Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Policies and Politics of Pope Pius XII, Frank Coppa

Frank Coppa's new book, The Policies and Politics of Pope Pius XII (Peter Lang Publishing), arrived last week.  It was a delight to sit down and read what is, in my opinion, a book of the same importance and high standard as Jose Maria Sanchez 2002 work, Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy (CUA Press)



Coppa provides a well-documented summary of the life of Eugenio Pacelli and his rise in Vatican service drawing heavily on, the now readily available, documentation from Archivio Segreto Vaticano.  As was the case with Sanchez, there are no surprises with Coppa.  For those of us who have been studying the man and the period for more than a few years, the well-trawled document trails, the steady publication of academic and professional books, monographs and conference papers has reached a point where I can only agree with Coppa's final analysis: 

The controversy swirling about Pius XII and his pontificate is no longer primarily due to the lack of sources - many of which have recently been made available with the opening of the papers of Pius XI.  Rather it seems to stem from the commotion of the period, the need to assign responsibility for the atrocities committed during those turbulent years, and on the a priori positions taken by many of the authors in the Pius War.  For many the policies pursued by Pius XII remains controversial and this may have delayed but has not derailed the movement for his canonisation ... It may take years, perhaps decades before the Pius War is brought to an end, and a more objective picture of this Pope achieved.  Hopefully, the present study will serve as a step in that direction. (176)

The book is slim - 177/205 pages of text.  At the end of each of the chapters is a comprehensive set of notes.  The reader is encouraged to read them carefully, Coppa has set up a valuable tool for students and teachers to go further along related lines of interest.

Coppa helps us see Pacelli in the context of his whole life, and particularly in his years working with the diplomatically astute Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, secretary of state to Benedict XV (1914-1922) and Pius XI (1922-1930) where Pacelli learned much in the art of statecraft and dealing with unsavoury characters.  Upon his own appointment as secretary of state in 1930, Pacelli continued in the manner of Gasparri, opting wherever possible for a "public truce" to avoid damaging the Church or her institutions. (119)

Professor Coppa's "big picture" of Pacelli's life leads him to discuss the war years - in chapters 7 and 8 - with a focus on defining "impartiality", "neutrality" and the vexed question of "silence".  In the hands of a lesser able writer, this could be potentially dangerous as the amount of material on the war years is staggering. Coppa is deft and masterful.  He is at pains to make clear what words mean in their contexts and, I believe, he is successful.  By re-visiting the available evidence, he establishes a balanced conclusion about Pius XII's activities during the war, which include his responses to the Holocaust.

The record clearly reveals that Pius XII followed a diplomatic policy vis-a-vis the Nazis, issuing no clear public condemnation of their aggression, expressing no explicit public outrage against their racism which violated Christian principles and culminated in genocide.   Nor did this Pope assign responsibility for provoking the war.  Pius XII defended this decision to those inside and outside the Church time and time again.  he deemed it unwise to denounce the Axis regimes' racist policies publicly, providing them with the pretext to dismantle the Concordats and thereby endangering the institutional Church.  Furthermore, he apparently feared that if it weakened Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, it might aid Soviet Russia or make worse the plight of the people it sought to rescue and prove detrimental and disturbing for German Catholics.  For these among other reasons, he did not issue his predecessor's encyclical denouncing anti-Semitism and alerting the faithful to the sin of racism, fearing the diplomatic problems its assurance would undoubtedly unleash.  These same concerns prevented the Pope form explicitly denouncing the Nazi aggression and genocide he vehemently opposed.  Only at war's end did Pius XII formally and publicly condemn Nazism. (145)

One of the strengths of Coppa's book is its dispassionate tone and fidelity to a balanced interpretation of the available material.  In a similar manner to Sanchez, Coppa leaves it to the reader to come to their own conclusions.  I do not agree with some of the Professor Coppa's conclusions, but I am indebted to him for the wealth of substance in his arguments that make them so compelling.  I find it hard to reconcile the obligations of the papal office as understood by Pius XII, in particular, speaking the truth in the face of evil, with his determination to pursue a diplomatic path that was, at least as I see it, so incapable of dealing with escalating horrors that cried out for a public word from the only person in Europe or the world with the moral authority to do so.  Nonetheless, Coppa has challenged me to keep at the sources and keep reading.  And so I will do.

I was honoured to note that Coppa considered my own work worthy of reference at several points in his own work.  I accept the criticisms - especially on the 1938 unpublished encyclical - and the praise with thanks.  On one point thought, I do take issue. 

In the last chapter of my book I conclude my study of the question of Pius XII's responsibility for his actions during the Holocaust with the observation that the Pope did not act alone nor can he be seen as acting alone.  He is a part of the Universal Church - not apart from it.  He has a role of leadership that sets him apart from other believers in the execution of that role, but it does not excuse or exclude him from the obligations of the faith incumbent on all Catholics. I spend time looking at the role of anti-Judaism or Judeophobia throughout my work and what I believe the impact of this "longest hatred" had on Catholic thought and practice.  Pius XII was not immune to it.  I believe that the good Pius did along with the good that was not done is shared by the whole Church, and not only the Pope. 

Coppa writes: 

Elsewhere in the volume O'Shea indicates that factors other than anti-Judaism influenced the course Pius XII pursued during the Holocaust,  Indeed he writes that the reason this Pope did not say more was not because he did not care for the victims - which would exclude both anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism - but because he had other priorities: mainly his obligation to defend the Church and Catholicism, and his perception of the Soviet Union as a greater threat than Nazi Germany ... However, he returns to the role of anti-Judaism within the Church as an underlying cause of papal silence in his ninth and concluding chapter "Blessed Eugenio?" which blames the entire Church, not only the Vicar of Christ for the policies pursued during the pontificate of Pope Pius XII. (168)

This is what I wrote:

Pius XII was brought low, not in his lifetime, but by history - a patchy and often speculative history that more often than not followed political and religious agendas than a passion for the truth.  The fatal flaw lay in the centuries-old fear and hatred of Jews and Judaism.  Combined with the currents of racist theories and practices that bubbled throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and which had permeated much of the Church, Jews were the ever-present "lesser victims".  If Pius XII committed a sin with regard to the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust, it was the sin of consistency in thought, word and deed.  And if Pius is guilty of that, he does not stand alone.  The sins of the Catholic Church during the Holocaust must rest upon the whole Church, not only the Vicar of Christ, just as the deeds of the righteous must be shared by the whole Church, including the Vicar of Christ.
(2008 edition, p334; 2011 edition p224)

Throughout the book there a number of typographical errors, such as the reference to Innocent III in 1721 (113) but these do not detract from what is a "good read". 


Professor Frank J Coppa

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