VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI has decided to open the Vatican secret archives covering the pontificate of Pope Pius XI from 1922-1939, partly to help dispel controversy surrounding the wartime relationship of his successor, Pope Pius XII, with Nazi Germany.

In a June 30 statement, the Vatican said the prewar material will be available to scholars Sept. 18. Benedict’s decision follows the wishes of Pope John Paul II, who in 2002 called for the release of the material as soon as possible.

In addition, John Paul authorized the archives to make available to scholars the material from Pius XI’s pontificate that dealt directly with Vatican-German relations.

The 2003 opening of the Vatican-German papers was unusual, because normal Vatican practice is to catalog and open all material from an entire pontificate at the same time.

The Vatican had said the early publication of the selected material was a sign of John Paul’s desire to “render a service to historical truth without clamor, fear or delay.”

The documents were considered especially sensitive because they covered the period in which Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, served as nuncio in Germany and then as Vatican secretary of state before being elected Pope in 1939.

Pius XII’s critics believe the opening of the entire prewar archives will confirm their accusations that he was sympathetic to Nazism and indifferent to the Jews during this period. According to such critics, he maintained these biases while leading the Church during World War II.

Father Sergio Pagano, prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives, said that “billions of sheets” will be available to historians after four years of collating, organizing and numbering. He would not discuss the ongoing controversy concerning the wartime papacy of Pius XII, saying “only historical researchers will be able to point out the relevance of Pius XI’s pontificate compared with Pius XII’s.”

The Facts

But much of the world’s secular press has already made up its mind. “Sunlight on the Vatican’s Dark Hours” was the headline of a Los Angeles Times story about the decision to open the archives. Other secular media organizations reported the news similarly, welcoming the documents’ release but questioning whether they would be sufficient to exonerate Pius XII.

Yet for scholars who have seriously looked at historical records already available during that period, there is little need for “sunlight” and no “dark hours” to relive.

“There won’t be anything there damaging to his reputation,” said James Bogle, chairman of the Catholic Union of Great Britain and author of an essay, The Real Story of Pius XII and the Jews. “I’d be willing to bet on it because I know him, I’ve studied him, and I know he wasn’t remotely interested in anything else than saving Jewish lives.”

Others are equally certain.

“The archives will explain certain things in more detail, will give some additional information and clarify some controversial issues,” said Sister Margherita Marchione, author of Consensus and Controversy, Defending Pope Pius XII. “But we know all the facts already.”

The facts, according to Sister Margherita, a Filippini Sister and Fulbright Scholar who has spent more than 10 years campaigning for an objective assessment of the wartime Pope, are that Pius XII “condemned Nazism wholeheartedly” both as nuncio and as secretary of state. For example, he was the primary author of Mit Brennender Sorge (With Deep Anxiety), Pius XI’s 1937 encyclical that condemned Nazism and rejected racism as un-Catholic.

And there is plenty of other evidence exonerating Pius XII.

“There are already 12 volumes on Pius XII’s life on which researchers can consult,” said Sister Margherita. “The difficulty is people never make the effort to read them.”

Bogle said that as secretary of state, Cardinal Pacelli was doing almost “100% of the negotiating” with Germany. “He spoke perfect German and was heavily involved, doing his best to contain Nazism,” Bogle said. “But world powers take little notice of the Church and the Pope at their peril, and then who gets the blame? Is it Western governments? No, it’s the Pope who in this case is victim of an orchestrated campaign of dishonesty.”

For 20 years after the war, Pius XII was widely praised for speaking out as openly as he could before and during the war and for helping to save Jews in secret. Israel Zolli, Rome’s chief rabbi after the war, converted to Catholicism and took for his baptismal name Eugenio in honor of Pius XII.

But public opinion changed in 1963 when German playwright Rolf Hochhuth depicted Pius XII in “The Deputy” as a cynic who kept silent despite knowing about the Holocaust. More recently, Pius XII’s reputation was further smeared by books like John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope, a work that the author later admitted contains research flaws.

In each of the accusatory books, the main charge made against Pius XII is that he remained silent during the war. But according to Bogle — who is also a convert from Judaism — Pius XII and the Vatican were acutely aware of the dire consequences of speaking out. These became apparent in 1943 when Holland’s Catholic bishops condemned Nazism publicly, resulting in greater numbers of Jews being sent to death camps.

“As soon as he heard what had happened in Holland, Pius XII changed his mind, and burnt the paper he was going to issue because Jews advised him that more people would die if he spoke out,” said Bogle.

In his book The Myth of Hitler’s Pope, Rabbi David Dalin argued that critics of Pius were primarily liberal Catholics who “exploit the tragedy of the Jewish people during the Holocaust to foster their own political agenda of forcing changes on the Catholic Church today.”

Sister Margherita also thinks that hidden agendas are at play in the attacks on Pius XII.

“It’s disconcerting because the facts are so clear, but people don’t want to know the truth; they don’t want to be told, they want to condemn someone,” she said. “But for as long as I’m alive, I’m not going to let that happen and will continue the battle for the truth to be known.”


(CNS contributed to this report.) Edward Pentin writes from Rome