PARIS -- The account of Pope Pius XII's career set out in John Cornwell's new biography, sensationally titled "Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII," raises again the problem of how to understand the past when the "relevant" past means next to nothing to readers today.
The promotion of Mr. Cornwell's book focuses on its accusation that Pius XII was anti-Semitic. This is, in fact, the least interesting thing Mr. Cornwell has to say.
After all, nearly all the secular notables of the period, including Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, were in one way or another anti-Semitic.
The U.S. State Department certainly was anti-Semitic, as demonstrated by its prolonged reluctance to do anything to protect Jewish refugees from Hitler.
No, the more interesting argument Mr. Cornwell makes has to do with the treaty (the "concordat") signed by Germany and the Vatican in 1933. Mr. Cornwell argues that as nuncio (ambassador) to Germany during the Weimar period, and then as Vatican secretary of state and head of its diplomacy, Eugenio Pacelli's obsession was to obtain from the German government a concordat giving the Vatican complete control over the German Catholic church.
The author alleges that as secretary of state, the future Pius XII exchanged German Catholicism's independence -- silencing its previous opposition to Nazism -- for Hitler's signature on a concordat. Without that, he says, Hitler would not have obtained dictatorial power in Germany. This is an important argument, as well as a controversial one.
Until the mid-1930s, the German Catholic church enjoyed considerable independence from the Vatican at the same time that the German government had certain rights over the church.
In the 1930s, a powerful Catholic political party existed, the Center Party, generally liberal on political and social questions.
Under its leader, Heinrich Bruening, the Center Party resisted Nazi influence in the Reichstag. Bruening was chancellor during the crucial period leading up to the crisis of 1932, when President Hindenburg dismissed him in favor of the equivocal and incompetent Franz von Papen.
In 1933, Hindenburg made Hitler chancellor. However, to have dictatorial power, Hitler needed the German parliament, the Reichstag, to vote an "Enabling Act," granting him emergency authority free of Reichstag control. The Catholic party voted for the Enabling Act. From that came all of the terrible things that followed, including the Holocaust.
Mr. Cornwell says that the Vatican secretary of state, Eugenio Pacelli, forced the German Catholics to cast this vote in exchange for Hitler's promise of the concordat. Why did the future Pius XII so badly want the concordat?
The answer lies in the intellectual and political position of the church early in this century, when it believed itself a battered fortress of true religion besieged by revolution, anti-clericalism, secular and anti-religious Enlightenment thought, and by a pagan materialism it saw at the core of socialism, Bolshevism and also of capitalism.
Pope goes on the attack
Italy's unification had left Pope Pius IX a "prisoner" in Vatican City, which he refused to leave. He issued a famous "syllabus of errors" condemning secularism, democracy, liberalism and pretty much the whole of modern thought.
He called the first Vatican Council to proclaim the theological infallibility of the papacy (despite ferocious opposition from important Catholic leaders, including many Germans, as well as the great English historian Lord Acton and Cardinal Newman).
The young Pacelli became a Vatican official when the church was in a state of paranoid rejection of everything modern, asserting papal authority against general indifference, mounting furious attacks upon every manifestation of so-called "modernism" inside the church itself -- including against the efforts of American Catholic bishops to draw attention to the free and prosperous condition of Catholics in the United States.
This is what produced the policies and tragic errors of Pius XII. The Vatican's conduct during World War II owed most to the intellectual crisis that overcame it in the 19th century, and that was not seriously addressed until the Second Vatican Council, called in 1962 by Pope John XXIII.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.