Pius XII – lightning rod for controversy?

He has divided opinion in the Church for decades. Is this the book which can restore his reputation? This latest book on Pius XII is reviewed by Hilmar Pabel in The Tablet.



Soldier of Christ: the life of Pope Pius XII by Robert Ventresca (Harvard University Press)

Pope Pius XII (1939-58) has become the most controversial pope of the twentieth century. His biography is the battleground for the so-called ‘Pius War’, waged largely over his decision to remain silent in the face of the Holocaust as reliable reports of Nazi atrocities against Jews reached the Vatican.

Rolf Hochhuth’s play Der Stellvertreter (The Deputy), which cast the Pope as cold and calculating in deciding not to protest publicly against the plight of the Jews, unleashed a conflict of interpretations in 1963.

John Cornwell’s book Hitler’s Pope: the secret history of Pius XII stoked the fires of controversy again in 1999.

Robert Ventresca complains that the ‘war of words has done more harm than good to our understanding’ of Pius XII. Many previous studies ‘offered a distorted or highly selective picture’.

Ventresca’s biography is largely sympathetic, as the title suggests. It alludes to the pope’s first encyclical Summi Pontificatus, issued almost two months after the beginning of the Second World War. Pius hoped that Catholics as ‘Soldiers of Christ’ would feel inspired ‘to a more determined resistance by the sight of the ever-increasing host of Christ’s enemies’.

Ventresca ends at the same point as Cornwell by considering the cause for the pope’s canonisation. Unlike Cornwell, he is favourably inclined. Benedict XVI’s decree of 2009 that acknowledged the ‘heroic virtues’ of his predecessor simply means, as Ventresca explains, that Pius XII ‘lived as a virtuous man striving in extraordinary ways to be like God’.

Appreciation for the Pope accumulates in Ventresca’s survey of the post-war pontificate. Pius XII was a ‘modern pope’. Is this epithet a challenge to Peter Hebblethwaite, whose biography of Paul VI acclaimed him ‘the first modern pope’?

Pius XII favoured a global Church that looked beyond Europe. He counts as ‘the real spiritual father’ of Vatican II.

In light of the encyclical Humani Generis (1950), a critique of ‘some false opinions threatening to undermine the foundations of Catholic doctrine’, Ventresca rejects the caricature of Pius XII as ‘the architect of an arch-conservative, reactionary, and monolithic church culture’.

Far from ‘retreating into a reactionary obscurantism’, the Pope aimed at a reconciliation of Catholic faith and modern science. Nevertheless, ‘he allowed a reactionary, inquisitorial culture to fester – to the personal and professional detriment of some of the Church’s most intelligent, creative, and faithful servants’. 

Most readers will gravitate to the story that takes the biography of Eugenio Pacelli/Pius XII to the end of the Second World War and its aftermath.

 Ventresca’s focus on the diplomatic side of his subject’s life is much stronger than his recognition of the pastoral and spiritual dimensions of the post-war pontificate. As Cardinal Secretary of State, Pacelli genuinely believed in the utility of the concordat expeditiously concluded with Hitler’s regime in 1933. But Ventresca concedes that his protest in 1936 against Nazi violations of the Church’s rights assured in the Reichskonkordat ‘shows the futility of a diplomatic protest without teeth’.

During the war, Pius XII pursued a policy of neutrality, or impartiality, as he called it. Such a policy necessitated a ‘supreme rhetorical restraint, which Ventresca equates with ‘prudence’.

By responding to aggression with balanced and complex diplomatic language the pope sought to avoid provoking greater harm. His impartiality often exasperated Germany’s enemies, including Polish churchmen who wanted a clear papal condemnation of the invasion of their country. ‘But,’ Ventresca insists, ‘the Pope was not silent during the war.’

Such a claim competes with Ventresca’s critical comments…

Full review in The Tablet: http://www.thetablet.co.uk/issue/1000368/booksandart

Review on Catholic World Report: http://www.catholicworldreport.com/Item/1929/the_latest_from_the_pius_wars_front.aspx#.Ue9N7Y1TC4g

Review on Times Higher Education Reporthttp://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/books/soldier-of-christ-the-life-of-pope-pius-xii-by-robert-a-ventresca/2002878.article

Review on The Lay Catholic.com: http://www.thelaycatholic.com/soldier-christthe-life-pope-pius-xii-robert-a-ventresca/

Review on NCR On Line: http://ncronline.org/books/2013/05/dig-archives-sheds-light-pius-xii

Buy this book: http://johngarratt.com.au/index.php/affiliatelist?id=70&affiliateid=8

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