ROME – One year after an explosive new book reopened what have often been dubbed the “Pius Wars,” meaning debates over Pope Pius XII and his alleged “silence” on the Holocaust, the Vatican and Rome’s Jesuit-sponsored Gregorian University are staging a major international conference on recently released documents from Pius’ reign.
The conference, titled “New Documents from the Pontificate of Pope Pius XII and their Meaning for Jewish- Christian Relations,” will take place in Rome Oct. 9-11. Among its co-sponsors are the Vatican Archives as well as the Vatican’s Dicastery for Culture and Education and its Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, in tandem with the embassies to the Holy See of both Israel and the United States and the U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues.
According to materials released July 12 by the Gregorian and published by Vatican News, the conference will focus not only on Pius XII’s role during the Holocaust, but more broadly on Catholic-Jewish relations “at multiple levels,” with both historians and theologians taking part.
Among other things, the conference will examine whatever the recently released documents may reveal about the historical movements that helped to shape the 1965 declaration of the Second Vatican Council Nostra Aetate, which condemned anti-Semitism and is credited for ushering in a new era in Catholic-Jewish ties.
Organizers did not release details of who will take part in the event or what topics will be covered, saying more information will be provided in September.
The background to the conference focuses squarely on Pius XII, whose sainthood cause long has been delayed amid controversies over his conduct during the war years.
In March 2020, Pope Francis ordered an estimated 16 million pages of documents from Pius’s papacy, which ran from 1939 to 1958 and therefore spanned the years of the Second World War, to be opened to researchers.
Based in part on this new material, historian David Kertzer of Brown University, considered perhaps America’s foremost expert on 19th and 20th century Italy, published The Pope at War, in which, among other things, Kertzer claimed to have discovered previously unknown negotiations between Adolf Hitler and Pius XII shortly after the pontiff’s election in 1939.
Those exchanges, Kertzer argued, foreshadowed a general pattern under Pius XII of avoiding any public condemnation of Hitler or the Nazis in exchange for preserving the institutional interests of the Vatican and the Catholic Church in Nazi-dominated territories.
More generally, Kertzer’s book contended that while it’s true, as Pius’s defenders have often insisted, that behind the scenes the pontiff worked to save Jewish lives, in general those efforts were directed mostly at Jews who had converted to Catholicism or who were born into Catholic-Jewish mixed marriages.
Among other examples of Pius’s caution, Kertzer cited the failure of the Vatican to react more aggressively to the Oct. 16, 1943, round-up of Rome’s Jews by Nazi occupiers.
The Vatican reacted testily to those claims, with L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, carrying a critical essay by Matteo Luigi Napolitano, a historian and expert in international relations at the University of Molise in Italy.
Napolitano accused Kertzer of exaggerating the significance of his alleged “discovery” about the 1939 contacts between Pius XII and Nazi authorities, saying references to the exchanges were carried in routine diplomatic correspondence at the time and thus weren’t really secret. They concerned a fairly technical legal question, Napolitano said, of whether the terms of a 1933 concordat between the church and the German government could be extended to Nazi-occupied territories such as the then-Czechoslovakia and Austria.
In any event, Napolitano concluded, the negotiations broke down because Hitler sought concessions on religious freedom in the occupied territories which Pius XII was unwilling to grant.
As far the 1943 expulsion of Rome’s Jews, Napolitano accused Kertzer of getting his facts wrong. In the book, Kertzer had written that Pius XII received the American envoy to the Vatican three days after the round-up without saying anything about it, suggesting a lack of concern. In fact, Napolitano claimed, that meeting took place two days before the round-up.
Perhaps not coincidentally, around the same time Kertzer’s book appeared the Vatican also released a digitized version of at least some of the documents made available to researchers in 2020. That collection opened with a case in which a Jewish refugee in Spain had appealed to Pope Pius for help in exiting a concentration camp, and who eventually reached the United States to join his mother and went on to a career as a chemist.
At the time, some observers suggested that the Vatican was being unusually aggressive in pushing back against criticism of Pius XII in part because of parallels with blowback Pope Francis was facing at the time over his approach to the war in Ukraine – attempting to maintain diplomatic neutrality, refraining from strong public condemnations of the aggressor (in this case, Russia), and preferring behind-the-scenes humanitarian initiatives.
By defending Pius, in other words, some observers believed the Vatican’s communications apparatus was also indirectly defending Francis.
Though the broad focus of the October conference suggests an effort to avoid getting bogged down entirely in the “Pius Wars,” it’s likely inevitable those tensions will surface. Observers will be paying careful attention to see what comes out of the session, including any hints regarding the logjam currently perceived as blocking the wartime pope’s path to a halo.