Opinion: An important step

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https://www.dw.com-The opening of the Vatican’s archives from the era of Pope Pius XII is attracting worldwide attention. It is as much in the interest of the Catholic Church as of historians and researchers, says DW’s Christoph Strack.

Monday, March 2, 2020, was a very special day for researchers: They gained access to the Vatican’s archives on the pontificate of Pope Pius XII (1939-1958).

Pius XII was the head of the Catholic Church when WWII broke out and when Nazi Germany carried out the systematic genocide of Jews. Some people see him as a saintly pope because he — indisputably — helped rescue many Jews in Rome. Others regard him as a pope who failed because he — again, indisputably —hardly ever spoke out regarding the mass murder of the Jews. Why did he remain silent before 1945; why did he remain silent about the Holocaust after 1945? These questions are serious, and they are painful. Ever since Rolf Hochhuth addressed and criticized this pope’s attitude toward the mass killing of the Jews in his 1963 play “The Deputy” — a “Christian tragedy” — the charge that Pius XII kept quiet when he shouldn’t have has stuck.

And this silence came despite the fact that Eugenio Pacelli, who was elected pope just six months before the beginning of the Second World War, spoke fluent German: From 1917 to 1929, he represented the Vatican as an apostolic nuncio in the German Empire and then the Weimar Republic.

Presiding over turbulent times

Today, however, the focus is not just on what Pius XII knew about the murder of the Jews, and how his behavior can be explained, nor on whether senior Curia staff members helped former Nazi bigwigs go underground, especially in South America: Even the term used for the escape routes, “ratlines,” says it all.

The 19 years of Pius XII’s pontificate were in many ways an extremely exciting phase in world politics. Totalitarianism in West and East, fascism and Bolshevism, the emergence of the United Nations, the emergence of Europe as a political community, the founding of the State of Israel (which the Vatican did not recognize until 1994) in 1948, the growing awareness of democracy, the attitude towards weapons of mass destruction and so on and so forth. During this pontificate, the commonalities and the antagonisms between the Catholic Church and modernity also came to a head.

It is thus necessary and also quite courageous of the Vatican to release the documents.  They concern the question of guilt and responsibility toward the Jews, and also major issues that have lost none of their urgency in fundamental church debates today.

Saint or not?

 Pope Francis decided last year on a premature release of the files, which were originally meant to stay hidden away until October 2028, the 70th anniversary of the death of Pius XII. Benedict XVI (2005-2013) had already opened some documents to public scrutiny. The Vatican wants clarification, and perhaps it also wants to make its peace with this issue. The opening of the archives, which is attracting worldwide attention, may appear on the outside like a service to research but it is certainly also motivated by the Church’s healthy self-interest in being more open and honest for its own sake.

Another issue is the process of Pius XII’s beatification,  which began as far back as 1965 and is advanced but not complete. It is difficult to make a case for such a controversial leader of the Catholic Church to be held up a shining example. The beatified and the saints during his papacy died in camps and at places of execution. The rampant papal practice over the past 150 years of canonizing various predecessors is fundamentally questionable. It would not diminish the historical significance of Pius XII, this pope of transition, if he were spared beatification.

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