The report is available online, and deserves close reading. The questions asked are valid and well thought out. A comprehensive list of footnotes follows the text with references to Acts and Documents.
Articles on the Commission's work have generally focused on the perceived reasons for its "failure" rather than the opportunity to explore in detail the issues raised in the questions. Dimitri Cavalli's article in the New Oxford Review and published in EWTN's archive source is one such example. Carping on the ability or lack thereof among the scholar's command of Italian becomes churlish when one looks at the academic credentials of each individual. And the commission was provided with translators. Although Cavalli leans towards exonerating Pius, he does, at least, recognise the need for more study.
I wrote a final chapter in my PhD on the work of the commission which was not included in A Cross Too Heavy. At the risk of wearing the reader, I present the unpublished chapter. The writing was completed in 2003, just over a year before the death of Pope John Paul II. I crave the reader's indulgence for the use of the present tense when writing of the Pope.
In 1998, Pope John Paul II authorised the publication of We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah. This document was timed for release shortly before Passover and Easter. It was the first Vatican statement which addressed the Holocaust by name. The Pope’s intention was to “help to heal the wounds of past misunderstandings and injustices.” (We Remember Introduction)
No other pope in Catholic history has done as much as John Paul to build bridges between Catholicism and Judaism. His visit to Auschwitz in 1979 was as much an act of homage to the Jews who died there as it was a commemoration of the Christians who also perished. In 1986, he made a very public visit to the Rome Synagogue; the first pope to ever visit the oldest schule in Western Europe, describing the Jews as the “beloved elder brothers” of Christians. What drove the Polish-born Pontiff to order We Remember came directly from his own wartime experiences of Nazism and the “Final Solution”. The document did not resolve the questions surrounding Pius XII. In fact, the questions appeared to have been made more complex.
The chief points of contention lay in the distinction made between Christian anti-Judaism and antisemitism and the comments on the wartime role of Pius XII. While the document recognised the failure of individual Christians, it did not acknowledge or suggest a failure on the part of the teaching authority of the Church. “Despite the Christian preaching of love for all, even for one’s enemies, the prevailing mentality down the centuries penalized minorities and those who were in any way ‘different.’” (We Remember 3) The blame for antisemitism was pushed away from the Magesterium. In fact, the language of this part of the document was dangerously close to echoing the bald and historically insupportable generalised claim made by one of Pacelli’s earlier biographers: “The Church has always come to the defense of the Jews in the past when they were persecuted". (Joseph Dinnen 1939, Pius XII: Pope of Peace, p 196)
Of greater concern was the assertion that followed the distinction made above. Not only were anti-Judaism and antisemitism two different ideologies; the later did not draw from the former. The document stated:
The Shoah was the work of a thoroughly modern neo-pagan regime. Its antisemitism had its roots outside Christianity and, in pursuing its aims, it did not hesitate to oppose the Church and persecute her members also. (We Remember 4)
On this point there has been loud and vigorous argument. It is a statement that does not bear the weight of historical evidence and makes the tenor of the whole document weaker. In fact this statement is what I call a type of “Catholic denialism”, an unwillingness to “own” the truth about the Church’s role during the Holocaust. The historical data proves beyond reasonable doubt that such a distinction is as impossible as it is false. Much of Nazism grew in the fertile soil of traditional Christian antisemitism and anti-Judaism.
Partly out of response to the criticism launched by We Remember, the Vatican announced a new historical commission in late 1999 to re-examine the twelve volumes of Actes et Documents. Actes et Documents du Saint-Siège relatifs à la Seconde Guerre mondiale came into being as a direct result of Hocchuth’s play The Deputy and the growth of academic and religious unrest over the role of Pius XII during the Holocaust. Pope Paul VI ordered a team of Vatican appointed scholars to sift through the documents of the Secretariat of State and collate evidence to show that charges of papal inaction were untrue. The work lasted from 1965 until 1981. The volumes are an impressive undertaking and do show the Church’s highest officials, among whom was Giovanni Battista Montini – the future Paul VI – active in work to alleviate the plight of many different victim groups. Curiously, there appeared to be some serious gaps in the records. This was a point the Commission was to note in 2000.
The International Catholic Jewish Historical Commission (ICJHC) was made up equally of Catholic and Jewish historians. Catholic members were Eva Fleischner, Gerald Fogarty and John Morley, from the United States. The Jewish members were Belgian Bernard Suchecky, Israeli Robert Wistrich and Canadian Michael Marrus.
In October 2000, the commission presented a preliminary report. The commission raised 47 questions concerning Pius, drawn from a study of Actes et Documents. Cardinal Walter Kasper, secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, commented in June 2001 that the Commission had not achieved what it set out to do, and that a second attempt needed to be made. (Cf Inside the Vatican June 2001) Rather than bring an air of academic harmony over Pius, the exact opposite happened. The questions still remained unanswered. Historians hoped that John Paul would accept the report and allow greater access to the Vatican archives and personal papers of Pius – if they exist.
A lengthy introduction was necessary in order to place the International Commission within its context. The mandate of ICJHC was limited only to the published Actes et Documents (1965-1981). When pressed on whether the commission would have access to unpublished material, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, the then president of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, answered “absolutely no.” (Cf The Tablet (London) 30.11.1999) (This, of itself, was not surprising. The announcement of the limited opening of the ASV Germany files was not made until February 2003)
Members of the Commission undertook the reading and researching of the published texts. However, eleven months into their investigation it was clear that the published record was inadequate. There is evidence to suggest that members of the panel were becoming increasingly frustrated by Vatican intransigence over access to archives. On 25 October 2000, the Paris daily Le Monde published an article claiming the ICJHC had reached the conclusion that Pius XII did not speak out clearly in defence of the Jews of Europe. Seeking to avoid a direct “showdown” with Rome, the ICJHC called a press meeting the following day to present its Preliminary Report and the accompanying list of 47 questions drawn from the Actes et Documents. Both Commission and Vatican officials expressed positive sentiments that the material studied would help shed light on Pacelli’s role. For the moment, things seemed to be back on course.
Central to the ICJHC’s critique of the published documents was the inadequacy of relying on them alone. In its article on the presentation of the Preliminary Report The Tablet remarked:
Not everyone was happy with the press conference. Jesuit priest Peter Gumpel, the postulator, or official promoter of the beatification, of Pius XII, declared the conduct of the ICJHC as “disloyal to the Holy See, academically unacceptable and incorrect.” (Zenit 27.10.2000) Gumpel went on to ask if the ICJHC was intent on defaming the memory of Pius XII. Emphasising the preliminary nature of the report, Gumpel said it would have to be studied carefully by Vatican historians. What irked the German-born Jesuit was the release of the report on the internet and to the press. “With what right have they circulated the Preliminary Report, which includes harsh accusations against Pius XII and the Church, without having even heard the answers to the questions posed?” (Zenit, ibid.)
No serious historian’ could accept that the published, edited volumes were the last word on the matter … Absent from these volumes, the report says, are day-to-day records and internal communications – diaries, memoranda, briefing notes, appointment books and minutes of meetings – that would establish how Pius and members of his curia reached their decisions. (Tablet 04.11.2000)
... this initiative which was intended to improve relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community, has failed, and this is the direct responsibility of those who, contravening the most elementary academic and human norms, have made themselves culpable of irresponsible behaviour. (Zenit 26.07.2001)
Vatican prevarication only served to foster the sense that there is something to hide, a fear Kapser appeared anxious to avoid. At the end of August, in a gesture that could be interpreted as conciliatory, the Cardinal announced Rome’s intention of speeding up the classification of some three million pages of war time documentation. Referring to the breakdown between the ICJHC and the Vatican, Kasper commented that the central issue was not access to documents, but the wording of the final report. This clearly contradicted the formal statement of the commission itself. (Zenit 29.08.2001)
Where does the historian go from here? At present, the only way forward is the continued combing through archival material from a wide range of sources. Vatican letters, statements, opinions and directives were written and received all over Europe through the Nazi era. Copies exist in diocesan archives, in the provincial houses of different religious orders and in private collections. There is sufficient material drawn from diplomatic records, public archive sources and newspapers to allow the historian a fairly comprehensive picture of Pope Pius’ role during the war years. Susan Zuccotti’s Beneath his Windows, examining the pope’s role during the persecution of Italy’s Jews, is an excellent example of research that works well without Vatican input.
I believe the stumbling block in all of this is the fading world view held by men such as Peter Gumpel. He sincerely believes that Pius was a good and holy man, worthy of the “honours of the altar”, a statement he expressed to me earlier in 2001. And he is not alone in thinking this way. At the same time Fr Gumpel wrote to me, the Vatican was preparing to canonise the controversial founder of Opus Dei, Monsignor José Maria Escriva, a supporter of Francisco Franco. Escriva’s spirituality owed much to the vigorous Catholic, antisemitic fascism of the Generalissimo.
"The world” does not understand what moves the actions of great men such as Pius XII. While we may not appreciate or understand the reasons behind action or non-action, we must always believe that they acted from the purest of motives, in obedience to their conscience and God. To question the action or inaction of Pope Pius XII is tantamount to questioning the action of the Church. The syllogism closes with the logical conclusion – since the pope is Christ’s vicar on earth, he acts as Christ. And while he may be infallible in matters of faith and morals only, his pattern of life suggests a surety of God’s direction that should not be questioned by those who do not understand and who do not share the Catholic faith as shared in the halls of the Vatican. The dispute over the commission could have more to do with the preservation of an historical illusion over papal power and prestige than with discovering the truth of Pacelli’s role during the war.
The great disappointment for men like Gumpel is the encroaching daily reality that their worldview is dying. Most Catholics no longer accept this view of papal authority. Indeed, most intelligent and critically aware Catholics question the secrecy that surrounds much of the day to day running of the Vatican, and find it increasingly out of step with the modern world. Only with an open, honest and frank dialogue with all the material available can historians, regardless of faith background, hope to complete the work begun by the ICJHC. Pope Leo XIII opened the Vatican archives in 1893 with the statement: “The Church has nothing to fear from the truth.” It remains to his successors to put that into practice.
Several days after I completed this segment, the Vatican announced it was opening the Secret Archives relating to Germany up to 1939. Announcing the Pope’s decision on 15 February 2002, the Vatican Press Office, said that John Paul wanted to open the archives for historians and end “unjust and disagreeable speculations” over the role of his predecessor. (Zenit 15.02.2002) While public opinion has not generally been a motivator in Vatican policy-making processes, it is, perhaps, significant that consistent criticism from both Catholic and Jewish scholars along with a growing sense of unease among many “ordinary” Christians and Jews, has been instrumental in forcing a change. Historians are now waiting expectantly for the new material to emerge from the archives. I doubt very much if a “smoking gun” will be found, but I am convinced that information that will help scholars understand the inner workings of the Vatican during the Holocaust will be found. For this reason, if for no other, the work of the ICJHC can be judged to have been successful.
Father Gumpel’s next comment is telling for its subtext. “I wonder why they have done this. Did they wish to influence public opinion against Pius XII and the Church? This has happened precisely when we Catholics are making all kinds of efforts to improve relations with the Jewish world.” Suspicions that a Jewish plot lurked near the surface of the ICJHC were all but named by Gumpel in July 2001. Some, “not all”, Jewish members of the ICJHC “publicly spread the suspicion that the Holy See was trying to conceal documents that, in its judgement, would have been compromising.” (Zenit 02.07.2001) Gumpel’s evident distrust of the Jewish historians, which pre-date the work of the Commission, appears to point towards a presupposition that they would be prejudiced against Pacelli. At no point has Gumpel asked whether this is so, or why such a prejudice could be possible. At the very least, it displays an unwillingness to address the central issue – access to archives and unsorted documents, and the possibility there might be more to learn about the war-time pope.
The newly appointed president of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, Cardinal Walter Kapser, requested a final presentation from the commission on 21 June 2001. A month later the commission replied that “without a positive response to our respectful request” to study the unpublished material in the archives, the ICJHC’s conclusions would be invalid. Therefore, on 20 July, the commission suspended its work. The commission’s letter was later published by the World Jewish Congress and summarised by the BBC. Father Gumpel left no doubt as to where the blame lay for the collapse of the research: