On March 4, Pope Francis announced that the Vatican will unseal the archives on Pope Pius XII, the Pontiff who reigned during World War II. Many Jewish groups have condemned Pope Pius XII for not taking action to help Jews during the Holocaust, sometimes going as far to say that he was completely silent. Pope Francis acknowledged that Pius XII’s papacy contains “moments of grave difficulties, tormented decisions of human and Christian prudence, that to some could appear as reticence.”
The Vatican has continuously stated that Pius XII played a significant role behind the scenes to protect Jews, and that an outright intervention could have worsened the situation for Jews and Catholics in Europe. However, historians have been unable to confirm that claim since they have had limited access to the archives. Editorials published by the New York Times in 1941 and 1942 and by Time in 1943 praised the actions of Pius XII and the Church. Various Jewish leaders also offered approval, including Leon Kubowitzky, the general secretary of the World Jewish Council, in 1945, and Golda Meir, Israel's Foreign Minister, following Pius XII’s death in 1958.
Controversy and criticism seems to have begun with Leon Poliakov’s essay "The Vatican and the 'Jewish Question': The Record of the Hitler Period—and After", published in Commentary Magazine in 1950. The view became popularized in 1963 following the release of Rolf Hochhuth’s play, The Deputy. According to The Atlantic, the play “portrayed a coldhearted [sic] Pius XII spurning all pleas to condemn the slaughter of the Jews, concerned only with protecting the institutional interests of the Church.”
In response to such criticism and demands of access to the archives, between 1965 and 1981 the Church released 12 volumes of thousands of documents regarding the Vatican activities during the War. The discussion was reinvigorated in 1999 following the publishing of John Cornwell’s book Hitler's Pope. Yet, according to Britannica, “Both [The Deputy and Hitler's Pope], lack credible substantiation.”
Pope Francis has stated that “the Church isn’t afraid of history” and is open to further evidence-based historical criticism of Pius XII. Pope Francis also stated several claims of his misconduct have been made “with some prejudice and exaggeration.” The Vatican usually waits 70 years after the end of a papacy before releasing the pontiff’s archives. Pope Pius XII reigned from 1939 to 1958. Pope Francis will release the archives on March 2, 2020, eight years early. The day also marks the 81st anniversary of Pius XII’s election to the papacy.
Further analyzing the archives will also help provide evidence for the possible canonization of Pius XII, which the Church has debated during the papacies of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Pius XII was declared a Servant of God in 1990 by St. Pope John Paul II, and a venerable by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. Catholic scholars urged Pope Benedict XVI to hold off on the canonization until the archives were released, as this declaration could place a heavy strain on Jewish-Catholic relations.
In 2006, Benedict XVI asked Vatican archivist to start preparing the documents on Pius XII for consultation. According to Smithsonian Magazine, “The archives contain some 16 million pages of materials, which researchers have been dutifully organizing for the past 13 years in preparation for making the files public.”
The American Jewish Committee (AJC) has been pressing for the release of the archives for decades, especially while Holocaust survivors are still alive. This sentiment is shared by Jewish communities worldwide. Because of this, Pope Francis’s decision was met with widespread approval. The Israeli Foreign ministry has commended the decision to release the archives early, and many Jewish groups have viewed it as a positive step for Jewish-Catholic relations.
Pope Francis has been calling for a better relationship between Jews and Christians for the last several months. In November of 2018, Pope Francis stated that a Christian anti-Semite is “a contradiction of faith and life.” More recently, in a speech to the AJC on March 8, Pope Francis again decried the evil of anti-Semitism, stating that Jews and Catholics can unite over a shared “rich spiritual heritage.”