A Brave Helmsman
Pius XII according to the Canadian historian Robert VentrescaRecovering the reputation of a great man through scholarship
The debate concerning Pius XII is alive not only among Italians but also on the other side of the Atlantic. The powerful biography by Canadian historian Robert Ventresca illustrates this. The associate professor at King's University College, Western Ontario, recently published his book Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII at Harvard University Press, one of the most prestigious academic publishing houses.
Professor Ventresca, what gave rise to your interest in Pius XII?
I met Pius XII while I was doing research for my doctorate, which then turned into my first book on the transition in Italy from Fascism to a republic. But the idea to write a biography came out of a combination of curiosity and frustration. Curiosity for the special interest which this figure raises both among academics and the wider public. Frustration because we know too little about Pacelli as a man and his formation, his vision of the world, his vocation, and his ministry first as a priest and then a diplomat.
Which documents struck you most during your research?
Among the many papers, in the correspondence between Pacelli as Secretary of State and the representatives of Hitler's regime in the second half of the 1930s what struck me was the strength and clarity with which Pacelli criticized the German government, through the private diplomatic channels, for their multiple and repeated violations of the Concordat of 1933. Pacelli understood too well how difficult it was to deal with Hitler and how hard he would have to fight to protect the Church's spiritual and material interests. He did not want direct confrontation which could have caused the Holy See's diplomatic relations with Germany to break. He was afraid of the aftermath. What emerges from these sources was his tenacity and the conviction that negotiation at almost any cost was the lesser evil.
Was this vision different than that of Pius XI?
There was a dialectical difference. Around 1937-38 there was an exchange of opinion between him and Pius XI, following the Encyclical Brennender Sorge. Basically, Pope Ratti wondered whether it were scandalous for the Holy See to have relations with regimes, such as that of Hitler or Mussolini. Whereas Pacelli was concerned with what might happen if those relations were broken off. In the end they both shared the same idea of prudence and realism.
How much was Pius XII struck by what happened to the Dutch bishops when their pastoral letter on the deportation Jews in July 1942 led to strong Nazi retaliation?
Certainly a lot. But not only in the case of the Dutch Bishops. I remember a rather long and detailed exchange with the Bishop of Berlin, von Preysing, when Pacelli cited various episodes of German retaliation in order to illustrate that speaking openly might not always be the right choice.
How does Italy's and Europe's perception of the figure of Pius XII differ from North America's?
In terms of public opinion in United States and Canada, Pius XII is connected to the old debate on "silence" regarding the Shoah. From a Manichean viewpoint, he is either "Hitler's Pope" or the Pope who deserves to be called "Righteous Among the Nations". Among scholars I would say that the polemic and partisan approach is in the process of being overcome. However the tendency to judge the pontificate solely on World War II still prevails.
Did you come across much exploitation regarding Pacelli in. your research?
A lot and of every kind, from right and left. In the book I have strived to demonstrate that he was also exploited within the Church, starting with different visions of the papacy. I am thinking of the idea of an antithetical Pacelli at the Second Vatican Council, which is false, since his magisterium was one of the pillars on which the Council was developed. Or the idea that Pacelli was aristocratic, that he steered clear of the situation, he stayed in the background... He was even too invisible for the times and he spoke and intervened on many subjects.
What fascinates you about Pacelli?
His place at the helm of the Church, able and balanced, in the seas of the Second World War and the Cold War onwards. With his great ability for measured action as pontiff, turning both to the Church of Eastern Europe and to that of the United States. He stood out as a strong and reassuring figure to many of the faithful in dramatic and dangerous moments. He was conscious of his place as head of the universal Church. I am also fascinated by his human side which does not correspond to the stereotype of a figure fearful of the world. On the contrary, he was confident, optimistic, as if he were aware that the Church would be ready to respond to the modern world. He was, among other things, the first to understand the importance of the mass media.
Did you find anything about his supposed anti-Semitic attitude?
Nothing emerges from the docu ments to justify this stereotype of Pacelli as anti-Semitic. In general, one can say that he did not see the issue of the Jews as a priority for the Church. In this sense he was influenced by those times but he was certainly not anti-Semitic. Regarding his "silence" on the deportation of the Jews, today, we can say that the choice of diplomacy prevailed. It is true that in Germany and Poland there were bishops who would have wanted a less diplomatic approach but all this must be seen within the context of the lesser evil, as I said before.
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29 May 2013, page 14
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