Those who knew Eugenio Pacelli describe him as a man of asceticism, piety and humility.
Such is the Vatican's confidence in the saintliness of the man who as Pope Pius XII presided over the Roman Catholic Church during the Second World War that the process of his beatification is nearing completion.
But a book by British author John Cornwell paints quite a different picture.
In "Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII," Cornwell, a practicing Catholic, depicts Pius as a man with "a secret antipathy toward the Jews" who was silent during the Holocaust.
"That failure to utter a candid word about the Final Solution in progress proclaimed to the world that the Vicar of Christ was not moved to pity or anger," Cornwell writes. "From this point of view he was the ideal Pope for Hitler's unspeakable plan. He was Hitler's pawn. He was Hitler's Pope."
Cornwell says he has previously undiscovered proof of Pius XII's anti-Semitism and criticizes the pope for negotiating a pact with the Third Reich that curtailed Catholic political activity -- a force that might have opposed the Nazis.
Not surprisingly, the book has drawn a barrage of criticism from Vatican theologians.
"It is not an historical work," said the Rev. Pierre Blet, a French Jesuit and author of the new "Pius XII and the Second World War according to the Archives of the Vatican."
"You could find some details [to criticize Pius], but the whole conception is completely wrong. [Cornwell] is not an historian, it is clear," he said.
The Rev. Peter Gumpel, a German Jesuit who is a Vatican supervising judge of Pius XII's canonization, called Cornwell's book "a moral lynching" and "a nasty caricature of a noble and saintly man."
"Mr. Cornwell can say whatever he wants, but no serious scholar will take it seriously," said Gumpel, who provided the author with access to depositions taken 30 years ago for Pius XII's beatification.
Cornwell's latest work has attracted some praise.
Cambridge University church historian Eamon Duffy wrote that "Cornwell's gripping and impassioned book presents an indictment that cannot be ignored."
Rabbi Marvin J. Heir, dean of the Simon Weisenthal Center in Los Angeles and a vocal opponent of Pius XII's beatification, called the book "startling."
"Cornwell was shown documents that none of us ever saw, because the Vatican archives are closed to all except people who are considered, quote unquote, trustworthy," Weir said.
Few questions raised
Few questions were raised about Pius' courage or morality during his papacy or immediately after it.
As the Vatican points out, many Jewish leaders sent telegrams of condolence on his death in 1958.
Those leaders included future Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir: "We share in the grief of humanity. When fearful martyrdom came to our people, the voice of the pope was raised for its victims."
The first widely circulated work that criticized Pius' wartime actions was the 1963 play "The Deputy," by German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, which portrayed the pope as a cynic who was more interested in Vatican riches than the plight of the Jews.
"That play by Hochhuth provoked a tendency in the culture to reread what happened," said Cardinal William H. Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore, who was a seminarian and a young priest in Rome toward the end of Pius' reign. "But it's a tendency that doesn't correspond to the facts."
The debate over the papacy of Pius XII has heightened in recent years, with works being written both in support and in condemnation of him.
Cornwell, who wrote a favorably received 1989 book, "A Thief in the Night," debunking conspiracy theories about the untimely death of Pope John Paul I, had heard the criticisms and says he set out at first to defend Pius XII.
"This was something I'd always suspected was a mistake," Cornwell said in a telephone interview from his home in England. "I felt that history had given him a bad deal."
After extensive reading of materials on Pius' life, Cornwell went to Rome in early 1997 to begin research on some primary documents, namely the depositions taken for Pius' beatification, and the archives of the Vatican Secretariat of State.
It was at the latter that he found what he calls his "bombshells."
The first was a letter written in 1917 by Pius, then papal nuncio in Munich, Germany, refusing to help Jews import palm fronds for the Feast of Tabernacles.
The other letter, written in 1919, describes the dealings of Pacelli's aide with a group of Communists who led an uprising and installed a brief socialist republic in Munich. In the letter, Pacelli repeatedly states that the revolutionaries are Jewish and seems to be disgusted by their personal habits and hygiene.
"The description of them as Jews is punctuated by epithets as to their physical and moral status, which is associated with them being Jews," Cornwell said.
Cornwell describes being "morally shocked" by his discovery.
"I actually wished I hadn't found them," he said. "I felt quite sickened, especially by the second one. That was the point that all thoughts ended of an apologia. That could not be."
Cornwell went on to find what he considers several more serious faults with Pius. Even more devastating than Pius' silence during the Holocaust, Cornwell believes, was the 1933 Reich Concordat he negotiated as Vatican secretary of state with Adolf Hitler.
The concordat authorized the Vatican to impose the newly codified canon law on German Catholics and granted privileges to Catholic schools and clergy in exchange for Catholic withdrawal from social and political action. Specifically, the Vatican agreed to disband the Catholic Center Party, at the time the remaining democratic party in Germany.
"The signing of the Reich Concordat marked the formal beginning of German Catholicism's acceptance of its obligations under the terms of the treaty which imposed a moral duty on Catholics to obey the Nazi rulers," Cornwell writes. "Thus Catholic critics fell silent. A great Church, which might have formed the basis of an opposition, confined itself to the sacristy."
Although the portrait he paints of Pius XII is devastating, Cornwell says he doesn't consider him a bad man.
Rather, Pius' actions can be understood in the light of two closely held convictions: that authority and power in the church should be centralized in the Vatican and in the person of the pope; and that communism, which threatened the existence of the church, must be fought at all costs, even if it meant dealing with a regime like the Third Reich.
Owen Chadwick, the respected church historian who wrote a largely positive assessment of Pius XII in the 1986 book "Britain and the Vatican during the Second World War," writes this week in the Tablet, a London-based Catholic weekly, that the book "is a serious study of a very complex character tossed about in the most tragic series of crises ever to afflict Europe."
He calls the passages on the allegations that Pius was anti-Semitic and on his collusion with Hitler "the least convincing of the book. If someone believes that, it is hard for the opinion not to have repercussions on the treatment of other questions, because it would mean that the character being examined [Pius] is not only bad but demonic."
Pius' defenders have taken on Cornwell point by point.
As to the 1919 letter that Cornwell says shows Pacelli to be anti-Semitic, Blet, who is also an editor of a 12-volume work of wartime documentation from the Vatican archives, calls it scant evidence for so serious a charge. "It shows the lack of a historical critical scholar to pick a few lines to make such a conclusion on the mind of Pacelli," he said.
As for the concordat with the Third Reich, Blet says there would have been worse persecution in Germany if it had not been signed. "Pius knew [before hand] that the concordat was no definitive protection. But he said perhaps it would be a little protection and times would change."
Eugene Fisher, an expert in Jewish-Catholic relations for the U.S. Catholic Conference, said it is clear that Cornwell has an agenda. "This is a book by a disaffected Catholic who has a problem that the church is not a democracy but a hierarchy, and he is using this book to get at that problem," he said.
For example, "the book raises substantive questions about the wisdom of the concordat with Germany," Fisher said. But that discussion is marred when Cornwell ascribes ill intent to Pius, he says.
"In retrospect, scholars can legitimately conclude that the concordat was a mistake, but that's in retrospect," he said. "I think it's terribly wrong to manipulate those facts."
Pius' defenders say he didn't speak out during the Holocaust for fear that the Nazi persecution, involving Jews and Catholics, would worsen.
"Catholics in Poland, for example, who had been interned in the concentration camps prior to the beginning of the Final Solution involving the Jews, found that when the Holy See through Vatican Radio was denouncing what had happened, the mistreatment of people in the camps increased," Keeler said.
"And they said, 'Please, you speak out, and it hurts us here.' "
Catholics also point out that many Jews were saved by being hidden in the Vatican and in monasteries and convents.
"At one point, [Pius] was prepared to sell some of the treasures of the Vatican to pay a ransom to keep the Jewish people from being taken away," Keeler said.
Cornwell's questions continue a dispute that is not going to end soon.
"I think the problem is there are some people who want to canonize Pius XII and there are other people who think he's just awful and is evil incarnate," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of America, a Catholic weekly, who has written extensively on church hierarchy.
"I think the reality is he was a human being and someone in between the two extremes."
Call for research
Rabbi A. James Rudin, an expert in interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee and a key figure in the Catholic-Jewish dialogue, said the answer is to open the Vatican's archives to a team of qualified Jewish and Catholic scholars.
"Cornwell and Blet are probably working from much of the same archival material available, and you see their conclusions. That's the danger that opens up," he said.
"It's a disservice to the pope's memory and to the church to have such books published based on incomplete primary source material. Let's have the whole record."
Pius XII excerpts
Sept. 4, 1917
Letter from Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII, to Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, Vatican Secretary of State. The Jewish community in Germany had purchased palm fronds from Italy for the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, but the Italian government forbid their exportation and they were being held in Switzerland. A Jewish representative approached Pacelli to ask the pope to intervene on the German Jewish community's behalf.
"It seemed to me that to go along with this would be to give the Jews special assistance not within the scope of practical, arms'-length, purely civil or naturla rights common to all human beings, but in a positive and direct way to assist them in the exercise of their Jewish cult. I accordingly replied courteously to the aforementioned rabbi...that I had sent an urgent report to the Holy Father on the matter, but I foresaw that in consequence of the wartime delays in communication that it was doubtful whether I should get an answer in time, and that the Holy Father would be delayed in explaining the matter in depth to the Italian government."
April 18, 1919
Letter from Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII, to Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, Vatican Secretary of State, during the midst of a Socialist uprising in Munich. Pacelli is writing about visit of his assistant or uditore, Monsignor Schioppa, to the headquarters of Max Levien, one of the leaders of the short-lived socialist republic. Schioppa went there to request that the new regime respect the immunity of diplomatic representatives and the extraterritoriality of their residences. Cornwell says Pacelli's description of Levien, his repeated reference to him as a Jew, and his contemptuous description of his comrades is evidence of Pacelli's anti-Semitism.
"The scene that presented itself at the palace was indescribable. The confusion totally chaotic, the filth completely nauseating; soldiers and armed workers coming and going; the building, once the home of a king, resounding with screams, vile language, profanities. Absolute hell. An army of employees were dashing to and fro, giving out orders, waving bits of paper, and in the midst of all this, a gang of young women, of dubious appearance, Jews like all the rest of them, hanging around in all the offices with lecherous demeanor and suggestive smiles. The boss of this female rabble was Levien's mistreess, a young Russian woman, a Jew and a divorcee, who was in charge. And it was to her that the nunciature was obliged to pay homage in order to proceed.
"This Levien is a young man, of about thirty or thirty-five, also Russian and a Jew. Pale, dirty, with drugged eyes, hoarse voice, vulgar, repulsive, with a face that is both intelligent and sly. He deigned to receive the Monsignor Uditore in the corridor, surrounded by an armed escort, one of whom was an armed hunchback, his faithful bodyguard. With a hat on his head and smoking a cigarette, he listened to what Monsignor Schioppa told him, whining repeatedly that he was in a hurry and had more important things to do.
Dec. 24, 1942
From Pius XII's 1942 Christmas Eve Sermon, his most explicit denunciation of the Holocaust.
"This is a vow that mankind owes to the innumerable exiles whom the hurricane of war has torn from their homeland and scattered abroad. This is a vow that mankind owes to the hundreds of thousands of people who, through no fault of their own, and sometimes only on grounds of nationality or origin, are destined for death or slow deterioration."
Pius XII timeline
March 2, 1876: Eugenio Maria Giovanni Pacelli born in Rome.
Nov. 1894: Pacelli enters the seminary, the Almo Collegio Capranica in Rome.
He later studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Lateran University, both in Rome.
April 2, 1899: Pacelli is ordained a priest.
1901: Pacelli enters the Vatican dipolmatic service as an apprentice in the Secretariat of State.
1911: Pacelli appointed undersecretary in the Department of Extraordinary Affairs, Vatican Secretariat of State
1914: Pacelli is appointed secretary of the Congregation for Ecclesiastical Affairs.
The Serbian Concordat, which Pacelli helped to negotiate, is signed.
1904 - 1916: Pacelli serves as an assistant to Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, Vatican Secretary of State, in codifying canon law.
May 13, 1917: Pacelli ordained am archbishop and is named papal nuncio to Bavaria.
1920: Pacelli is appointed papal nuncio to the newly created republic of Germany.
1929: Pacelli made a cardinal.
Feb., 1930: Pacelli succeeds Gasparri as Secretary of State, the head of the Vatican diplomatic corps.
1933: Under Pacelli's leadership, the concordat with the Third Reich is signed.
1936: Pacelli visits the United States.
March 2, 1939: Pacelli is elected Pope Pius XII on third ballot.
August 24, 1940: Pius XII makes a radio appeal to the world on behalf of peace.
Dec. 24, 1942: Pius XII makes his strongest statement about the Holocaust in his Christmas seron.
Oct. 9, 1958: Pius XII dies at Castel Gandolfo, his summer residence.
Pub Date: 9/26/99