,” Riebling discovered wartime documents from Angleton’s Rome section of the Office of Strategic Services.

“There were at least ten documents implicating Pius XII and his closest advisers in not just one, but actually three plots to remove Hitler – stretching from 1939 to 1944. These were typed up by someone using a very distinct nickname.”

That nickname, “Rock,” belonged to Ray Rocca. Rocca served as Angleton’s deputy in Rome and for most of his later career.

His career included responsibility for the Central Intelligence Agency’s records concerning the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

“So, here’s a guy who had been in the Vatican; who had been charged with penetrating the Vatican; and who knew a thing or two about assassination probes. I thought: here’s an interesting guy to get to know,” Riebling said. Rocca did not violate his oath of secrecy, but his interviews with Riebling are among the book’s sources.

According to Riebling, his book does not charge that the Pope “tried to kill Hitler.” Rather, the Pope’s actions were more subtle.

Pius XII had connections with three plots against Hitler. The first, from October 1939 to May 1940, involved German military conspirators. From late 1941 to spring of 1943 a series of plots involving the German Jesuits ended when a bomb planted on Hitler’s plane failed to explode.

The third plot again involved German Jesuits and also German military colonel Claus von Stauffenberg.
Although the colonel successfully planted a bomb near the Nazi dictator, it failed to kill Hitler. The priests had to flee after the failed attempt. Those unable to escape were executed.

During his research, Riebling discovered that Pius XII secretly recorded the conversations held in his office. Transcripts of the Pope’s talks with German cardinals in March 1939 show that he was deeply concerned that German Catholics would choose Hitler instead of the Church.

“The cardinals asked Pius to appease Hitler, so that German Catholics won’t break away and form a state church, as happened in Tudor England,” Riebling said. “Pius heeded the German episcopate’s advice. Instead of protesting openly, he would resist Hitler behind the scenes.”

Pius XII’s agents provided the Allies with useful intelligence about Hitler’s war plans on three occasions, including Hitler’s planned invasion of Russia. In all three cases, the Allies did not act on the information.

For their part, the Nazis regarded Pius XII with suspicion since his election in 1939.

“He worked hard to allay those suspicions, to minimize persecutions of German Catholics. But the Nazis never dropped their guard,” Riebling said.

At one point Hitler planned to invade the Vatican, kidnap the Pope and bring him to Germany. Leading Nazi Heinrich Himmler “wanted to have the Holy Father publicly executed to celebrate the opening of a new soccer stadium,” Riebling said.

“Pius became aware of these plans, through his secret papal agents; and, in my view, that influenced the Holy Father’s decision to become involved with the anti-Nazi resistance.”

A study (long review)by the now defunct International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission, references used and their results.

(The Political Science Reviewer, Volume XXXI, 2002) The Pope Pius XII Controversy

Quote: All of these questions (and a few more!) are pretty extensively if not exhaustively covered in the ten books under review here, all of them published within the past four years. Eight of these authors deal specifically with Pius XII (or the Catholic Church), the war, and the Holocaust against the Jews (Blet, Cornwell, Marchione, McInerny, Phayer, Sánchez, and Zuccotti); another one deals more generally with papal attitudes towards and treatment of the Jews which presumably contributed to the eventual perceived failure of Pius XII in World War II (Kertzer); and a final one deals with what the author calls “papal sin” in general, though he includes a chapter on Pius XII and the Holocaust (Wills).

Five of these authors take a more or less frank anti-Pius (or anti-Church) view (Cornwell, Kertzer, Phayer, Wills, and Zuccotti). Four of them expressly set out to defend the pontiff (Blet, Marchione, McInerny, and Rychlak). One of them declares that his aim is to remain above the fray and simply evaluate some of the arguments, pro and con (Sánchez).

[...]Another assumption of most of these authors, especially those in the anti-Pius camp, is that Pius XII was necessarily free in the conditions of war and occupation that obtained to speak out or to make public protests in the way that they think he should have, looking at things from their post-Holocaust perspective. Both before and during the war, the 107-odd acre Vatican City was entirely surrounded by a hostile Fascist regime in Italy, which, not incidentally, also controlled the Vatican’s water, electricity, food supply, mail delivery, garbage removal, and, indeed, its very physical accessibility by anybody. John Cornwell admits that Mussolini could have taken over the Vatican at any time (Cornwell, 236)–if sufficiently provoked (or prodded by Hitler). The Italian Foreign Minister, Count Galeazzo Ciano, recorded in his diary in March, 1940, that Mussolini seriously considered “liquidating” the Vatican (Rychlak, 140); for the pope it was not an imaginary threat but an active possibility for most of the war.

From September, 1943, to June, 1944, Rome was under harsh German military occupation, and it was during this period that Hitler seriously considered occupying the Vatican and abducting the pope, as a number of sources attest and as some of our authors do not fail to record (Cornwell, 313-315; Phayer, 100; Rychlak, 264-266; Zuccotti, 315-316). Nor, in the Vatican’s experience, was this any imaginary threat, either: both the French Revolution and Napoleon had done precisely that in the cases of Pope Pius VI and Pope Pius VII, having abducted both popes by military force and transported them beyond the Alps (Pius VI died in exile in France). For the pope there were obviously troubling precedents for what Hitler was reported to be considering–and such reports did come to him. Margherita Marchione describes yet another Nazi plan to attack the Vatican using captured Italian uniforms, a plan which came to light only in 1998, as Milan’s Il Giornale reported (Marchione, 72-73).
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