Opening archives won’t settle debate over Pius XII and the Holocaust


Whatever else Pope Francis’s decision Monday to open the archives from the pontificate of Pius XII in 2020 may mean, there’s one preliminary conclusion that seems take-it-to-the-bank, no-doubt-about-it, slam-dunk certain.

Here it is: Opening the archives will not – indeed, by definition, cannot – settle the historical controversy about Pius XII and his alleged silence during the Holocaust.

That’s because the debate is counter-factual, pivoting not on what Pius did or didn’t do, but rather what he should have done.

  • Should Pius XII have publicly denounced Hitler?
  • Should he have threatened to excommunicate anyone involved in the mechanism of the Holocaust?
  • Should he have pressured the Allies to liberate Nazi extermination camps earlier?
  • Should he have offered himself in ransom for German prisoners in Rome after the 1943 occupation of the city, or come up with some other dramatic gesture to register disapproval?

Answers to those questions involve subjective judgments about what would have produced the best results in a complicated set of circumstances – whether fortune would have favored the bold, or discretion was the better part of valor – and, alas, there’s no “smoking gun” in anyone’s archives that will provide conclusive resolution one way or the other.

Moreover, the debate over Pius XII is also a moral one, and as anyone who’s ever taken moral philosophy or basic logic knows, one cannot deduce an “ought” from an “is.”

You can pile up all the historical facts you like, but in themselves they won’t tell you what Pius or anyone else ought to have done.

By now, the basic data points about Pius XII and the Holocaust are wearily familiar to anyone who’s followed the back-and-forth since 1963, when Rolf Hochhuth published his play “The Deputy” and thereby launched the accusation that the pontiff was complicit, at least through his silence, in the mass extermination of Jews.

Prior to that point, it’s well-established that Pius XII enjoyed broad admiration for his leadership during the war years, including within the Jewish community. Continue reading

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