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The Vatican Secret Archive and Pius XII

Filed under: Israel
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

The Vatican Secret Archive and Pius XII
Eugenio Pacelli, nuncio in Bavaria, 1922.

Institute for Contemporary Affairs

Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation

No. 622     March 2019

  • On March 4, 2019, Pope Francis announced that within a year the Vatican would open the secret files related to Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli) during World War II. In March 1998, the Vatican published a document defending the policy of Pius XII between 1939-1945, claiming he had saved hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives.
  • In 1999, the Holy See set up a commission composed of six renowned academics (three Jews and three Catholics) to determine the truth about its role during World War II. But the Vatican archives were accessible only until 1923, and the historians suspended their work.
  • In the Holocaust Museum in Israel, an exhibit titled “Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust” says: “Pius XII’s reaction to the murder of the Jews during the Holocaust is a matter of controversy…. Even when reports about the murder of Jews reached the Vatican, the Pope did not protest either verbally or in writing.”
  • “In December 1942, he abstained from signing the Allied declaration condemning the extermination of the Jews. When Jews were deported from Rome to Auschwitz, the Pope did not intervene.”

On March 4, 2019, while addressing 75 officials of the Vatican’s Secret Archive office, Pope Francis declared that the Church “is not afraid of history.” On the contrary, “it loves it, and desires to love it more and better, as God loves it.” Coinciding with the 80th Anniversary of Eugenio Pacelli’s election to the throne of Saint Peter, Pope Francis announced that within a year the Vatican would open the secret files related to Pius XII’s pontificate to researchers.  “With the same confidence as my predecessors, I open and entrust this documentary heritage to researchers,” he said. In justifying his historical decision, Francis assured:

I have assumed this decision after hearing the opinion of my closest collaborators, with a serene and confident mind, sure that serious and objective historical research will be able to evaluate, in the proper light and with appropriate criticism, the praiseworthy moments of the Pontiff and, without any doubt, also moments of serious difficulties, of tormented decisions, of human and Christian prudence, which to some might have seemed to be reticence, and which instead were attempts, humanly also very hard-fought, to keep the flame of humanitarian initiatives lit during periods of more intense darkness and cruelty, of hidden but active diplomacy, of hope in possible good openings of hearts.1

For decades, historians have been asking the Vatican to open these archives. To the extent that the Pope’s initiative will be complete–and not selectively edited in order to shed light exclusively on the positive aspects of the pontificate of Pius XII – this step taken by Francis deserves to be applauded and considered a historical turning point. However, there are grounds for skepticism, because Rome has been trying for several years to beatify Eugenio Pacelli, to the chagrin of the world Jewish community and the community of Holocaust experts. By attempting to absolve Pius XII, in fact, Rome seeks to obtain its own absolution. It should be noted that Pacelli’s successors – John XXIII (1958-1963), Paul VI (1963-1978), and John Paul II (1978-2005) – were already canonized.

Monsignor Sergio Pagano, Prefect of the Vatican Secret Archive, published an article in L’Osservatore Romano the day the Pope made his announcement that might illustrate the Vatican’s intention:

In that sad and terrible scenario, both before the last war and during its tragic course, and after it, the great figure of Pius XII stands out with its own connotations, too superficially judged and criticized for some aspects of his pontificate.  Now, thanks also to the recent opening wished with confidence by Pope Francis; I believe that  someone who knows how to investigate it can be found among historians, now without prejudice, but also with the help of new documents, in all his realism and wealth.2

His appeal to find “someone who knows how to investigate it among historians, now without prejudice” could well refer to an incident involving John Cornwell, a researcher at Jesus College of the University of Cambridge and author of the 1999 celebrated book Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII. This historian benefited from access to reserved portions of the Vatican archive concerning Eugenio Pacelli, given his “benevolent spirit” – as he himself characterized it – around the figure of the Pope. He began his investigation with the aim of discarding, once and for all, “the black legend” that casts a shadow over this pontiff. Instead, the Vatican sources left him exposed to a very different truth. “By the middle of 1997, nearing the end of my research, I found myself in a state that I can only describe as moral shock,” Cornwell wrote in the preface to his work, “the material I had gathered, taking the more extensive view of Pacelli’s life, amounted not to an exoneration, but to a wider indictment.”3

The process of beatification of Pius XII began in 1964 amid an internal conflict between progressives and conservatives. The Second Vatican Council was at work, and the progressives wanted to canonize John XXIII through an act of acclamation. Pope Paul VI decided to present for consideration to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints the controversial Pius XII, along with the proposed John XXIII. The Jesuits were assigned the first of the processes and the Franciscans the second, and priests Peter Gumpel and Paolo Molinari were appointed to lead each case, respectively. Father Gumpel declared at the time: “After having studied all the depositions of all the witnesses in Pius XII’s cause, I can say that very rarely have I found evidence so persuasive of heroic virtue… the cause is going forward, and the prospects of Pius’s beatification are excellent.”4 In September 2000, before 100,000 pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square, John Paul II beatified both John XXIII and Pius IX. The Jewish community applauded the beatification of the former and lamented the beatification of the latter. During his long pontificate (1846-1878) Pius IX confined the Jews to the ghetto of Rome, publicly referred to them as “Hebrew dogs,” and approved the kidnapping of the Jewish boy Edgardo Mortara.

At the beginning of the 1960s, Pope Paul VI formed a team of priests from various countries with the purpose of selecting for publication diplomatic documents of the World War II period in possession of the Holy See. The project was intended to counteract the accusations regarding the silence of the Pope during the War, and consequently, it was defensive in nature. The result of this initiative was the publication, between 1965 and 1981, of Actes et Documents du Saint Siège Relatifs à la Seconde Guerre Mondiale, composed of 11 volumes of documents published in the original language, with commentaries in French.

Pope Pius XII
Pope Pius XII, 1951.

In 1986, John Paul II visited the Rome synagogue. During his 80-minute-long speech, he had the delicacy not to name Pacelli explicitly and recalled the suffering of Rome’s Jews, but ignored the public silence of Pius XII when they were sent to Auschwitz. In response to the words of the Pope, Giacomo Saban, president of the Italian Jewish community, acknowledged the transcendental gesture of the pontiff but could not help note that, “What was happening on one bank of the Tiber could not have been not known on the other bank of the river, nor could what was happening in other parts of the European continent.”5

In March 1998, the Vatican published Noi Ricordiamo: Una Riflessione Sulla Shoah, a long-awaited pronouncement on the Holocaust, in which it defended the policy of Pius XII between 1939-1945, claiming that he had saved hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives, either by personal intervention or by delegation of duties.6

In 1999, the Holy See set up a historic commission composed of six renowned academics (three Jews and three Catholics) to determine the truth about the Church’s role during World War II. Previously, John Paul II had expanded the opening period of the secret archives, which ran until 1891, up to 1922. Yet, the relevant period remained inaccessible to researchers. This project did not prosper. One of the historians involved commented: “In October 2000, our group presented a preliminary report to Rome asking for the opening of the archives so that we could continue more fully with our work. Since then there has been complete silence from the Vatican Secretary of State.”7

In June 2001, in a letter sent to these historians, the Vatican responded that the “Vatican archives are accessible only until 1923” and that nothing else could be done “due to technical reasons.”8 The following month, the team of historians suspended their work. Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, tried to minimize the fiasco saying, “The Catholic Church is not afraid of historical truth… and the lack of success by a group of historians… cannot be nor will it be the end of serious historical research on this subject.”9 In February 2002, the Holy See announced that from 2003 onward it would open portions of its archives relating to Germany from 1922 to 1939. Access to the period of World War II remained blocked.

In 2000, Pope John Paul II visited Yad Vashem as part of his historic journey to Israel. The Pope began his speech with a paragraph of four lines in which he mentioned the word “silence” four times. In the context of his message, it looks unobjectionable. But in light of the controversial past “silence” of Pius XII, the repeated mention sounded strange. Here is the paragraph in question:

In this place of memories, the mind and heart and soul feel an extreme need for silence. Silence in which to remember. Silence in which to try to make some sense of the memories which come flooding back. Silence because there are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedy of the Shoah.10

Prime Minister Ehud Barak said in response: “Your Holiness, mine is a nation that remembers. And the silence was not only from heaven.”11 In 2005, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum was renovated in Israel. In its permanent exhibition, under a photograph of Eugenio Pacelli and the title “Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust,” the inscription that was placed read in part:

Pius XII’s reaction to the murder of the Jews during the Holocaust is a matter of controversy…  Even when reports about the murder of Jews reached the Vatican, the Pope did not protest either verbally or in writing. In December 1942, he abstained from signing the Allied declaration condemning the extermination of the Jews. When Jews were deported from Rome to Auschwitz, the Pope did not intervene. (A few years later Yad Vashem changed the original text to give room to both critics’ and defenders’ points of view).12

In 2007, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints approved the proclamation of Pius XII’s “heroic virtues.”13 On the 50th Anniversary of the death of Pius XII, the official Vatican daily and Benedict XVI publicly defended the Pope’s conduct during the World War II. In a solemn mass held in October 2008 before a crowd of Cardinals and Synod Fathers in Rome at the World Synod of Bishops, and after having prayed at Pacelli’s tomb, Benedict XVI said, “We pray that the cause of beatification of the Servant of God Pius XII will continue happily.”14 For the first time in the history of a Synod of Bishops, a Jew participated in it. It was the Chief Rabbi of Haifa She’ar Yashuv Cohen, as a special guest of the Pope. In his speech he alluded to Pius XII without naming him: “It hurts us, but we cannot approve that such a leader of the Church now be honored.”15

Benedict XVI traveled to Israel in May 2009. Predictably, he went to Yad Vashem. To avoid further friction, it was decided that the Pope would participate in a ceremony at the Remembrance Hall but would not go into the Museum per se, thus avoiding the thorny issue of Pius XII’s plaque. In his speech, as John Paul II had done previously, Benedict XVI stressed the importance of silence: “My dear friends, I am deeply grateful to God and to you for the opportunity to stand here in silence: a silence to remember, a silence to pray, a silence to hope.”16

Later, in December 2009, the Pope signed decrees corresponding to one martyrdom, ten miracles, and ten heroic virtues; a usual pontifical procedure that would have gone unnoticed by the Jewish world if not for the fact that among the latter the Pope included Pius XII, effectively unlocking his beatification. In an act designed to soften potential reactions, Benedict XVI venerated John Paul II and Pius XII simultaneously.17 He previously held a meeting with members of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and congratulated them for giving the parishioners role models for Christian life: “Each beatification and canonization is for Christians a strong incentive to live intensely and with enthusiasm the path of Christ towards the completeness of Christian existence and the perfection of charity.”18 Father Gumpel said he was “delighted” with the Pope’s decision; the global Jewish community not so much. When, three weeks later, Benedict XVI visited the Synagogue in Rome, in his welcoming speech, the leader of the Italian Jewish community reminded the illustrious guest that “The silence of Pius XII during the Shoah hurts us as an act of omission.”19 When Francis visited Yad Vashem in 2014, he made no reference to this silence.20

The controversy over the role of Pius XII during the Holocaust has already lasted longer than the duration of the war and his pontificate combined. In the context of this unresolved debate, the Vatican’s efforts to beatify him aim at closing off any discussion about the Church’s past. Endowing Pacelli’s limited efforts to assist the persecuted Jews of Europe with a halo of heroism will eventually lead to him being declared holy. The opening of the Vatican archives concerning Pius XII’s pontificate will shed much-needed light on his role during World War II –as long as the opening will be absolute and access to historians – unrestricted.

Professor John Cornwell, who gained access to the Vatican Secret Archive on Pius XII more than any other lay scholar, observed:

Eugenio Pacelli was not a monster; his case is far more complex, more tragic than that… His is not a portrait of evil, but of fatal moral dislocation – a separation of authority from Christian love. The consequences of that rupture were collusion with tyranny, and ultimately violence.21

After March 2020, the debate about Pius XII will reach new heights. A year of burning anxiety awaits us.

* * *


* Some of the quotes presented above have been taken from Spanish sources and were translated into English by the author.

1 Address of his Holiness Pope Francis to Officials of the Vatican Secret Archive, March 4, 2019;

2 Sergio Centofanti, “Mons. Pagano: la apertura de los archivos mostrará a todos la grandeza de Pío XII”, Vatican News, Marzo 4, 2019 en

3 John Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, (Penguin Books, 2000), preface.

4 Peter Gumpel with Antonio Gasparri, “Justice for Pius XII!”, Inside the Vatican, (junio 1997); cited by James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001), p. 530.

5 In Eugene Fischer y Leon Klenicki (eds.), Spiritual Pilgrimage: Texts on Jews and Judaism 1979-1995 (NY: Crossroad, 1995).

6 “We Remember: A reflection on the Shoah”, March 16, 1998;

7 Robert Wistrich, “The Vatican and the Shoah”, Modern Judaism 21 (Oxford University Press: 2001), p. 101.

8 Moshe Aumann, Conflict & Connection: The Jewish-Christian-Israel Triangle (Israel: Gefen Publishing House, 2003), pp. 64-65.

9 Ibid., p. 65.

10 Speech of John Paul II, Visit to The Yad Vashem Museum, Jerusalem, March 23, 2000;

11 Cited in “The Visit of Pope John Paul II to Yad Vashem, Jerusalem” (Yad Vashem: 2000), pp. 19-21.

12 “Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Softens Stance on Pius XII”, Haaretz, July 1, 2012.

13 “El Papa insiste en beatificar a Pío XII”, La Nación, October 11, 2008.

14 “Pío XII, discutido por su rol ante los nazis, elogiado por el Papa”, Clarín, Octubre 11, 2008.

15 Isi Leibler, “A corageous rabbi talks to the Catholic synod”, The Jeruslem Post, October 15, 2008.

16 Visit to Yad Vashem Memorial, Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI, Jerusalem, May 11, 2009;

17 “Juan Pablo II y Pío XII, más cerca de la santidad”, La Nación, December 20, 2009.

18 “Pope Pius XII on way to beatification”, Jerusalem Post, December 19, 2009.

19 “Benedicto XVI pidió que se sanen las heridas del antisemitismo”, La Nación, January 18, 2010.

20  Visit to Yad Vashem Memorial, Address of Pope Francis, Jerusalem, May 26, 2014;

21 John Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, (Penguin Books, 2000), preface.