The opening this week of the Vatican archives from the pontificate of the Venerable Pius XII offers a chance for scholars to answer the most interesting and consequential ecclesial question of that dramatic pontificate.
Media interest will focus on the diplomatic questions, particularly in relation to the Jewish people during World War II.
They key ecclesial and pastoral question is different: why didn’t Pius XII call Vatican II?
Much of the initial reporting on the Pius XII archives will be a bore, revealing only what everyone already knows. Pius XII took decisive and heroic action to give practical aid to Jews; he did not lead a vigorous vocal campaign against the Holocaust, though he was certainly viewed by all players as a critic of the Nazis’ racial policies. The Nazis knew it; the international Jewish community knew it.
The Israeli ambassador to the Holy See likely gave the most succinct summary of the issue in 2011. Ambassador Mordechay Lewy was commenting upon the opening of convents and monasteries – including the papal residence Castel Gandolfo – to hide Jews when the Nazi occupiers began rounding them up.
“There is reason to believe that this happened under the supervision of the highest Vatican officials, who were informed about what was going on,” he said. “So it would be a mistake to say that the Catholic Church, the Vatican and the pope himself opposed actions to save the Jews. To the contrary, the opposite is true.
“I am aware this is going to raise some eyebrows in the Rome Jewish community but this refers to saving Jews, which Pius did, and does not refer to talking about Jews, which he did not do and which Jews were expecting from him.”
Those facts are what led Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 to state flatly that Pius XII was “one of the great righteous men and that he saved more Jews than anyone else”.
We are a long way from 1999, when John Cornwell published his embarrassing Hitler’s Pope. Cornwell later distanced himself from some of his book’s criticisms of Pius.
All that is now over. The archives will only tell us the details of a story that has already been told many times.
But there is a story that has not been told, one of great consequence for the life of the Church in our time.
Vatican I was interrupted by the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. How would it continue? Would it be convoked again, as it had never been formally concluded? As time went on, it was thought that another Council would be needed. The answers of the Council of Trent in the 16th century predated much of the modern project. Three centuries, in any case, was a rather long time to go between councils. Thus Vatican I had a full agenda, left undone.
Every pope after Blessed Pius IX thus had to decide when to convoke a Council. During the almost 60-year “prisoner of the Vatican” period (1870-1929) it was impossible to proceed. The logistics of an Ecumenical Council required the “Roman question” to be resolved.
Pope Pius XI could have called a council in 1930. By then the theological, philosophical and liturgical questions had an additional social question, that of totalitarianism. But the Depression, fascist rule in Italy, the rise of Nazism and Europe’s slide into war – all this made calling the Council impossible. Then the war itself came.
At war’s end Pius had only occupied the See of Peter for six years. He had another decade of vigorous activity ahead of him. Europe was reconstructing and, while there was not peace with Stalin’s empire swallowing up eastern Europe, there was stability.
At a press conference on the Pius XII archives on February 21, Mgr Alejandro Cifres, director of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s archives, said that the principal themes treated by Vatican II “had in large part been anticipated during the Pacelli pontificate”.
It was more than that. Pius XII began to treat systematically the entire life of the Church with a series of landmark encyclicals, a sort of conciliar corpus without a Council. Why did he take that decision?
The delay of Pius meant that the question had become urgent by the time of his death in 1958. St John XXIII famously said that the idea for a Council came to him spontaneously, a divine afflatus. That’s pious, but an accomplished Church historian like Angelo Roncalli would have known that the decision for a Council was the most pressing question on the papal agenda. It was not whether, but when. Pius’s decision not to go ahead meant that the time was growing short. So John XXIII acted, and quickly.
What would have happened had Vatican II taken place 10 years earlier, in the relative social and political tranquility of the 1950s? What if it had been guided and governed by Pius XII? What if the Council has been received by a Church not shaped by the upheavals of the late 1960s?
Counterfactual questions cannot be answered definitively. But given how catastrophic the immediate post-conciliar period was, it could hardly have been worse 10 years earlier. And perhaps much better.
But it wasn’t to be. The archives might tell us why.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca