The Ordeal of Pius XII

ROME – Once again, the reputation of Pope Pius XII is under scrutiny and attack. Indeed, so searching are the questions and so inflamed are discussions about the Roman Catholic Church’s pontiff during World War II that the current pope, Benedict XVI, recently announced that he may postpone Pius’s beatification until the Vatican’s archives for the war years are opened and examined.

Why is Pius XII so often accused of having been almost an accomplice of Nazi Germany when, during his papacy, the Catholic Church in Rome protected and hid thousands of Jews? This is one of the knottiest historical questions of our times.

For several years after WWII’s end, Pius XII enjoyed great popularity, even within the Jewish community. The tide turned during the 1960’s, with Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy the starting point for feverish questioning of Pius’s reputation.

But to understand how Pius’s reputation began to be challenged, we must see Hochhuth’s play within the context of the great social and cultural upheavals of the 1960’s. The German left wanted to change the interpretation of German history that was the foundation for the democratic and capitalist West Germany built by Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. That interpretation considered the horrors of Hitler’s National Socialism as a consequence of apostasy in Germany.