Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XIIby Robert A. Ventresca
Debates over the legacy of Pope Pius XII and his canonization are so heated they are known as the “Pius wars.” Soldier of Christ moves beyond competing caricatures and considers Pius XII as Eugenio Pacelli, a flawed and gifted man. While offering insight into the pope’s response to Nazism, Robert A. Ventresca argues that it was the Cold War/i>
Debates over the legacy of Pope Pius XII and his canonization are so heated they are known as the “Pius wars.” Soldier of Christ moves beyond competing caricatures and considers Pius XII as Eugenio Pacelli, a flawed and gifted man. While offering insight into the pope’s response to Nazism, Robert A. Ventresca argues that it was the Cold War and Pius XII’s manner of engaging with the modern world that defined his pontificate.
Laying the groundwork for the pope’s controversial, contradictory actions from 1939 to 1958, Ventresca begins with the story of Pacelli’s Roman upbringing, his intellectual formation in Rome’s seminaries, and his interwar experience as papal diplomat and Vatican secretary of state. Accused of moral equivocation during the Holocaust, Pius XII later fought the spread of Communism in Western Europe, spoke against the persecution of Catholics in Eastern Europe and Asia, and tackled a range of social and political issues. By appointing the first indigenous cardinals from China and India and expanding missions in Africa while expressing solidarity with independence movements, he internationalized the church’s membership and moved Catholicism beyond the colonial mentality of previous eras.
Drawing from a diversity of international sources, including unexplored documentation from the Vatican, Ventresca reveals a paradoxical figure: a prophetic reformer of limited vision whose leadership both stimulated the emergence of a global Catholicism and sowed doubt and dissension among some of the church’s most faithful servants.
Refreshing...Robert Ventresca...combines meticulous scholarship with an elegant and
effective prose style that makes this a very readable and accessible book...The most serious and dispassionate biography so far of this controversial pontiff.
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Read an Excerpt
From Chapter Five: War and Holocaust
When in September 1939 the Nazis had overrun Poland, exposing Polish civilians, Jews and Catholics to a brutal occupation regime, the world had waited in vain for Pius XII to issue an explicit statement condemning Nazi aggression. As we have seen, the wait was in vain. As weeks of Nazi occupation turned into months, and as the rest of Europe was drawn inexorably into yet another world war, the Pope still refrained from issuing the public statement that was expected of him. Even Polish Catholics, who were early targets of Nazi military aggression, wondered why the Pope refused to protest Nazi crimes, which included the murder of Polish priests and religious. The perception spread among many Poles that the Pope, to whom so many pledged filial devotion, simply was indifferent to their plight.
For the remainder of the war, in fact, Pius XII kept the public waiting for an explicit public condemnation that never came. Not even when the Nazis occupied Rome and began a systematic round-up of Rome’s ancient Jewish community in October 1943 did Pius XII issue a public protest. Just over 1000 of the Roman Jews arrested in October 1943 were eventually transported to Auschwitz, and most were gassed within a week of arriving. All this, it was said, happened “under the Pope’s very window”, and yet still there was no public protest, no word to the effect that the Pope condemned such obvious transgressions of God’s law.
Yet the Pope was not silent during the war. Nor was he oblivious to the complaints that the Holy See was not doing enough or, rather, not saying enough to condemn Nazi actions. As we have seen, it was Pius XII’s policy to leave it to bishops and pastors who were working at the local level to decide whether or not to protest. His rationale was that they were in a better position than he to judge “the danger of reprisals and of various forms of oppression. As he explained to Bishop von Preysing of Berlin, the aim was to avoid a greater evil - ad majora mala vitanda . This single phrase expresses the rationale behind Pius XII’s refusal to speak out forcefully to condemn directly Nazism and its manifest crimes throughout Europe. The principle of avoiding greater evil was consistent with all of his diplomatic training and his cautious character. It may even have saved lives. Still, a nagging question remains: was this enough?
Pius XII and the Church in Occupied Europe
The outbreak of war heightened Pius XII’s sensitivity to what he saw as the competing demands and expectations placed upon the Pope. It was understandable that he should worry about the fate of German Catholics, but what of the Catholics in countries living under German occupation? “Times are hard,” for the Pope, Pius XII told one bishop in February 1941, with the Vatican finding itself in a “complex and perilous situation” that was without historical precedent. “Where the pope wants to cry out loud and strong,” he explained, “it is expectation and silence that are unhappily often imposed upon him; where he would act and give assistance, it is patience and waiting.”
Nowhere was this logic tested more than in Poland, which was no under Nazi or Soviet occupation. Both occupying powers, in distinct but related ways, were bent on breaking the Church’s structure and spiritual influence. Before long the Pope had to confront what he described as “terrible things” happening to civilians in Poland, including a systematic campaign of terror, intimidation and violence against Polish civilians. In the first months of the Nazi occupation, before the Nazis had decided to use Poland as the epicentre of their extermination system, high-ranking Polish prelates wrote directly to Pius XII with shocking details of Hitler’s war on Polish Catholicism, which they saw as the bedrock of Polish identity. Early reports told of the round-up of thousands of priests and other religious, male and female, who were arrested and imprisoned in concentration camps. They included several bishops who were among the thousands of Catholic prelates who would perish in Nazi concentration camps during the war. One report on the situation in the Reichsgau-Wartheland estimated that of the two thousand priests active in the region, upwards of one-third had been killed and several hundred were in prison. The leading Polish prelate, Cardinal August Hlond, sent Pius XII a series of detailed reports that added up to a clear indictment of the Nazi regime and its systematic campaign against Polish Catholicism. Hlond told the Pope, “Hitlerism aims at the systematic and total destruction of the Catholic Church in the rich and fertile territories of Poland.” Hitler’s ultimate aim, he said, was to reduce the Poles “to the status of slaves, who shall serve and promote the prosperity of the ‘superior race’.” With prophetic clarity, Hlond predicted that the Nazi occupation of Poland “will constitute one of the darkest pages in human history.”
Meet the Author
Robert A. Ventresca is Associate Professor of History at King's University College at the University of Western Ontario.
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