Pope Pius XII occupies the center of one of the great historical (and historiographical) controversies of our time. His relationship to the fascist regimes and his conduct during the Holocaust remain the subjects of ongoing, well-reasoned, and often painful arguments. In The Pope’s Dilemma: Pius XII Faces Atrocities and Genocide in the Second World War, Jacques Kornberg carefully and with an admirably even hand traces many of the polemics surrounding the pontiff. “Why,” he asks, “was the pope unable to deal with radical evil?” (3). Much of the problem, as Kornberg sees it, regards the relationship between Pius’s spiritual and political concerns. Kornberg describes Pius as a “three-dimensional, deeply spiritual and morally anguished” figure whose “moral failure” was the result of a “calculated acquiescence”; but he was not “an accomplice to the policies he deplored” (4, 8–9). After decades of study and debate, few serious observers today would charge Pius with pettiness, cowardliness, or malice, although Kornberg carefully illustrates how, starting in the 1960s, polemical detractors did just that, turning the pontiff into a cruel caricature and opening the way for many, even ad hominem, attacks on him. The first chapter of The Pope’s Dilemma deals with the “demolition” of his reputation by Rolf Hochhuth’s ugly and deeply flawed 1963 play The Deputy. To make matters worse, the controversy hit during a particularly “feel-good” time in the Church, with the wildly popular pontificate of John XXIII and the progressive optimism of the Second Vatican Council—developments that, Kornberg observes, would inevitably cause Pius’s name to “sink like a stone” (35). Kornberg asks why, in response to these first assaults, Catholic defense of Pius was so loud and determined. After all, notorious figures like Alexander VI never enjoyed that kind of determined support. Rather, modern Catholicism, Kornberg offers, centers on the pope in a way that the Renaissance faith never did. Pius XII represented—almost embodied—Catholicism, a situation that made criticism of him sting more broadly. Whereas Alexander caused embarrassment, the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century flock moved on more easily than could their late-twentieth-century descendants. Kornberg then turns to the scholars, beginning with treatments of the infamous 1933 German Concordat that the Holy See’s representative, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (who became Pope Pius XII in 1939), reached with envoys of Adolf Hitler. Before Hochhuth’s play, in fact, Karl Dietrich Bracher launched the Pius debate in 1956 when he testified to the German Federal Constitutional Court on Vatican “treachery” during the Concordat negotiations, a cause then taken up and expanded on by Klaus Scholder (48–49). For the other camp, by the late 1960s Konrad Repgen emerged as Pacelli’s greatest German scholarly defender. Kornberg concludes that Scholder presented the weaker case, for he attributed too much weight to Vatican influence, and Kornberg also reminds the reader that plenty of democratic states collapsed before enemies. For that, Germany did not need the Vatican. Kornberg shifts to 1939 and World War II, when Pacelli, as Pope Pius XII, made decisions that still haunt the memory of him. In examinations of relations between the Holy See and the collaborationist regimes, Kornberg returns to the point on leadership and support. How much, in other words, could Pius accomplish? How much obedience could he expect from the clergy and the faithful? Every situation provides a different answer. In Slovakia, the pontiff seemed unable to deal with President-Monsignor Jozef Tiso, timidly following signs from the local bishops, while in Croatia, Pius and the fascist leader Ante Pavelić, Kornberg states, “needed each other” (87). By contrast, Pius’s nuncio to Hungary, Angelo Rotta, stands as “a rare hero among those in the service of the Holy See” (130). Pius’s “uncharacteristic relentlessness” in insisting that Rome be saved from bombing, something that endeared him to the local population, adds to the complexity (326 n. 51). Why did he not stand up for Rotterdam or Coventry or Warsaw—or, for that matter, for Dresden? Kornberg shows that Pius’s concern for the salvation of souls was his highest priority, a motivation that placed him squarely in the tradition of his predecessors while at the same time leaving him incapable of acting with determination when the world desperately needed his guidance. The tragedy of Pius’s life was that he made it one. He built his own prison, certain that impartiality in the fight between Allies and Nazis was “the role God had assigned him,” and that led to a “standard of moral equivalence to all belligerents and their deeds” (265). The pope knew this, and thus, “religion trumped civic and political morality” (266). Information still kept under lock and key will someday add to our understanding of Pius XII; for now, Jacques Kornberg’s The Pope’s Dilemma offers some provocative and (thankfully) very readable answers. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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