The Vatican announced Monday that it would open up its secret archives on the World War II papacy of Pope Pius XII, whom some scholars have accused of keeping silent about the Holocaust.
Jewish organizations have long called for the Vatican’s archives from this period to be made accessible, saying the then-pope turned a blind eye to the systematic persecution of Jews by Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. But Pius’s actions during this period are up for debate, and others say he worked behind the scenes to help Jews.
“The church is not afraid of history,” Pope Francis told members of the Vatican’s Secret Archives division. He said the period of Pius’s papacy from 1939 to 1958 would be opened to researchers on March 2, 2020.
Francis warned that Pius’s legacy has been treated with “some prejudice and exaggeration.”
Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious affairs, welcomed the move, noting that his organization has been calling for access to that period in the archives for the last 30 years.
“Pope Francis’s decision to make these materials now fully open and available for international scholarly research is enormously important to Catholic-Jewish relations,” Rosen said in a statement. “It is particularly important that experts from the leading Holocaust memorial institutes in Israel and the U.S. 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 [Holocaust].”
The Vatican kept a strict policy of neutrality during the war and did not denounce Nazism.
Pius was declared “venerable” in 2009, part of the process toward sainthood. But questions about his conduct during the war have likely slowed or stalled the process. Three of the four popes that succeeded Pius XII have already been sainted, including Paul VI last year.
Cardinal Angelo Becciu, the new head of the Vatican office that scrutinizes the cases for possible saints, said last year that Pius’s case for sainthood “has not progressed.”
A story in Monday’s official Vatican newspaper, written by the head of the Holy See’s archives division, struck a confident tone about how the document disclosure would influence Pius XII’s reputation.
The papers being made available will attest to “an almost superhuman work of Christian ‘humanism’ that was active in the stormy disorder of those events that in the mid-twentieth century seemed determined to annihilate the very notion of human civilization,” wrote Bishop Sergio Pagano, prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives.
Thanks to Francis’s decision, he said, historians will be able to research Pius XII’s pontificate “without prejudice, but with the help of new documents, in all the realistic scope and richness.”
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · Chico Harlan, Paul Schemm