ROME – At a historic conference on newly opened Vatican archives related to Pope Pius XII, the Holy See’s top diplomat defended the late pontiff’s record on helping Jews while historians offered a more nuanced view, and Rome’s Chief Rabbi cautioned against morally defending anti-Jewish prejudice.

Speaking to conference attendees Oct. 9, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin condemned what he said are “cases of scientific dishonesty which become ‘historical manipulation’ when documents are negligently or deliberately concealed.”

To this end, he pointed to an official response of Pius XI’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, to the New York American Jewish Committee in 1916 and to Ashkenazi Jews in Jerusalem in 1919.

These documents, Parolin said, stated that “the Jews are our brethren” and “the Jewish people should be considered brethren as any other people of the world,” and were written with the aid of then-Monsignor Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII.

The texts, Parolin said, “portray a very different picture of the future Pope Pacelli from what is ‘generally known,’” suggesting the documents marked “a significant milestone in Catholic-Jewish relations” and assured Jews that he was someone they could turn to during the Nazi persecution of the Second World War.

“Thanks to the recent opening of the archives, it has become more evident that Pope Pius XII followed both the path of diplomacy and that of undercover resistance. This strategic decision wasn’t an apathetic inaction, but one that was extremely risky for everyone involved,” he said.

Parolin spoke at an Oct. 9-11 conference held at Rome’s Jesuit-run Gregorian University devoted to the papacy of Pius XII, whose actions regarding the Jewish community during the Holocaust have long been a source of debate among historians and research scholars.

Pius XII has been criticized for never publicly condemning the Holocaust, but defenders have praised the clandestine assistance the Church provided by sheltering Jews in its convents and monasteries, as well as the pontifical residence in Castel Gandolfo.

In 2020, Pope Francis opened the Vatican archives on the pontificate of Pope Pius XII to scholars and researchers in a bid to help set the record straight.

This week’s conference, titled, “New Documents from the Pontificate of Pope Pius XII and their Meaning for Jewish-Christian Relations: A Dialogue between Historians and Theologians,” features presentations from historians offering the findings of their initial research over the past three years.

The conference has drawn widespread interest due to the unprecedented high-level Catholic and Jewish organizers and sponsors, including the Holy See itself, Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust research institute, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the US and Israeli embassies to the Holy See and Italy’s Jewish community.

In addition to Parolin, Monday’s opening session was attended by Israeli Ambassador to the Holy See Raphael Schutz and the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni.

Despite Parolin’s firm defense of Pius XII, historians in attendance, including Vatican archivists, painted a slightly more nuanced picture, referencing newly found documents they said helped explain Pius XII’s fears in regards to speaking out coupled with the Vatican’s tradition of diplomatic neutrality, but which also revealed anti-Jewish prejudices within the Holy See which, the scholars said, helped inform Pius XII’s decisions.

Giovanni Coco, an official of the Vatican Apostolic Archives who recently uncovered evidence that Pius XII knew that Jews were being sent to death camps in 1942, said there’s “divided memory” on the legacy of Pius XII. To this end, he quoted a speech of the pontiff during a consistory of June 2, 1945, in which he said, “no one could accuse the Church of not having denounced the true face of National Socialism in a timely way.”

However, he also noted that Cardinal Raffaello Carlo Rossi in 1944 had written in a letter, “If we had condemned Nazism in time, maybe we would not find ourselves in the situation we are in today.”

Coco also described internal division over the way in which Jews were viewed within the Church during the Pius XII era, noting that even after the war, “in the Roman Curia anti-Jewish prejudice was diffuse.”

Most of the documents containing anti-Jewish sentiments quoted by researchers Monday involved Italian Cardinal Angelo Dell’Acqua, who served as an official within the Vatican’s Secretariat of State during the reign of Pius XII, and who in 1968 was named Vicar General of Rome.

David Kertzer, a Brown University anthropologist, cited several occasions in which Dell’Acqua advised Pius XII against a public condemnation of the killing of Jews in Europe or issuing a formal complaint with German authorities over the roundup of Italian Jews during the German occupation in 1943.

Kertzer said that even in the Vatican, a distinction was made between “Aryan Jews,” who were of mixed heritage, and “non-Aryan” Jews.

To this end, he cited a letter from Dell’Acqua on Nazi roundup of Jews in Trieste in which Dell’Acqua said, “an official intervention of the Holy See might confirm the Nazi leaders in the false idea” that the Vatican supported “the destruction of the German people.”

Pius XII’s reaction to the deportation of Italian Jews, Kertzer said, “can only be understood through his desire, in the months of occupation, to maintain amicable relations with the occupying forces,” not because he was in favor of killing Jews, which Pius XII “personally deplored,” but to avoid a further complication of the situation.

Nina Valbousquet, a research member of the Ecole Française de Rome working on Vatican diplomacy, Jewish refugees, and humanitarianism, said the new documents painted a “much more nuanced picture” of the Church’s involvement with Jews during the war, and that in France, the local Church’s actions were “more important than the nuncio.”

She noted that in 1942 five French bishops publicly protested the persecution of the Jews, but the bishops conference as a whole did not agree on how to handle the issue.

Valbousquet quoted a letter from Cardinal Valerio Valeri, who from 1936-1944 served as the Vatican’s nuncio to France, addressing the sheltering of Jewish children in a Catholic school.

In the November 1942 letter, addressed to Bishop Louis de Courrèges d’Ustou of Toulouse, Valeri said the school “will undoubtedly be able to do a lot of good for these poor unfortunate little children. You have undoubtedly done the right thing in taking in the Jewish children too.”

However, he cautioned that, “We must, however, be careful that their presence does not harm their classmates from a religious point of view.”

Massimo Faggioli, church historian and professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, told the conference that efforts to save Jews during the Second World War often “coexisted with paralysis, if not active collaboration with Nazi and Fascist anti-Semitic policies, by Catholics in the Holocaust.”

That contradiction, Faggioli said, was partly due to “an ecclesiology that did not elaborate on the duty to speak to power on behalf also of the Jews.”

After the Holocaust, Faggioli said, Catholic theology went through a period of self-examination that resulted in the Second Vatican Council’s rediscovery of “humanistic virtues of the respect of all human beings as such, of their rights, safety, dignity.”

Di Segni noted that while decades have passed since the Holocaust, the memory is still alive and elicits strong emotions, and he called this legacy “an open wound in the survivors and passed on to their descendants, in particular to those who live in this city.”

He noted that this month marks exactly 80 years since October 1943, when a train deporting Italian Jews arrived in Auschwitz and 800 people were sent to the gas chamber.

While much has changed in Jewish-Catholic relations, especially since the Second Vatican Council, Di Segni cautioned that “the Church was full of anti-Judaism rooted over the centuries,” and that Jewish suffering was “theologically justified” on grounds that “Jews had to pay for their primordial crime.”

“If we keep this context in mind, many things that would be inexplicable today find their place,” he said, saying, “an explanation of the dynamics is one thing, the moral justification is another.”

As historical research unfolds, Di Segni said, it’s important for Jews that “our painful feelings and memories are respected, and not offended by the sentences of other courts, acquittal and apologetic at all costs.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen