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Pope Pius XII and Benito Mussolini - opening the papal files

Beginning in 1965, 12 volumes containing thousands of Papal documents were published. Many suspected that the Jesuit editors selected out documents unflattering to the Church, but the volumes did show that following Mussolini’s over-throw in 1943, the pope’s Jesuit emissary urgently sought out the new government’s justice minister. While the Vatican thought the anti-Semitic racial laws that the Fascist government had enacted several years earlier had many good qualities and should be retained, they stated that the government should no longer take baptised Jews to their demise.

Decades later, John Cornwell published his book Hitler's Pope, the Secret History of Pius XII (2000). Pope Pius, who  reigned 1939-58, was exposed as displaying culpable pass­ivity in the face of the persecution of Italian Jews.

In the book The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe (2015), author David Kertzer announced that the Catholic church was generally portrayed as the courageous opp­onent of Fascism, but it wasn’t always true.  Kertzer argued that much of Fascist ideology was inspired by Cath­olic tradition – authoritarianism, intolerance of opposition and profound suspicion of the Jews. It certainly found a soft spot with Pope Pius. The accession of Benito Mussolini (Duce 1925–1943) didn't augur well for the papacy - the Fascist squads had been terrorising clerics. But Mu­ss­olini wanted to use the church to legitimise his power. So after two generations of secularism, there were again crucifixes in It­aly's public facilities. Slowly the Pope became persuaded that, with Mussolini's help, Italy might become a Catholic state again.

Pope Pius XII

In Jan 1938, Mussolini called 2,000+ priests and bishops to par­tic­ipate in a celebration of his policies. The Pope feared off­end­ing the dictator so the priests marched in procession through Rome and laid wreaths on a monument to Fascist heroes. They saluted Mussol­ini as he stood on his bal­cony. That the Fascists used Cath­ol­ic rituals could perhaps be taken as a compliment to the church, but not to rec­ruit its priests for the worship of a Duce. It was easy to manipulate the Church, Mussolini told his allies in Nazi Germany.

The Vatican believed its first priority had to be to pro­tect the institutional Church; everything else came second. Pius was concerned that the Fascists could work against the Church, and so did what he did to work against their power base, without taking into account the help­less victims caught in the middle. Presumably Mussolini granted favours to enhance the role of the church in Italy, and the Pope saw many advantages to be gained from a strong and sympathetic government in Rome.

After decades of controversy, Pope Francis has finally said he’d be opening the Vatican’s sealed archives from the WW2 papacy of Pius XII. Papal archives are trad­it­ionally opened 70+ years after a pope’s death, meaning no one ex­pected the secrets of Paul XII, who died in 1958, to be made ac­ces­sible until 2028. By decid­ing to open them early, Francis ackn­ow­ledged that the archives of Pius may not be entirely fav­ourable, but he claimed the Church wants true history. Francis said Pius had “moments of grave difficulties, tormented decisions of human and Christian prudence, that to some could appear as reticence.”

It is indisput­able that thousands of Jewish people were dragged from their homes in Rome and taken to camps under the shadow of the Vatican. In one incident in Oct 1943, 2,000+ Italian Jews were taken away, of whom only 16 survived.

Some Catholics authors claimed the Pope may actually have helped save Jewish lives by not condemning Hitler publicly. Historian Mark Riebling, author of Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler (in 2015), documented how Pope Pius XII chose to resist Adolf Hitler with co­vert action, in lieu of overt protest. He drew on wartime docum­ents and interviews with American intelligence agents to tell how Pope Pius XII secretly provided support for three attempts to overthrow Hitler.

Other scholars studying the WW2 pope’s actions have argued that the Vatican did absolutely nothing to stop the atrocities. So Pope Francis, who met the International Jewish Committee on Inter Religious Consultation regarding the opening of the Roman archives, lamented rec­ent anti-Semitism. With study, Francis said, scholars would find the small flame lit of human­itarian initiat­ives, of hidden but active diplomacy - dur­ing periods of the greatest darkness and cruelty.

And Lorenzo Cremonesi,  a member of the Vatican-appointed commission of Catholics and Jews, revealed that Pius XII knew about the Holo­caust as early as June 1942. Yet he cautioned against giving the Catholic Church credit for the initiatives of local churches in many count­ries who on their own took action to save their Jews. Cremonesi said Pius XII was very open to the German cause; not to Hitler but to Germ­any. This was because he saw the Germans as a bastion against the Communists, the Comm­un­ists being the primary concern of the Vat­ican.


German Pope Benedict XVI endorsed Pius for sainthood in 2009, but the process has stalled. So the opening of these archives early is a special favour to Pope Benedict, ill since he resigned in 2013. If the archives prove that Pius DID protect Jews, his cause for sainthood would advance. And Benedict would love to be alive for the beatification of Pius!

While it will take a long time for them to catalogue 17 million pages of documents in the central Vatican archives, will the Vatican be entirely open and honest? There would be no way to cover up huge gaps since many hist­or­ians are going to be checking the files against already available docum­ents, unless those record were destroyed long ago.


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