ROME–When Pope Francis announced that he’d be opening the Vatican’s secret archives from the World War II papacy of Pius XII, many wondered, “Why now?”
Papal archives traditionally are opened at least 70 years after a pope’s death, meaning no one expected the secrets of Pius XII, who died in 1958, to be made accessible until 2028.
By deciding to open them on May 2, 2020, Francis seems to be sending a message, though no one is quite certain just what that is.
In his announcement, Francis acknowledged that the archives of Pius, who is often dubbed “Hitler’s Pope,” may not be entirely favorable, but he claimed the Church is “not afraid of history.” He said Pius had “moments of grave difficulties, tormented decisions of human and Christian prudence, that to some could appear as reticence.”
Whatever might be revealed in the secret archives, it remains an indisputable fact that thousands of Jewish people were pulled from their homes in Rome and taken to the concentration camps under the shadow of the Vatican. A poignant plaque on the Via Lungara, just a stone's throw from the gates of Vatican City, still commemorates one of the most horrific incidents: “On 16 October 1943 entire Jewish Roman families were ripped from their homes and brought to this place and then deported to concentration camps. Of more than 2,000 people, only 16 survived.”
Rabbi Abraham Skorka, an Argentine rabbi and professor at the St. Joseph’s University Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations in Philadelphia, is a longtime friend of the pope from the pontiff’s days as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio in Buenos Aires. The two co-authored the 2000 book on contemporary theology On Heaven and Earth.
Skorka told The Daily Beast he is “not sure opening the archives will substantially modify the polemic” that still rages regarding the wartime actions of Pius XII, who some Catholics claim may actually have helped save Jewish lives by not condemning Hitler publicly.
But Skorka says the simple answer is: promises made, promises kept. “He said he’d do it. It is that simple. This is further evidence of the commitment Bergoglio has with the truth itself, more than with the results that may emerge from any investigation of the material.”
Francis, who met with a delegation from the American Jewish Committee the day after announcing the opening of the archives in Rome, lamented recent incidents of anti-Semitism as part of a “climate of wickedness and fury, in which an excessive and depraved hatred is taking root.”
According to Skorka, “What Bergoglio says is, ‘We have to open the archives and see what really happened and the truth must flourish in all its aspects.’ He’s saying, ‘Let us move ahead and learn from history.’”
Francis said he is sure that upon further study, scholars would find “during periods of the greatest darkness and cruelty, the small flame lit of humanitarian initiatives, of hidden but active diplomacy.”
But Lorenzo Cremonesi, a member of the Vatican-appointed commission of Catholics and Jews that, in 2000, revealed that Pius XII knew about the Holocaust as early as June 1942, cautioned against giving the Catholic Church credit for “the initiatives of local churches in many countries who on their own took action to save Jews.”
“Church machinery,” he said, was something else.
Pius has been stalled on the Vatican trajectory towards sainthood since Pope Benedict XVI, a German, endorsed him in 2009 and thus made him “venerable.” Benedict was just 12 years old when Pius was elected, and he often has referred to him as “my first pope.” Benedict has been a long-time backer of Pius’s innocence during the war, and instead has consistently said that the pope worked behind the scenes to protect Jews.
Some believe the opening of these archives early is a special favor to the retired pope, whose health has been failing since he resigned in 2013. If the archives prove that Pius did work to protect Jews, his cause for sainthood would surely advance–he already has several miracles credited to him. A Vatican source told The Daily Beast that Benedict would love to be alive for the beatification of Pius, but that won't happen until the archives of his papacy are opened.
For the old group of Argentine friends that remain in close contact with the current pope, Pius’ reputation seems of lesser interest than that of Francis. And Benedict’s legacy is of even less interest.
Another of Bergoglio’s old friends from Buenos Aires, Alberto Zimerman, head of interreligious dialogue for the umbrella association of Jewish organizations in Argentina (DAIA), said that Francis had decided upon this “risky course for the church” not having seen any of the classified documents himself.
“We could find anything there,” Zimerman told The Daily Beast, invoking the pope’s willingness to “undertake any challenge.”
For decades, scholars studying the World War II pope’s actions have argued that the Vatican did nothing to stop the atrocities, and while some Catholics tout Pius’s “secret diplomacy,” many Jews see it quite differently.
Rabbi David Rosen, the International Director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, who has advocated for the archives’ opening for more than 30 years, and who met with Pope Francis last week, said that there was only “the greatest respect and collaboration” between Jewish groups and the Vatican team now cataloging the documents. But “in the end,” he told The Daily Beast, “there is a debate between the church and the Jewish people regarding what Pius XII did.”
“For the Catholic Church, he made a tactical decision he thought would be best,” Rosen says. “For Jews, the very thought that anything could be worse than the Holocaust means we will never have a shared historical view of this moment.”
Rosen specified that there are questions of historical fact still “lacking in clarity,” including “instructions emitted from the Vatican, areas where Pius XII may have been directly involved, and information transmitted and actions taken, not necessarily by the pope but by other agencies of the Vatican.”
The same Jewish group that met Francis in Rome last week has, for years, pressured the Vatican to reveal what many assume will be Pius XII’s blind eye to the atrocities that unfolded under the reign of both Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini during his papacy.
In a recent radio interview, David Kertzer, author of The Pope and Mussolini, likened the church’s approach to the atrocities of the Holocaust to those of the clerical sex abuse scandal now ravaging the church's reputation.
“In this case maybe there's some parallel to the more recent pederasty sex scandal in the Church,” Kertzer said. “The perspective of the Vatican was largely ‘the first priority has to be to protect the institutional Church and everything else comes second.’”
Kertzer told The Daily Beast that he would be among the first to visit the archives. He believes Pius was concerned that the Nazi regime would work against the church and so did what they could to work against its power base without taking into account the helpless victims caught in the middle. “I think we may well find more documentation that will show that this is exactly the kind of consideration that was overriding the Pope’s decision making at the time.”
Opening the archives will not satisfy everyone. I think they will hide a lot of things,” says Cremonesi, a special envoy for the Italian daily Corriere della Sera and an expert on Vatican-Jewish relations. “We know that Pius XII was very open to the German cause—not to Hitler—but to Germany, because he saw the Germans as a bastion against the Communists, and the Communists were the primary concern of the Vatican.”
Explaining the church’s indifference to the genocide of European Jewry, Cremonesi said, “Pius really believed that the only good Jew was a converted Jew.”
Rabbi Israel Zolli, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, who famously survived the war under Vatican protection and later converted to Catholicism, “was the paragon for Pius,” Cremonesi says. “Perfection.”
While it will take a year for the Vatican to catalogue the hundreds of thousands of documents, there is still worry that the Vatican won’t be entirely up front. The entire archives are already indexed, a librarian with the Vatican archives told The Daily Beast on background. There would, in essence, be no way to cover up huge gaps since many historians are going to be checking the files against already available documents–unless those record were destroyed long ago.
Many countries that had diplomatic relations with the Holy See during World War II have already made those documents available. Now scholars want to know what internal memos the Vatican attached to notes it received at the time concerned that the Vatican was not doing enough.
“We know the attitude of the church,” Cremonesi said, using as an example the 1904 encounter between Pius X and Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, who described the meeting in a detailed diary entry.
“When you go to the Vatican to look it up, there’s nothing,” Cremonesi said, chuckling. “No little note like you find in British archives saying ‘document classified,’ or even a line saying ‘this morning his Holiness held meetings.’ There is nothing.”
“I put my hands in fire,” he says: “If there is anything annoying in those papers, the Vatican will not reveal it.”
Skorka noted that Francis, 82, the first non-European pope, grew up in the melting pot of Buenos Aires, with Jewish friends from childhood. He recalled that during the conversations that led to the publication of their book, Bergoglio said that of the “many genocides in the 20th century”—he mentioned the Armenians—”the genocide of the Jews is singular. It set about to eliminate the Jewish people and the spirituality that transcended from its history.”
“For people like him and me, who believe in the God of Israel, it means the Holocaust was an attempt to destroy this God on earth,” Skorka said.
Pope Francis’ decision to open the Vatican archive, Skorka implied, is an attempt to restore that God for humanity.
Barbie Latza Nadeau reported from Rome. Noga Tarnopolsky reported from Jerusalem.