On Monday, 80 years after Pius XII’s election to the papacy, Pope Francis announced that the archives of the controversial wartime pontiff would be opened to scholars next March. The decision follows more than half a century of pressure. Pius XII—a hero of Catholic conservatives, who eagerly await his canonization as a saint, while denounced by his detractors for failing to condemn the Nazis’ genocidal campaign against Europe’s Jews—might well be the most controversial pope in Church history.
Less noticed in initial accounts of the announcement is the fact that Francis’s opening of the Pius XII archives makes available not only the 17 million pages of documents in the central Vatican archives, but many other materials in other Church archives. Not least of these are the archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition) and the central archives of the Jesuit order. They, too, are likely to have much that is new to tell us.
Demands that the Vatican open its archives for the war years began to be heard in 1963, following the premiere in Germany of Rolf Hochhuth’s play, The Deputy. It portrayed a coldhearted Pius XII spurning all pleas to condemn the slaughter of the Jews, concerned only with protecting the institutional interests of the Church. In an effort to respond to the critics, the Holy See commissioned four Jesuits to plow through the archives and publish a selection of documents shedding light on the controversy. The result, over a 16-year period beginning in 1965, was 12 thick volumes containing thousands of documents. Although skeptics suspected the Jesuit editors of selecting out documents unflattering to the Church, the volumes are far from a simple whitewash of this troubled history. To give one example, they show that following Mussolini’s overthrow in 1943, the pope’s Jesuit emissary urgently sought out the new government’s justice minister. His plea: While the Vatican thought that the anti-Semitic racial laws the fascist government had enacted several years earlier had many good qualities and so should be retained, the government should no longer subject baptized Jews to their draconian provisions.