Who is this man who was beloved by two generations but whose “silence” during World War II is now attacked by the media?

Anyone who studies the historical record will see that the answer is simple: Pius XII was not silent. He spoke out, directly and often, both personally and through his cardinals, bishops, priests and religious.

Throughout Europe, including within the Vatican's walls, Catholics hid Jews, papal nuncios protested Nazi atrocities and bishops raised their voices. In fact, in some cases Jews protested the Church's condemnations of the Nazis, for some protests precipitated savage Nazi reprisals. After the war, sentiments of Jewish gratitude poured in to the Vatican.

All of this is documented in Ralph McInerny's The Defamation of Pius XII. McInerny, professor of philosophy and medieval studies at Notre Dame University, and cofounder of Crisis magazine, introduces the real Eugenio Pacelli. We meet a plain, but spiritually sensitive and intellectually gifted, Italian lad — one who became fluent in four languages, mastered the violin, and earned doctorates in philosophy, theology, and civil and canon law.

Then he devoted his life to serving Christ. McInerny traces the priest's rise from his ordination in 1899 through roles of increasing ecclesiastical and pastoral responsibility, recounting the years he spent as papal nuncio to Germany and Vatican secretary of state before being chosen by his brother cardinals to lead the Church in 1939.

McInerny presents a year-by-year chronology of the Second World War, highlighting major battles and key players on the world scene as a background to the actions of Pius XII. What emerges is a portrait of a man who was duty-bound to prudently weigh his responsibilities in a world gone mad with war. “All over the world,” McInerny tells us, “where the pope's messages were heard, they were understood. More importantly, perhaps, he spoke through the deeds of his nuncios and bishops on the front lines of a war that Pius correctly saw as a war against the Church and the common morality the Church was entrusted to defend.”

Pius clearly detested Nazi aggression and all the party stood for; he used both opportunity and wariness to make his disapproval known to the world. His goal, which he also pressed on his clergy, was to save as many lives as possible, regardless of race or creed. Any reader faced with the evidence pointing to this conclusion, copiously documented in articles, editorials and records anyone could look up, will see the utter absurdity of the suggestion that Pius was an accessory to the Nazis in any way.

Commenting on the recent anti-Pius XII books, McInerny devotes his final two chapters to making an impassioned plea for Pius' accusers to cease and desist their unfounded attacks. In a tone of dignified outrage, he labels the slander of Pius as defamation and asks, rhetorically: Why? Why are some today targeting this great moral leader, roundly recognized as a hero in his time — a view the overwhelming majority of Jews shared — for character assassination?

“The target is the Catholic Church and her unchanging moral doctrine,” McInerny writes. “This is clearest in the books written by soi-disant Catholics. Their books express a simmering rage that the Church does not follow their false understanding of Vatican II. Their animus against Paul VI and John Paul II is every bit as great as that they feel against Pope Pius XII.”

The Defamation of Pius XII goes beyond a mere defense of one man; it juxtaposes one man's opposition to evil against a culture's rejection of the faith he represented, both in his time and today. McInerny is at his sharpest as he tracks, and indicts, the progression of modern-day attitudes toward human life — particularly the attitudes that allow a supposedly civilized society to shrug its shoulders as millions of defenseless babies are destroyed in their mothers' wombs.

In this way, his book makes history as relevant as today's headlines.

Mark Dittman writes from Maplewood, Minnesota.