Conference Report: New Documents from the Pontificate of Pope Pius XII and their Meaning for Jewish-Christian Relations: A Dialogue between Historians and Theologians

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 29, Number 3/4 (Fall 2023)

Conference Report: “New Documents from the Pontificate of Pope Pius XII and their Meaning for Jewish-Christian Relations: A Dialogue between Historians and Theologians,” Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome, October 9-11, 2023

 By Ion Popa, University of Manchester/Gerda Henkel Stiftung.

The Conference “New Documents from the Pontificate of Pope Pius XII” was the largest and most significant gathering of international scholars working on the Catholic Church and the Holocaust since the March 2020 opening of the Pope Pius XII collections. Organised by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), the Yad Vashem International Institute for Holocaust Research, the Cardinal Bea Centre for Judaic Studies (CBCJS) at the Pontifical Gregorian University, the Centre for Catholic-Jewish Studies at Saint Leo University, and the Fondazione Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea, the conference provided the first significant insight into the new documents.

As noted by Dr. Suzanne Brown-Fleming, Director of International Academic Programs, USHMM, and Fr. Etienne Vetö, Auxiliary Bishop, Reims (France), formerly Director of CBCJS, in their opening remarks, the new archives, estimated to be at least 16 million pages, will, for years to come, shed light on historical and theological debates over Pope Pius XII and the Holy See during the Holocaust, and on Jewish-Christian relations at multiple levels – from ordinary people to authority figures in Jewish and Catholic milieus, institutions, and power structures. The long-overdue decision of the Vatican to open these wartime era documents and Pope Francis’s words “The Church is not afraid of history” were referred to many times during the event.

The conference started on October 9th, two days after the Hamas terror attack, when the magnitude of atrocities was becoming clearer. This was mentioned in the address of Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, who expressed his and Pope Francis’s “sorrow at what is happening in Israel.” He condemned “the despicable attack” against “many Israeli brothers and sisters,” and highlighted the plight of innocent Palestinian civilians. Most conference participants, having relatives and friends in Israel, followed the news with anxiety throughout the proceedings. The US and Israeli ambassadors to the Holy See and Rabbi Noam Marans, American Jewish Committee, also issued, in their remarks, strong condemnations of Hamas murders. Due to these extreme circumstances, the Yad Vashem delegation, including Dr. Iael Nidam-Orvieto, Director of the International Institute for Holocaust Research, one of the main organizers, could not participate in the conference.

Debates on Pius XII, the Catholic Church, and the Holocaust have, for decades, navigated between the apologetic and the more critical approaches. These sides were present at the “New Documents from the Pontificate of Pope Pius XII” conference too. In fact, before the beginning of the announced proceedings, the Pontifical Gregorian University advertised a pre-conference session titled “Jews Rescued in Ecclesial Houses During the Nazi Occupation of Rome: A Documentation Discovered at the Pontifical Biblical Institute.” This idea of Catholic/Holy See help for or rescue of Jews appeared in many talks, some speakers trying to present local, exceptional, limited cases of Catholic aid as the general attitude of the Church; see, for instance, the presentations by, amongst others, Dr. Grazia Loparco FMA, Pontificia Facoltà di Scienze dell’Educazione Auxilium, Rome, or Dr. Annalisa Capristo, Center for American Studies, Rome. Another example of this tendency was the presentation of Dr. Johan Ickx, Archive for Section for Relations with States, Secretariat of State, Vatican, who based most of his argument about the intervention of papal nuncios and the Vatican on only one archival example, a Jewish woman originally from Romania, who was in Rome in 1938, and asked for Holy See assistance. He, as others, tried to extrapolate such cases and argue that Pope Pius XII himself was behind these interventions, but there was no clear evidence in this sense in any of the conference presentations.

Several papers, including those of Dr. Giovanni Coco, Vatican Apostolic Archive, or Professor David Kertzer, Brown University, examined the role of Angelo Dell’Acqua in shaping Vatican policy towards Jews during the Holocaust. Dell’Acqua was a lower-level assistant in the Holy See Secretariat of State during WWII, but he was seen, it was argued, as a main adviser on Jewish matters. His wartime scepticism over reports about the mass-murder of Jews was often infused with vile antisemitic tropes. Later, he would climb the ladder of ecclesiastical career, becoming a deputy Vatican Secretary of State (1954), Archbishop of Chalcedon (1958), Cardinal President of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See and vicar general of Rome (1967). The question of duplicity regarding his wartime antisemitism and contribution to the Vatican’s policy of silence vs his post-war successful ecclesiastical career was asked, but easily dismissed. The focus on Dell’Acqua, including by prominent scholars from the Vatican, marks a step forward in acknowledging that the Holy See did not do enough in speaking out against the murder of European Jews. However, the suggestion, implicit in some presentations, that he was the main responsible for the Vatican and Pope Pius XII’s inactions is misleading. The tendency to shift the blame away from the Pope and other major figures in the Vatican apparatus to this low-rank assistant is historically inaccurate, and the question of his influence on the Holy See’s policy on Jews will need more polished examination in the future.

More evidence from Pope Pius XII collections was presented, during the conference, on Holy See real-time knowledge about the murder of European Jews (such as the papers of Dr. Michele Sarfatti and Dr. Monika Stolarczyk-Bilardie), antisemitism in interwar Italian Catholic society and universities (Dr. Tommaso Dell’Era and Dr. Raffaella Perin), Pius XII and Vatican responses to requests for help (Prof. Dr. Hubert Wolf and his team at the University of Münster), the duplicitous attitude of papal nuncios in France or Romania (Dr. Nina Valbousquet and Dr. Ion Popa), the limits of Vatican humanitarianism (Dr. Robert Ventresca), Catholic contribution to escape of war criminals from Allied justice (Dr. Gerald Steinacher and Dr. Suzanne Brown-Fleming), or the theological issues raised by returning baptised children to their Jewish families (Dr. Matthew Tapie). The case of Romania was mentioned several times. Monsignor Andrea Cassulo, Holy See ambassador to Bucharest from 1936 to 1947, has often been praised and used as a good example of Catholic interventions in favour of Jews. While this is not under question, more evidence started to emerge about his own antisemitism, or about the duplicitous diplomatic attitude of the Vatican. In January 1938, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, then Vatican Secretary of State, expressed open desire to collaborate with the heavily antisemitic Romanian National Christian Party cabinet, and in July 1943 Mihai Antonescu, one of the most important actors in the murder of up to 380,000 Jews during the Holocaust in Romania, had an audience with Pope Pius XII.

Particularly interesting was the paper of Professor Philip Cunningham, Saint Joseph’s University, who examined the draft 1938 encyclical Humani Generis Unitas, and its possible adverse impact on later Catholic theological documents. Seen by some historians as Pope Pius XI’s laudable intention to condemn antisemitism, the proposed encyclical still maintained the distinction between “good” and “bad” antisemitism and continued to promote conspiracies about a Jewish plot to control the world. As Cunningham concluded, had the encyclical been promulgated, it would have in fact “raised the notion of divine malediction against Jews to the status of formal Catholic doctrine” and it would have created serious obstacles for the later Noastra Aetate declaration (1965), which repudiated antisemitism altogether.

Last, but not least, although the conference gathered a great number of excellent historians and theologians, some countries/regions were missing. There were no papers on/from Ukraine, Hungary, Croatia, Austria, Slovakia/Czechoslovakia, Belgium or the Netherlands. This is very likely because no scholars working on these countries have started to look at the new Pope Pius XII documentation yet. Nevertheless, this geographical gap seen at the October 2023 conference is an invitation for a re-union, in a not-so-distant future, where more insight and new updates can be shared by those researching these incredibly rich and meaningful archives.

The full conference is available to view on the Pontifical Gregorian University’s YouTube channel:


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