The Life and Pontificate of Pope Pius XII: Between History and Controversy

The Life and Pontificate of Pope Pius XII: Between History and Controversy

by Frank J. Coppa


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Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII, is one of the most studied but least understood popes of the twentieth century while his pontificate remains the most turbulent and controversial. Although there is a general consensus that he faced serious problems during his tenure—fascist aggression, the Second World War, the Nazi genocide of the Jews, the march of communism, and the Cold War—there is disagreement on his response to these developments. Applauded by some as an "apostle for peace" for his attempt to prevent the outbreak of war, he has been denounced by others as an "advocate of appeasement" for this same effort. Praised by both Christian and Jews for his "Crusade of Charity" during the war, he was denounced by many for his "silence" during the Holocaust. These conflicting interpretations, dubbed the Pius Wars, are often narrow in focus, lack objectivity, and have shed more heat than light.

Written by one of the foremost historians of Pius XII, the present biographical study, unlike the greater part of the vast and growing historiography of Pope Pius XII, is a balanced and nonreactive account of his life and times. Its focus is not on the pope's silence during the Holocaust, though it does address the issue in a historical and objective framework. This is a biography of the man as well as the pope. It probes the roots of his traditionalism and legalism, his approach to modernity and reformism in Church and society, and the influences behind his policies and actions.

This book is the first biography of Eugenio Pacelli to appear in English since the opening of the papers of the pontificate of Pius XI (1922-1939), in which Pacelli served as nuncio to Germany and secretary of state, along with the publication of the memories of figures close to Papa Pacelli.


Frank J. Coppa is the first recipient of the Lifetime Distinguished Scholarship Award of the American Catholic Historical Association and professor of history and the director of doctoral studies in modern world history at St. John's University. He has published widely in the areas of modern Europe, modern Italy, and papal history. His more recent works include The Papacy, the Jews, and the Holocaust; Politics and Papacy in the Modern World; The Policies and Politics of Pope Pius XII; Controversial Concordats: The Vatican's Relations with Napoleon, Mussolini, and Hitler; and the Encyclopedia of Modern Dictators.


"This book adds a great deal to what we currently know about this most written about pope. Frank Coppa introduces a number of principles which need to be discussed by experts and also by biographers of this pope, most importantly the concepts of papal impartiality and anti-Judaism as related to Pope Pius XII."—Charles R. Gallagher, S.J., assistant professor of history, Boston College

"This is a balanced and highly nuanced biography of Eugenio Pacelli that examines the whole life and times of the man. Frank Coppa has examined the considerable, publicly available, historical record on Pacelli, placed the war years and the Holocaust in the broader scope of Pius XII's life, and brought much needed attention to the oft-neglected pre-1939 and post-1945 years of this complex, enigmatic and intriguing man."—Paul O'Shea, co-director of the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Sydney

"These books approach the wartime pontiff with such a clear mastery of the arguments that both Pius's supporters and his denigrators will find it difficult in the future to expect any serious student to accept the hoary myths that have clouded or exalted that pontiff's reputation . . . Coppa opens both books with the statement that Pius is the most studied but least understood of modern pontiffs. His books will go a long way toward changing that perception." —The Catholic Historical Review

"A refreshingly balance

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780813220161
Publisher: Catholic University of America Press
Publication date: 02/04/2013
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 909,454
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Frank J. Coppa is the first recipient of the Lifetime Distinguished Scholarship Award of the American Catholic Historical Association and professor of history and the director of doctoral studies in modern world history at St. John’s University. He has published widely in the areas of modern Europe, modern Italy, and papal history. His more recent works include The Papacy, the Jews, and the Holocaust; Politics and Papacy in the Modern World; The Policies and Politics of Pope Pius XII; Controversial Concordats: The Vatican’s Relations with Napoleon, Mussolini, and Hitler; and the Encyclopedia of Modern Dictators.

Read an Excerpt

The Life & Pontificate of POPE PIUS XII


By Frank J. Coppa

The Catholic University of America Press

Copyright © 2013The Catholic University of America Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8132-2015-4



The Pacelli Family


* * *

In the order of nature, among social institutions there is none higher than the family. Christ elevated marriage, which is, as it were, its root, to the dignity of a sacrament. The family has found and will always find in the Church defense, protection, and support, in all that concerns its inviolable rights, its freedom, the exercise of its lofty function.

Over the centuries church and society have often disagreed on various issues and the importance of particular institutions, but have almost always concurred on the crucial role of family in the physical, psychological, social, and religious formation of individuals. "We are not born as the partridge in the wood ... to be scattered everywhere," wrote the American clergyman Henry Ward Beecher, adding that human beings should be grouped together and "reared day by day in that first of churches, the family." He like others recognized that character and personality are largely shaped by the interaction of genetic and environmental considerations, and the family plays a key role in the emergence of both. Despite its profound influence in character development, this crucial aspect has been largely ignored by those examining the life and pontificate of Eugenio Pacelli, who in early March 1939, on his sixty-third birthday, became Pope Pius XII.

In fact, most of the writers embroiled in the "Pius War," from the appearance of Hochhuth's play in 1963 to the present, have neglected the impact of both Eugenio's family and his formative childhood years on his life and career. Paul O' Shea, author of A Cross Too Heavy, and John Cornwell, who wrote Hitler's Pope, both of whom have devoted a chapter to the Pacelli family in their volumes, are more of an exception than the rule.2 For the most part "combatants" in the Pius controversy not only overlook his family but tend to ignore his educational background, initial diplomatic activity, his decade of service as nuncio in Germany, and his years as the secretary of state of Pope Pius XI— all vital for an understanding of the man who became pope and the policies he would pursue once he donned the tiara. Both man and pope were long in the making.

Nonetheless, much of the literature and historiography on Pacelli dwells primarily on his papacy. Indeed, a number of writers have narrowed their scope even further. Saul Friedländer, for example, begins his study with the election of Pacelli as pope in March 1939 and ends his work in September 1944. Others bypass even more aspects of Pius XII 's papal tenure (1939–1958) to focus on his "silence" during the Holocaust, not realizing that this and other aspects of his pontificate cannot be fully understood in isolation, outside the broader context of his life and times. Small wonder that these narrow and restricted accounts have been compared to a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces, rendering difficult, if not impossible, an objective and coherent biography of Pius XII.

Some blame the introspective, private, and taciturn Eugenio for the shortcomings in much of the historiography of his life and career, citing his failure to say or write much about himself and for revealing precious little about his personal feelings, inner convictions, and intellectual and religious development. It is true that over the years the inner-directed Eugenio, who from an early age was a loner, did not provide much information on his childhood, which he regarded as a personal matter. Indeed, even when on the verge of death Pius XII ordered his staff to burn those papers he had not reexamined. He was equally protective of his public and private lives, clearly reflected in the notes he took during his meetings with Pius XI. Whether one judges his family's influence as positive or negative, or most influential religiously, politically, culturally, economically, or socially, his numerous relatives clearly played a crucial role in Eugenio's formation, career, and future actions. His traditional and strict Catholic family therefore warrants greater study than it has hitherto received.

Although the Pacelli family's political, religious, and legal roles in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been explored, some things are not known about the early origins of the family. Its presence is first recorded in Onano, a little town— some would say a village—of some three thousand in the northern province of Lazio, near Viterbo, on the border with Tuscany. Today its population is even smaller, numbering just over one thousand. While the family lived there, some fifty miles north of Rome, the paternal family surname already had been changed from Pacella to Pacelli in the seventeenth century—but it is not precisely known when and why this had occurred. We do know that the earliest accounts of the family relate their political traditionalism, deep religious devotion, staunch loyalty and service to the papacy, and their support for both its political and religious rights.

We also know that the standing of the family was enhanced in January 1774 when Maria Domenica Pacelli married Francesco Caterini, son of another prominent Catholic family from the Onano area. Six children resulted from this marriage, the youngest of whom was Prospero Caterini (1795–1881), who would have an important impact on the life and career of Marcantonio Parcelli, who in turn influenced his son Filippo and his grandson Eugenio. The intermarriage and "alliance" between these two families, devoted to the papacy and the papal state, continued. At the turn of the eighteenth century Maria Domenica's brother Gaetano Pacelli married Maria Antonia Caterini, sister of Francesco. Six children also resulted from their marriage.

Their second son Marcantonio (1800–1902), a name in the papal state generally borne by the nobility, and some believe reflective of the family's high aims and great ambitions, was the future pope's grandfather. Born during the Napoleonic Age, his career was advanced by a number of ecclesiastics, establishing a precedent that would be followed by most of his descendants, down to Eugenio and his nephews. Marcantonio's first cousin Monsignor Prospero Caterini, who became Cardinal Caterini in 1853, acted as the entire family's protector and patron. Almost all the biographers of Pius XII mistakenly refer to Prospero as Marcantonio's uncle. He was not. Since Prospero was the son of a Caterini male who married a Pacelli female, while Marcantonio was the son of a Pacelli, who was brother to the female who married the Caterini male that produced Prospero, the two were first cousins.

Prospero found personal fulfillment and a religious vocation in Rome. However, he missed his extended family which remained in Onano and sought to persuade its more adventurous and ambitious members to join him in the capital. To persuade them to venture to Rome, he pointed out the many educational and employment opportunities available there. He noted that to govern and minister to the millions of his subjects and faithful, the pope required a host of collaborators and assistants—both lay and clerical. This need, together with the vast array of schools and institutes that provided training for potential candidates to serve Church and state, offered prospects simply not available in the small and largely rural Onano.

Prospero's invitation was all the more attractive because it was accompanied by an offer of assistance and guidance both in education and employment to those family members who joined him in Rome. In 1819, Marcantonio and his older brother Giuseppe Pacelli, excited and enticed by the promises and prospects dangled before them, accepted Prospero's suggestion that they transfer to

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Table of Contents


Abbreviations....................     ix     

Introduction....................     xi     

1. The Pacelli Family: A Counter-Risorgimento Clan in a National Age.......     1     

2. The Child Is Father of the Man....................     23     

3. The Making of a Diplomat....................     47     

4. I n Germany, 1917–1929....................     74     

5. Secretary of State to Pius XI, 1930–1939....................     101     

6. Confronting the Second World War....................     124     

7. The "Silence" during the Holocaust....................     152     

8. On Palestine and Israel....................     174     

9. The Cold War: Pius XII Finds His Voice....................     199     

10. Traditionalism and Modernity....................     221     

Conclusion....................     245     

List of Encyclicals of Pope Pius XII....................     265     

Bibliography....................     267     

Index....................     301     

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