(RNS) It’s almost a year since Pope Francis was chosen as Benedict XVI’s successor. The Argentinian-born pontiff has quickly achieved global fame for his numerous statements indicating that significant changes may be coming to the Roman Catholic Church.

One possible change emerged last month when London’s Sunday Times reported that Francis wants to make public the Vatican’s archives of Pius XII’s pontificate. Eugenio Pacelli became pope in 1939 and served as pontiff during the period of World War II and the Holocaust until his death in 1958.

According to the British newspaper, Francis wants to release the Pius XII papers for study before determining whether to consider his controversial predecessor for sainthood. Francis has already “fast-tracked” the path to sainthood for John XXIII and John Paul II, but not Pius XII.

The wartime pope’s actions and inactions regarding the endangered Jews of Europe remains an often-bitter divisive issue in today’s relationship between the church and the Jewish people. Catholic and Jewish historians have both criticized and defended Pius XII’s record.

His critics charge Pius XII failed to publicly denounce the mass murder of Jews or to provide sufficient assistance to protect them from the Nazis. The pope’s defenders maintain that his actions, some still unknown to the public, included hiding Jews in Catholic institutions, including convents and monasteries, as well as working behind the scenes to save Jewish lives.

The Vatican has released some classified documents but has still kept secret thousands of pages of archival material pertaining to World War II. In 2006, Benedict XVI opened the files on Pacelli’s predecessor, Pius XI, who was pope between 1922 and 1939. Within these are documents relating to the career of Pacelli when he served as the papal nuncio or ambassador to Germany between 1917 and 1929, and when he was Vatican secretary of state in the decade before his election to the papacy just six months before the outbreak of the war in September 1939.

Pope Francis is not the first Catholic leader to focus on Pius XII’s actions and his “paper trail.” In 1998, the late New York Cardinal John O’Connor, speaking at Clark University in Massachusetts, urged that the Vatican archives be opened for study by scholars of the World War II period. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago also called for the opening of the Vatican archives, but they have still remained closed.

In a May 2010 address at Liverpool Hope University in England, Walter Kasper, the German cardinal who then directed Catholic-Jewish relations for the Vatican, predicted the wartime archives would be open in six years.

“It is our belief that we have nothing to hide and that we do not need to fear the truth,” he said.
O’Connor’s call was reaffirmed in 2011 by New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan during a conference at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan:

“Whatever is needed to complete this project — even in phases, rather than only as a whole — I suggest must be explored. … Whatever the archives hold, the Catholic Church cannot fear the truth about the often heroic and sometimes disgraceful conduct of her leaders and members during the Second World War,” Dolan said. He admitted Pius XII’s record remains unclear and requires further study.

When Pope Francis was still archbishop of Buenos Aires, he co-authored the book “On Heaven and Earth” with his longtime Jewish friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka, also of Argentina.

The future pope wrote: “Opening the archives of the Shoah seems reasonable. Let them be opened up and let everything be cleared up. Let it be seen if (church leaders) could have done something (to help) and until what point they could have helped. If they made a mistake in any aspect of this, we would have to say: ’We have erred.’ We don’t have to be scared of this — the truth has to be the goal.”

But until all the relevant documents from Pius XII’s pontificate are made available it will be impossible to accurately assess his role in the Holocaust period. It is time for Pope Francis to act.

(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the recently published “Cushing, Spellman, O’Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations.”)



  1. I doubt there is much favorable to Pius XII in the records with regards to the Holocaust.

    If there was, there would have been a far greater desire to release them a long time ago. The only excuse the Vatican would have for waiting, if the records were favorable ,would have been based on Cold War politics. They would have been opened in the early 90’s if that was the case when the USSR fell.

    • A serious issue for Pius XII and his advisors to consider would have been the backlash on Catholic clergy in Germany and occupied countries from the Nazis, had Pius publicly condemned the treatment of the Jews. As it was, many Catholic clergy were put in Nazi concentration camps and died there. Hundreds of Catholic priests were murdered in Spain at the hands of Fascists during that civil war, of which the Vatican was deeply aware. My understanding is that Pius XII did a great deal behind the scenes out of fear of Europe-wide elimination of his clergy. We forget how insanely vicious the Nazis were.

      • Except that about 1/3rd of Germany and the majority of Occupied Western Europe was Catholic. Had the Pope offered any kind of open statements of resistance, it would have caused a lot of trouble for Hitler. The Nazi system depended on a wealth of collaborators and people who were indifferent to what they did. If the Catholic Church spoke out against the Holocaust, it would have made carrying it out more difficult.

        Hitler was not going to invade the Vatican (he wanted to, but his advisers poo poo’ed the idea). Many Catholic Clergy were already taking it upon themselves to resist the Nazis (Like future Pope Paul VI)

        In the Spanish Civil War, the Catholic Church was on the same side as the Fascists. The largest Nationalist Faction, the Carlists (Monarchists) was backed by the Church. They felt the Republicans were too far aligned with Communists and Anarchists (which was true). If anything, the bloody aftermath of the Spanish Civil War would have inspired isolationism for the Church. Previous intervention gone horribly wrong for people. Better not to get involved in worldly politics.

  2. Paul Frantizek

    I’m against an unlimited opening of the archives. First, the people who hate the Church are simply going to troll for the least complimentary pieces of information with no interest in pursuing the truth. Second, it sets a horrible precedent, implying that the Catholic Church has to somehow seek the approval or justification of the secular world. The latest hypocritical attack from the UN ought to demonstrate the pointlessness of that course.

  3. Mack Hall, HSG

    Perhaps Mr. Rudin should open HIS vaults first, and let the world see all his bank accounts, transitions, diaries, letters, business affairs, associates, and so on.

    Or perhaps Mr. Rudin could read original sources from 1930 – 1960 and understand that the manufactured tension is because of Rolf Hochuth (I can never spell that name correctly) and a Soviet disinformation agenda.

  4. A couple of things.

    The first is not to be hasty in judging people for actions in the past. We did not live in the times, & do not know all the circumstances. Remember, someday people of this generation will be judged by a future generation.

    Second, I remember a case in WWII, in Holland. Seems one of the Bishops spoke out against the Jewish incarcerations by the SS. The result was even more deportations, to the point where Jewish leaders told the religious leader to shut up.

    While the late Nelson Mandela lived to tell about his prison experience. in 1930’s Russia, he would most likely been shot in the Lubyanka basement.

  5. When Pope Pius XII died Golda Meir said the world was “enriched” by this “great servant of peace”
    “Only the Catholic Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing the truth” Albert Einstein
    “The voice of Pius XII is a lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe” New York Times 1941
    New York Times on 3/14/40 wrote Pope Pius XII “came to the defense of Jews in Germany and Poland.”
    “Pope Condemns Dictators, Treaty Violators, Racism” Front Page New York Times 10/28/39

    • Paul Frantizek

      There’s also Mit brennender Sorge (With Burning Anxiety), the Encyclical Cardinal Pacelli drafted drafted for Pius XI, the strongest denunciation of the Nazis in the entire pre-war era.

      If anything the Vatican was ahead of the curve in recognizing the evil of the Nazis. They were certainly better than the parties of the Left, which only turned on Hitler after Barbarossa.

  6. Teresa Vandal

    First off Larry, Pope Pius actually did do a lot for the Jews, as it was upon HIS ORDER that the monestaries and the convents were opened to house and hide the Jews from the Nazis, not to mention the fact that Adolf Eichman, one of Hitler’s favored officers, made statements upon his sentencing at his trial, that if Pius DID do more; he, himself would have been arrested and executed. Not to mention the fact that the LEADING RABBI of ROME during WWII, originally named Israel Zolli, (Zoller), later converted to Catholiscism in 1945, TAKING ON the birth name of His Holiness Pope Pius as his new name, Eugenio, AND devoted a whole chapter in his own book, “Before The Dawn” about WWII and his conversion to Catholiscism, to His Holiness Pius XII called “The Charity of Pope Pius XII”, and Golda Meir, the one time Prime Minister of Israel, she, herself spoke at the eulogy of Pope Pius XII…now tell me…if his actions really were so controversial…then how could those facts be true?

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