Pope Francis has ordered the opening of the Vatican Secret Archives for the entire period of Venerable Pius XII’s pontificate, a move that will help shed light on the contentious dispute that the pontiff either heroically supported the Jews during World War Two, or did too little. 

In a message today to officials working in the Vatican Secret Archives, the Holy Father said the archives would be opened from March 2, 2020 — exactly a year after the 80th anniversary of Pius’ election, which took place last Saturday. 

The Pope said all the “archival documentation” from his election on March 2, 1939, until his death on Oct. 9, 1958, would be “open for consultation by researchers.” 

This would therefore include the important years of World War Two, a time that became contentious in the postwar years, with critics calling Pius XII “Hitler’s Pope” (the title of a book by John Cornwell widely viewed as discredited) for seemingly not doing enough to help save the Jews from the Holocaust.

But his supporters, some prominent Jews among them, have long argued that he acted prudently and heroically, and helped to save tens of thousands of Jewish lives. They insist he was the victim of a ‘Black Legend’ — a smear campaign masterminded by Soviet secret intelligence.

Historians and commentators on both sides of the so-called “Pius Wars” debate have therefore long wished for the archives to be opened to know what really happened during those tumultuous years. 

In his announcement today, the Pope said he took the decision after listening to the “opinion of my closest co-workers, with a serene and confident spirit, sure that serious and objective historical research will be able to evaluate in the right light, with appropriate criticism, moments of exaltation of that pontiff.”

But he also said that “without doubt” the archives would reveal “moments of serious difficulties, of tormented decisions, of human and Christian prudence, which to some could appear like reticence, and which instead were very hard-won, human attempts, to keep lit the flame of humanitarian initiatives, of hidden but active diplomacy, of hope in possible good openings of hearts, in times of dense darkness and cruelty.”

The Pope added: “The Church has no fear of history. On the contrary, she loves it, and would like to love it more and better, as God loves it! So, with the same confidence as my predecessors, I open and entrust researchers with this documentary heritage.”

Pope St. John Paul II began progressively opening the archives related to the pre-war years, when Pius XII, then Eugenio Pacelli, was apostolic nuncio to Germany (1920-1930) and then Vatican Secretary of State (1930-1939).  In 2006, Benedict opened all the archives for the entire pontificate of Pius XI, from 1922 to 1939.

Benedict XVI declared Pius XII Venerable in 2009, recognizing that he possessed heroic Christian virtue. 

Those who have fought to defend Pius XII over the years are delighted with today’s announcement.  

 

Exciting News

“This is exceptionally good news,” said Gary Krupp, founder of the Pave the Way Foundation

Krupp said he has stressed “many times” that to “simply fix a date” for the archives to be opened “will enable many of the critics enough time to apply for their credentials, travel to the Secret Archives, and research this material to reveal the truth of this terrible period in history.” 

Ronald Rychlak, author of Hitler, the War and the Pope, said the news was “most exciting,” adding that Pius’ role in world history “has been subject to much speculation and analysis.” 

But both Krupp and Rychlak contend that enough information is already available to quash the “Black Legend.” 

“I have argued that there is already sufficient information available to make an informed decision regarding his opposition to Nazism and support for its victims, but speculation has remained,” Rychlak told the Register March 4. 

Krupp noted that his foundation has unearthed over 76,000 pages of documents relating to the actions of the Holy See during World War Two, an effort they started in 2006. 

“This material including eye-witness video interviews have been posted free of charge on our website,” he said. “We have hundreds of wartime documents, from outside sources, proving the extraordinary efforts of the Holy See, under the pontificate of Pope Pius XII, to save lives, especially Jews.”

But he added their frustration is that “so-called historians simply refused to come to our website to examine this material. Their excuse was that we are not historians or scholars.”  

Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, who has been a staunch critic of Pius XII believing the wartime pontiff was silent during the Holocaust, also welcomed news of the opening of the archives, saying it was “better late than never.”

“I hope that all the documentation will be made available to the researchers,” he told the Register March 4. “My ‘point of view’ is based on objective historical data.” But he said he would be “happy to call it into question if decisive new elements emerge.”

 

Questions Likely to Remain

Rychlak said although he hopes the complete opening of the archive “will help us resolve matters once and for all,” he expects “some questions are likely to remain.” 

One of those, he said, could be that “prudential judgements made at a time of war are always subject to second guessing.” 

“When was a decision made or an action taken for tactical reasons?,” said Rychlak, who is also Jamie P. Whitten Chair of Law and Government at the University of Mississippi. 

He also explained that the “mere fact” that a wartime document appears in an archive “does not mean that it is trustworthy or reliable.” 

Disinformation, he said, “was rampant during and after the war. False or misunderstood documents will be found in some archives.” 

But he added: “Despite my caution, more information is better than less” and that people he knows who have had full access to the archives have told him that the documents “will confirm what historians at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints have concluded: that Pope Pius XII led a life of heroic virtue.”  

William Doino, lead contributor of The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII and a well known defender of the wartime pope, said in a statement that opening the archives is “the moral and just thing to do” given years of requests. He expected critics to be the most surprised by the contents, and for the record to be finally set straight on the pontificate. 

“We know [Pius XII] was anything but indifferent to the persecution of Jews and others during the Holocaust, and did not, as certain polemicists have claimed, appease the Nazis: Pope Pius XII, in fact, tried to overthrow Hitler,” Doino said. 

He also said he believed opening the archives “will certainly help accelerate” Pius’ cause for beatification. 

Krupp, who is Jewish, told the Register that he believes when all the archival material has been fully studied, Eugenio Pacelli will be recognized as ‘Righteous Among Nations’ by the Holocaust memorial of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, an honor comparable to canonization for Jews.

He added he was “very excited that His Holiness has taken this effort to end the worst character assassination of the 20th Century, and will finally end the Soviet KGB engineered 'Black Legend' forever.”

Writing in today’s L’Osservatore Romano. Bishop Sergio Pagano, prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives, said Pius XII has been “too superficially judged and criticized for some aspects of his pontificate.” 

Thanks also to the “recent openness confidently desired by Pope Francis,” Bishop Pagano said it is possible that historians will be able to investigate “without prejudice” the pontificate “in all its realistic import and richness.”

This article has been updated.