Pope John Paul II is going to Iraq later this year and there's nothing the United States can do about it. It has implored him not to. A State Department team was dispatched to brief him on Saddam Hussein's transgressions and, when that didn't work, Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering dropped in on the Vatican while in Europe to press the argument. No dice. This pope does what this pope wants to do.
So it is extremely doubtful that the pope will pause in his determination to make one of his predecessors, Pope Pius XII, a saint. It cannot be news to John Paul II that this canonization is highly controversial and a bit dismaying. The wartime pope -- Pius served from 1939 to 1958 -- has long been accused of doing very little to help the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust. The public record, bare of any explicit denunciation of what the Nazis were doing to the Jews, serves as an eloquent devil's advocate. Pius XII is unsuited for sainthood.
Now a new book raises even more questions about Pius XII. Written by John Cornwell, a British Catholic, and excerpted in the current Vanity Fair magazine, the somewhat luridly titled "Hitler's Pope" makes the case that Pius remained largely silent not just -- or not only -- to protect Roman Catholics and Roman Catholicism from Berlin's vengeance but because he was something of an antisemite himself.
Cornwell says he has uncovered a letter written by the future pope back in 1919 when, as Eugenio Pacelli, he was the papal nuncio (ambassador) in Munich. That year, Bavarian revolutionaries occupied the royal palace. This is how Pacelli described their leader: "This [Eugen] Levien is a young man, about 30 or 35, also a Russian and a Jew. Pale, dirty, with vacant eyes, hoarse voice, vulgar, repulsive, with a face that is both intelligent and shy." Pacelli also had something to say about Levien's female associates. "Jews like the rest of them," he wrote.
For Cornwell, who says he set off to exonerate Pius XII and wound up "in a state of moral shock," this letter is damning. I do not find it so shocking. Pacelli was a political conservative of his time. He linked communism to Judaism (which he considered an odious "cult") and saw them both as threats to the established order. His views were conventional. He was no ogre but he was -- as the word is often used -- no saint, either.
In Britain, reviews of Cornwell's book have been all over the place. He has been lauded and he has been vilified. Still, nothing I've read suggests he's concocted anything. At any rate, this controversy over Pius XII is hardly new. It was not long after the dust settled from World War II that people noticed that Rome had offered no explicit condemnation of what had been happening to the Jews. Indeed, the Jews of Rome were rounded up right under the Vatican's nose. Most of them were murdered at Auschwitz.
The standard defense of Pius XII is that, secretly, he worked assiduously to save lives -- Jewish and otherwise. Any anti-Nazi broadside, no matter how morally satisfying, might well have endangered more lives -- and the existence of the papacy itself. After all, this was an evil of the sort Europe had not seen before. A criminal psychopath ruled the continent's most powerful nation. Hitler was capable of killing the pope -- and enjoying Wagner that very night. The argument, however, is unpersuasive. The record is mostly one of indifference.
It is a long way, both in time and in outlook, from Pius XII to John Paul II. The current pope has shown a keen understanding of the church's role in the historical victimization of Europe's Jews. He has recognized Israel. He has visited Rome's synagogue and he has asked Catholics to "examine themselves on the responsibility which they, too, have for the evils of our time." But one of those evils, surely, was the Vatican's silence -- the fact that its only reference to the Holocaust, the pope's 1942 Christmas Eve broadcast to the world, was indirect and woefully obscure. Jews were never mentioned.
Pius XII is on a fast track for sainthood. This is what the pope wants -- and what he wants he will get. But the rush was always unseemly, and it is more so now that Cornwell has weighed in.
Simply making Pius XII a saint is not going to put the matter to rest. It will, instead, further soil the Vatican's spotty record regarding history's greatest crime and leave the impression that, balanced against the perceived needs of the church, the murder of 6 million Jews is no different now than it was when it happened -- regrettable, but not all that important.