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Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII

Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII

by Robert A. Ventresca

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Charles R. Gallagher
This beautifully written biography will become the standard account of Pope Pius XII's life. In Ventresca's hands, this enigmatic Pope is neither lionized nor demonized. Instead, we see Pius XII as a soldier mired in the trenches, neither advancing nor wholly retreating into silence.
Winnipeg Free Press - Allen Mills
Soldier of Christ is immaculately researched, well-written and judicious in its judgments, and it deserves serious consideration in the ongoing debate about the role of the Vatican in the face of the utter immorality of Nazi policies.
New Statesman
Eugenio Pacelli, who acceded to the papacy in March 1939, was the first Roman pope since the early 1700s. His tenure, which lasted until his death in 1958, remains highly controversial. Robert Ventresca's book is an intervention in the 'Pius war'--the argument over Pius XII's seeming failure to defend European Jews from persecution by the Nazis.
Catholic World Report - Michael Coren
The definitive biography of the wartime pontiff... Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII is a splendid work.
Quill & Quire - Megan Moore Burns
Ventresca paints a well-crafted portrait of Pacelli's remarkable consistency, deciding early on that pragmatism was his goal in both spiritual and temporal matters.
The Church of England Newspaper - Paul Richardson
[An] illuminating work.
Times Higher Education - John Pollard

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.

Catholic Herald - Eugene Fisher
Most of the books about Pius [XII] judge him, positively or negatively, based upon his policies during that period. Ventresca sets Pius' decisions within the larger context of his life and achievements, bringing a fresh perspective to what has aptly been described as 'the Pius war.'
National Catholic Reporter - Gerald P. Fogarty
With Soldier of Christ, Robert Ventresca has provided a real service, not only to the historical profession but also to the wider community...Ventresca makes every effort to be objective and balanced in his presentation of the controversial wartime pope. In this, he makes a refreshing and needed contribution to what has become a sometimes rancorous debate, which has more assertion of opinion than serious archival research.
Literary Review of Canada - Michael W. Higgins
Ventresca diligently works to establish a perspective on the pope that is not confined to the controversies that continue to swirl around his legacy: his reputed inaction during the Holocaust, the debates around his cause for canonization, his involvement with the shaping of post-World War Two Europe and his alleged reactionary approach to modernity in all its forms. The actual record, of course, is both more complicated and ambiguous, and Ventresca labors admirably to ensure that his portrait of Pacelli eschews the polarizing rhetoric, selective indignation and pious piffle that has defined the work of the pro- and anti-Pacellists over the last three decades...Ventresca's biography, by contrast, is defined by its meticulous reliance on archival materials, its avoidance of polemical fire and its measured assessment of the complex factors that shape a pontificate.
Times Literary Supplement - John Cornwell
Ventresca has...successfully captured Pacelli in the round, with telling...details of human interest...For those who have no vested interest on either side of the divide, there [is] now [a] reliable...stud[y] of one of the most enigmatic figures of twentieth-century history.
Australian Book Review - Ray Cassin
Pius XII, more than most popes, was a polarizing figure, and previous studies of his pontificate have, accordingly, tended to be either fiercely polemical, if from his critics, or bordering on the hagiographical, if from his defenders. This latest biography by Robert Ventresca...strives to avoid these extremes. Ventresca builds his case from an impressive marshaling of the available evidence. It is cogently argued, and lucidly, if soberly, written. Pacelli's human qualities are apparent... He was certainly a man who at a time of great moral challenge strove to do his best, for the church and for those who faced dehumanizing imprisonment and death at the hands of a monstrous tyranny. The history of the Holocaust is testimony that his best was not good enough, and he is not the only European leader between 1933 and 1945 about whom that can be said. The question that should haunt his defenders, however, is not whether he could have deterred the Nazis by publicly denouncing their crimes; it is whether his silence actually emboldened them.
The Tablet - Hilmar Pabel
While refreshingly avoiding the overt polemics of the 'Pius War,' Ventresca gives us a pope deserving of sympathy yet amenable to criticism. This tension is the signal contribution of the newest biography of Pius XII. Future biographies will come closer to 'the life' by providing a more integrated approach to the pope's strengths and weaknesses and a richer account of his papacy after 1945.
London Review of Books - Eamon Duffy
[A] welcome new biograph[y]...The detailed picture that emerges of Pacelli's diplomatic career and years as secretary of state brings a new depth to our understanding of this austere and complicated man. Studies of Pius have too often made cases for the prosecution or the defense, in which Pacelli features as a monster or a saint...[Soldier of Christ] provides a rounded and persuasive portrait of flawed greatness.
Kirkus Reviews
Another close scrutiny of the pope excoriated for his silence during World War II and no nearer to redemption. Ventresca (History/King's University Coll.; From Fascism to Democracy: Culture and Politics in the Italian Election of 1948, 2004, etc.) does a thorough job sifting through the evidence of the complicated life and papacy of Pius XII, while keeping an open mind to the conclusion. Was the condemnation of the wartime pope as uncaring and remote at a time when Jews and others were being exterminated across Europe really justified? Indeed, Ventresca's laborious examination of evidence makes for painful reading. Eugenio Pacelli was the first Roman chosen as pope in a good century: Hailing from the "black nobility," meaning, for generations his family had been employed by the Holy See and thus insiders, he was first appointed by Pius XI as his secretary of state, known for his probity and capacity for hard work. His early posts to Munich and Berlin put him at the center of shattering world events, and he developed certain biases that would influence his decisions during the rest of his life, namely his hatred of Bolshevism (and Jews were often viewed as indistinguishable from the revolutionary leaders). Moreover, during his influential time in Berlin, he took up key German advisers who would continually dissuade him from public denunciations of the government, while his 40-year household employment of the autocratic and frequently resented Mother Pascalina set an alarming tone. Cerebral, diplomatic and shortsighted, Pius XII simply could not overcome his habitual discretion and propriety in grasping the gravity of Nazi misery, all of which he was informed about early on. Ventresca's study damns him as a man mired in the conventions of his time. An authoritative study of a deeply flawed and tragic figure of history.

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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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