ROME — Pope Francis said Monday that the Vatican would open its archives on the World War II papacy of Pius XII, long viewed by many as having failed to speak out against the atrocities of Nazi Germany.
The move, coming after 13 years of work by Vatican archivists, is intended to shed light on the actions and thoughts of a pontiff whose still-contested reputation has made it difficult for the Catholic Church to come to terms with its role during the war.
Francis said the archives on Pius’s 1939-1958 papacy will be opened to researchers March 2, 2020. The Vatican typically waits about 70 years after a pontificate to open the relevant archives, according to the Associated Press, and in this case is moving slightly more quickly — while some Holocaust survivors are still alive.
“He may be the most controversial pope in modern church history,” said David Kertzer, a Brown University professor who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on Pius XII’s predecessor, Pius XI, and is researching for a book on Pius XII’s relationship with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
Kertzer, in a phone interview, described Pius XII as a cautious person who calibrated his actions early in the war with the assessment that the Nazis might win — and even occupy the Vatican. Kertzer said the pontiff “bemoaned the loss of life in a general way” but “never did speak out directly about the Holocaust.”
“He was an intelligent person, but he was also a product of his times,” Kertzer said. “And I think we’ll see how that played out.”
Pius XII has been the subject of controversy for decades, beginning with a 1963 play that depicted him as a moral coward in the face of the Holocaust. More than three decades later, a British journalist wrote a well-known book about Pius XII, “Hitler’s Pope.”
But his supporters say that those portrayals are unjust and that he worked behind the scenes to help Jews. The Rev. Peter Gumpel, a Vatican official who has advocated for Pius XII’s sainthood and explored portions of the Vatican’s paperwork on the pontiff, said Pius XII’s actions to help Jews may have been kept off the books.
Jewish organizations applauded Francis’s announcement, and Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious affairs, said the move to open the archives was “enormously important to Catholic-Jewish relations.”
During the war, the Vatican hewed to a strict policy of neutrality and did not denounce Nazism.
Pius XII was declared “venerable” in 2009, part of the process toward sainthood. But he has not moved closer to canonization. Three of the four now-deceased popes who succeeded him have already been sainted, including Paul VI last year.
Cardinal Angelo Becciu, the head of the Vatican office that scrutinizes the cases for possible sainthood, said in an interview Monday that the archive opening was not a prerequisite for Pius XII’s sainthood to move forward. But he did say that historical facts can dictate “whether it is appropriate or not to do a canonization.”
“He was accused of silence — that he didn’t speak enough against the slaughter of the Jews,” Becciu said. “So we hope that all of this helps instead reveal the truth and fairness of his behaviors.”
In his remarks Monday, Francis said the archivists have been working for 13 years to prepare the documents, based on the wishes of Pope Benedict XVI.
Francis said that “the church is not afraid of history” but also noted that Pius XII’s actions had been viewed with “some bias or exaggerations.”
In an article published in the Vatican’s newspaper, Bishop Sergio Pagano, prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives, wrote that the papers being made available will attest to “an almost superhuman work of Christian ‘humanism’ that was active in the stormy disorder of those events that in the mid-twentieth century seemed determined to annihilate the very notion of human civilization.”
Already, much is known about Pius XII’s pontificate. Decades ago, the Vatican released some volumes of documents. And many nations that have diplomatic relations with the Holy See have opened up their archives from the time — including Italy, where Mussolini was notorious for his spying capabilities.
Daniele Menozzi, a professor emeritus of contemporary history at Pisa’s Normale University, said the greatest revelations could stem from the aftermath of World War II — when the dynamics of the Cold War first took hold.
“My feeling is that the big picture on World War II won’t change much,” Menozzi said. “It’s another matter entirely for the other period, right after the war, with the choices that Pius XII made at that time, both for Italy and for Europe and in the global geopolitical, anti-communist strategy.”