Few popes were met with greater public expectation than Eugenio Pacelli when he was elected in 1939. It was hoped that as both an admired religious leader and a well-known diplomat, he would prove a welcome agent of European stability, a “prince of peace.” Yet few popes exercised less political influence during a great world crisis than he did. Later generations, nevertheless, insist on assigning world-historical influence, whether blessed or evil, to a man whose politics were mainly characterized by inefficiency and hesitation. Immersed in mystical meditations—which among other things produced the 1950 dogma of the assumption into heavenly glory of the body and soul of Holy Mary—Pope Pius XII rarely made use of his considerable experience in international affairs. Neither as the autocratic ruler of a sovereign state nor as head of the world’s Catholic community was he able to change the course of world events, either during World War II or thereafter.
Pius XII had hoped since the 1930s for worldwide cooperation against Soviet communism, yet he was unable to prevent the outbreak of the war between the Western democracies and the Nazi–fascist alliance. Nor could he bring about a negotiated peace between Nazi Germany and the Western Allies so as to prevent the Soviet invasion of Europe. The Italian fascist state paid little serious attention to him or to the interests of his church. The German Nazis skillfully exploited Pius XII’s anticommunism and his awareness of the vulnerability of the Vatican state to establish firm control over the Church and the Catholic faithful in Germany.
Fearful of Hitler’s wrath, the Pope barely raised his voice against Nazi racism and anticlericalism, and spoke even less against Nazi anti-Semitism. He did not take a stand in defense of the suffering Polish Catholic nation, or of the Christian victims of the Nazi euthanasia program, or of the Jews of his own bishopric in Rome. He tried but failed to stop the American bombing of Rome and the Communist partisan attacks in the city against the German occupiers. The Western allies, when they finally reached Rome in June 1944, were mainly interested in using Pius XII for their own propaganda purposes.
Even the Communist governments, whom the Pope opposed with unrelenting passion, were able to ignore his numerous excommunications after the war. Changing his failed policies, the successors of Pius XII agreed to compromise after compromise with the Communist authorities in Eastern Europe so as to assure the survival of the Church there. Only several decades later, when the Soviet empire was beginning to show signs of incurable decrepitude, could another pope hasten its collapse. But the agile and dynamic Pole John Paul II could hardly have been more different from the ascetic, solemn, and pompous Roman nobleman Pius XII.
No doubt, it was wrong to expect so much from Pius XII, and yet even today the debate rages about his accomplishments. That can be seen as part of a great cultural war within Western civilization. Some call his performance…
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