Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Robert Ventresca on access to the war archives

The Vatican and the Holocaust: waiting for the critical documents.

Robert Ventresca's latest article taken from the National Post (Canada) on current research into Pius XII is both scholarly and timely.

For 40 years now the Vatican consistently has demonstrated initiative in the field of Catholic-Jewish relations. Every Pope since John XXIII has shown foresight in promoting mutual understanding and dialogue between Catholics and Jews. With the publication of the second volume of his book on the life of Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict XVI continues in this tradition by affirming, among other things, that Jewish-Christian relations over the centuries has been marred by “misunderstandings” which have “weighed down our history.”


Chief among these deeply consequential misunderstandings has been the stubborn myth that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus. In a stimulating review of the Pope’s new book, Geza Vermes, a distinguished professor of Jewish studies at Oxford, rightly applauds Benedict’s “courage for a Christian leader of his disposition” in conceding that parts of the gospel account of Jewish responsibility for the death of Christ should not to be taken as “historical fact.”

In a similar vein, Benedict XVI could make history if he were to take another courageous move to accelerate the opening of the Vatican’s wartime archives. In doing so, the Pope would help to pave the way for a full and proper historical assessment of the Vatican’s response to the Holocaust.


For all of the strides made since the 1960s in Jewish-Catholic relations, open questions over the Vatican’s role during the Second World War, especially its response to Nazi persecution of Jews, remain an obvious source of misunderstanding — exacerbated unnecessarily by the sluggish pace to fulfill the promise to make access to the wartime archives a priority.


The extent to which the archives issue remains a real sore spot was evident at a recent international gathering in Paris, convened to celebrate 40 years of constructive Jewish-Catholic dialogue, when the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reiterated its call for the Vatican to work with qualified scholars and institutions to facilitate immediate access to all the unpublished files of the Vatican’s wartime archives.


Particularly troubling for the ADL, and for a dedicated contingent of eager historians around the world, is the absence of a consistent, concrete timetable for open access. At one time, there were widespread expectations that the records would be catalogued and open to researchers by 2011-2012. In 2010, though, Bishop Sergio Pagano, the Prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives, tempered these hopes by pointing out that the “technical preparation” of some 16 million documents from Pius XII’s 19-year long pontificate will not be completed until 2015 at the earliest. Even then, the reigning Pope will have to make a final decision on when to make these records available to researchers.


Patience may well be a virtue but, as the ADL’s Rabbi Eric Greenberg suggested in Paris recently, for Holocaust survivors and their families, the time to act is now.


There is a simple but compelling logic to Rabbi Greenberg’s point that what is at stake here is “truth and historical accuracy.” Greenberg reasons that opening the archives now would have profound symbolic meaning for aging survivors and their families, whatever the documentation were to show.


Vatican officials have long maintained that open access to the documentation from Pius XII’s pontificate, including the war years, is not yet feasible on a technicality. The concerns are eminently reasonable. For instance, it is clear that the task of cataloguing such a vast, complex collection has strained the material limits of existing resources. Those of us who have worked in the Vatican archives know well the breadth, depth and complexity of the collections. We know too how support systems are being strained by the increased demand for access to this unique repository of precious documentation.

Where there is the proverbial will, of course, there is a way.

Successive Popes have proved as much through a series of authoritative moves. The cake of custom broke decisively in 1964 when Paul VI authorized a team of respected Jesuit scholars to edit and publish select portions of the wartime archives, drawn largely from the records of the Vatican’s political and diplomatic offices. The result, of course, is the set of 11 massive volumes of documentation that remains to this day the single most important published source of information about the Vatican’s wartime policies.


The Vatican has no hard and fast rule about access to its archives, and, as always, papal discretion reigns supreme. The general rule has been to leave the archives closed for at least 100 years after a given period or event. Here, too, though the Popes have taken the lead in setting precedent. Consider, in particular, Benedict’s remarkable decision in 2006 to open the archives for the entire pontificate of Pius XI (1922-1939). This gave researchers unprecedented access to the Vatican’s most sensitive documents from the troubled decades in between the two world wars. Among the real gems of this collection are the personal notes of Pius XI’s Secretary of State in the 1930s, Eugenio Pacelli – the future Pius XII.

In opening modern papal archives to the scrutiny of historical research, the Popes have demonstrated a serious commitment to deliver on the Church’s promise to confront its past with honesty and scientific rigour. John Paul II once said that the Church “is not afraid of the truth that emerges from history,” adding that it entrusts the study of the past to “patient, honest, scholarly reconstruction.”


Historians are uniquely placed to take up the work of honest reconstruction of the past. As John Paul II put it, “this is the reason why the first step [historical judgment] consists in asking the historians to offer help toward a reconstruction, as precise as possible, of the events, of the customs, of the mentality of the time, in light of the historical context of the epoch.”

Historians stand at the ready to help towards just such a precise reconstruction of the past. But we need the meaningful collaboration of the Vatican archives to permit us to do our work to the best of our ability, in keeping with the conventions of our craft. Hence the powerful logic of these renewed calls for immediate access to the Vatican’s wartime archives.

Selective access to the documents begets a selective reading of history. The image that emerges of Pius XII and the Vatican during the war inevitably is partial, provisional and vulnerable to manipulation by apologist and critic alike. Worst of all, selective access to the archives continues to feed the suspicion of critics who already are prone to see a cover-up behind those imposing Vatican walls.

For the sake of truth and accuracy, and to pay homage to decades of fruitful Catholic-Jewish dialogue, it should be possible to conceive of the means by which serious scholars and institutions can be invited to the table to consider even a targeted study of the wartime archives. This would help to begin to answer some of the most contentious, most relevant questions. It would also be an act of good faith, commensurate with the Church’s stated commitment to furthering Jewish-Catholic understanding and interaction.

It could temper fears of a premature move to have Pius XII made a saint, and would bring the methods of historical scholarship to bear as the Vatican studies this controversial cause. There may very well be ample justification to consider Pius XII a worthy candidate for sainthood. But it would be hazardous for the Holy See to delude itself into thinking that it has at its disposal a definitive historical assessment of this long, pioneering but complex pontificate.

It may be that even with the opening of the rest of the archives we will find ourselves no further along than we are at present. Yet, even if the enigma remains around the controversial wartime Pope, at least the stigma of secrecy stemming from the current state of archival access would be alleviated; maybe even removed entirely.


R. A. Ventresca is a historian at King’s University College at The University of Western Ontario and is currently writing a book on Pope Pius XII.






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