In Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII, Robert A. Ventresca gives us an authoritative and even-handed portrait of one of the twentieth century’s most caricatured figures. In Ventresca’s telling we see the development of a flawed and gifted man whose pontificate was defined by the Cold War and the church’s engagement with the modern world, not his response to Nazism. In the passage below, excerpted from the Introduction to Soldier of Christ, Ventresca recounts the decades-long battles over the legacy of Pius XII.
In death, much more so than in life, Pius XII has become an intensely polarizing figure—to some, he is a venerable saint, and to others he is a damnable silent witness to unimaginable atrocities in the heart of Christian Europe. The incessant partisanship of the so-called Pius War has consistently sacrificed historical interpretation for polemical and political purposes. This pattern is evident even within the Catholic world, where, from the time of the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, the figure of Pius XII has served as a lightning rod for both nostalgic conservatives and disgruntled liberals. For the former, Pius XII was the last truly magisterial pontiff; for the latter, he embodied everything that was wrong with the Catholic Church before the affable John XXIII (Roncalli), the “good pope,” came to air out the static, stultifying atmosphere of the church before Vatican II. This elementary division was evident even at the time of the council when Pope Paul VI (Montini) officially began the process to bring beatification and perhaps eventually sainthood to both of his immediate predecessors. Recommending the causes of both Pius XII and John XXIII, Pope Paul VI reasoned, “will be in answer to the desire that has been expressed by innumerable voices in favor of each of these Popes. In this way, history will be assured the patrimony of their spiritual legacy.”
Montini, who worked side-by-side with Pius XII throughout the tumultuous war years, was keen to craft an alternative narrative to the one taking shape in people’s minds in the wake of Hochhuth’s controversial play [The Deputy, a highly influential 1963 drama about Pius XII’s wartime activities]. Tellingly, two years before he formally opened the cause to have Pius XII made a saint, when he was still the cardinal archbishop of Milan, Montini wrote to the British Catholic periodical The Tablet to challenge Hochhuth’s reading of a history Montini himself had lived. “History,” the future Paul VI wrote, “will vindicate the conduct of Pius XII when confronted by the criminal excesses of the Nazi regime.” For Montini, history would set the record straight; it was the only effective antidote to Hochhuth’s version, which amounted to little more than the “artificial manipulation of facts to fit a preconceived idea.”
Despite Paul VI’s belief that the path to sainthood for both popes would proceed “for no motive other than the cult of their holiness,” it was clear even to outside observers that internal church politics would come into play. Referring to Pius XII, the New York Times reported that the “austere, distant and intellectual Pope has become the focus of conservative admiration.” By contrast, his successor, John XXIII, who was described as “warmly human and simple,” was said to be the “favorite” of the so-called progressives, if only because he had convened the Second Vatican Council, at which the “progressive” views seem to have prevailed.
And so it has been, back and forth, for decades now. Despite occasional lulls in the Pius War, a dogged attachment to competing caricatures of Pius XII, to say nothing of the canonization cause, means that the war of words will persist, generating point and counterpoint ad infinitum. The tendency to see Pius XII as less a man than an institution has resulted in an abundant manipulation of facts—to borrow from Montini—arranged selectively to fit preconceived notions of what this pope did or did not do; what he said or did not say; what he could have or should have done. I leave it to the reader to decide whether history has vindicated Pius XII, whatever that means. It is to history, after all, that we must turn to find Eugenio Pacelli, the man, priest, diplomat, and pope.
The vast literature chronicling Pius XII’s long and eventful pontificate has mostly centered on his seeming failure to speak out clearly and firmly during World War II to defend European Jews facing systematic persecution and murder by the Nazis. The claim that he turned his back on the Jews, and the riposte it provoked, gave life and sustenance to the “Pius War.” Yet this war of words has done more harm than good to our understanding of this central figure of twentieth-century history. With very few exceptions, studies of Pius XII have offered a distorted or highly selective picture of the subject. We have become accustomed to reading interpretive leaps, which are grounded on counterfactual or normative claims about what the pope could have or should have done rather than a reasoned assessment of what he did or did not do—and why. This is to say nothing of the fact that, as understandable as it is, such a heavy focus on Pius XII’s wartime record has obscured our view of the entire span of his active life in the service of the papacy. It is easy to forget that Pacelli’s pontificate lasted for thirteen years after the end of World War II. We know comparatively little about the Cold War years and even less about Pius XII’s prodigious teachings, which sought to address internal and external realities of Catholicism in rapidly changing times. However we might assess it, there can be no doubt that Eugenio Pacelli’s pontificate left an indelible mark on the papacy and influenced the Catholic encounter with the modern world in ways we have scarcely begun to understand.