Pope Pius XII

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The Venerable Pope Pius XII, born Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli (March 2, 1876October 9, 1958), reigned as Pope and sovereign of Vatican City from March 2, 1939 to 1958. In the 20th century he was the only pope to exercise his Extraordinary (Solemn) Magisterium (that is, to claim Papal Infallibility) when he formally defined the dogma of the Assumption of Mary in his 1950 encyclical Munificentissimus Deus. Pius's actions or inactions during World War II have become a matter of major dispute. He was proclaimed Venerable, a step on the road to sainthood, by Pope John Paul II in the 1990s.


Birth and early church career

Pacelli, who was of noble birth, was a grandson of Marcantonio Pacelli, founder of the Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, a nephew of Ernesto Pacelli, a key financial advisor to Pope Leo XII, and a son of Filippo Pacelli, dean of the Vatican lawyers. His brother, Francesco Pacelli, became a highly regarded attorney, and was created a marchese by Pius XII.

Pacelli became a Roman Catholic priest in April, 1899. From 1904 until 1916 Fr. Pacelli assisted Cardinal Gasparri in his codification of canon law. Pope Benedict XV appointed the then Father Pacelli as Apostolic Nuncio to Bavaria in April 1917, and on 13 May 1917, Benedict consecrated him as a bishop. This was the very day of the first appearance of the Virgin Mary (to whom Pacelli had a special devotion) to three peasant children at Fatima, Portugal.

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Eugenio Pacelli, in Berlin, 1929.

He was appointed Apostolic Nuncio to the German Weimar Republic in June, 1920. Pacelli was created a cardinal on 16 December 1929 by Pope Pius XI. Within a few months, on 7 February 1930 Pope Pius appointed Pacelli Papal Secretary of State. During the 1930s Cardinal Pacelli arranged concordats with Bavaria, Prussia, Austria and Germany. He also made many diplomatic visits throughout Europe and the Americas, including an extensive visit to the United States in 1936.

Pacelli and the Concordat with Germany

In June 1933 Adolf Hitler had signed a peace agreement with most of Europe, called the Four-Power Pact. Hitler later wrote to Rome to negotiate a statewide concordat with Rome. As Papal Secretary of State to Pius XI, Pacelli signed a concordat with Germany (see image). This was shortly after Germany had signed similar agreements with all Protestant churches in Germany.

The signing of the actual concordat has always been controversial, described by some historians, and by critics of the Roman Catholic Church, as giving acceptance to Hitler's regime. In his 3 June encyclical Dilectissima Nobis Pius XI stated that the Church finds no difficulty in adapting herself to various civil institutions, be they monarchic or republican, aristocratic or democratic, provided the divine rights of God and of Christian consciences are safe. Others argues that Pius XI had to make the best of the situation, in order to ensure some amount of protection for the Church in Germany.

The strongest criticism in the still remaining dispute about the concordat rests on the terms which enabled the concordat and with Cardinal Pacelli's negotiations with the Nazi party through the Catholic Centre Party or Zentrum. A series of meetings for negotiation are on record which defined the concordat, the self-dissolution of the Centre Party, and the passing of the German Enabling Act that gave Hitler's government legislative powers. The accusation of complicity is that this was a quid-pro-quo, and that Hitler would not have achieved his "legally instituted dictatorship" without the Zentrum's votes in his acquiring the vital two-thirds parliamentary majority required. The Catholic Church has yet to release documents for the relevant period, but the accusation is that the Zentrum vote elevated Hitler to power much more quickly than Hitler's preferred legal entry to power might have otherwise required. Reports of complicity towards restoration of the monarchy suggest great care by the Vatican to avoid evidential remains.

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The Holy See signs a concordat with Germany. Cardinal Pacelli, representing the Holy See, signs the "Reichskonkordat" on July 20, 1933 in Rome. From left to right: German Vice-Chancellor Franz von Papen, representing Germany, Giuseppe Pizzardo, Pacelli, Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani, Rudolf Buttmann

Cardinal Pacelli allegedly played a large part in the internal affairs of Germany all his life. He was the Papal Nuncio in Bavaria from 1917, before becoming Secretary of State. As Nuncio, in a letter dated November 14, 1923, to Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, Pacelli denounced the National Socialist movement as an anti-Catholic and anti-Hebrew threat and remarks that Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber of Munich had condemned acts of persecution against Bavaria's Jews. However, in 1933 during March 20-23, the Enabling Act negotiations were undertaken by Pacelli's close friend Monsignor Ludwig Kaas, leader of the Zentrum party. Kaas followed this by immediately reporting to Cardinal Pacelli in the Vatican before then returning by 2 April for a private meeting with Hitler. Faulhaber was also prevailed upon to accede by public recomendation of the Fhrer preceding the plebiscite for the withdrawal of Germany from the League of Nations.

Some observers regard the Church relationship towards the Nazi regime as not substantially different to that it established with other non-communist states, regimes and governments. Dr. Eamon Duffy, a historian of the papacy, observed that the Church under Pius XI followed a normal policy of establishing concordats with individual states during the 1920s and the 1930s. This included concordats with Latvia (1922), Bavaria (1924), Poland (1925), Romania (1927), Lithuania (1927), Italy (1929), Prussia (1929), Baden (1932), Austria (1933), Germany (1933), Yugoslavia (1935) and Portugal (1940). These concordats were aimed at regularising relationships between the Holy See and the states, and at protecting Roman Catholic-run schools, hospitals, charities and third level institutions (all often run with public funds, including in Germany) from state seizure or persecution.

In particular the concordats were aimed at ensuring the Church's canon law had some status and recognition within its own spheres of concern (e.g., church decrees of nullity in the area of marriage) among new or emerging states with new legal systems. Duffy suggests that the concordats provided technical procedures through which formal complaints to the states could be made by the Holy See.

There have been accusations that the German Concordat - a concordat which remains in force to this day - allowed for the induction of Catholic priests into the armed forces during hostilities. However, as Article 27 of the concordat states, in part, "The Church will accord provision to the German army for the spiritual guidance of its Catholic officers, personnel and other officials, as well as for the families of the same...The ecclesiastical appointment of military chaplains and other military clergy will be made after previous consultations with the appropriate authorities of the Reich by the army bishop." The clear reference here is the drafting of priests not as soldiers, but as chaplains.

Between the German Concordat's signing in 1933 and 1939, Pope Pius XI made three dozen formal complaints to the Nazi government, which were drafted by Pacelli but which show only a gradual realisation of the gravity of the Nazi situation and misuse of the concordat. The strongest condemnation of Hitler's ideology and ecclesiastical policy was the encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge, issued in 1937.

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Pope Pius XII, wearing the 1877 Papal Tiara, is carried through St. Peter's Basilica on a sedia gestatoria circa 1955.

Both Hitler and Pacelli saw the Reichskonkordat as a victory for their respective sides. Hitler told his cabinet on 14 July: "An opportunity has been given to Germany in the Reichskonkordat and a sphere of influence has been created that will be especially significant in the urgent struggle against international Jewry." Pacelli in a two page article in L'Osservatore Romano on 26 July and 27 July dismissed Hitler's assertion that the concordat in any way represented or implied approval for national socialism, much less moral approval of it. He argued that its true purpose had been "not only the official recognition (by the Reich) of the legislation of the Church (its Code of Canon Law), but the adoption of many provisions of this legislation and the protection of all Church legislation."2 On the other hand, the Concordat prohibited clerics from engaging in any political activity whatsoever.

The questions arising from the concordat have re-surfaced of late because of the moves toward canonisation for Pope Pius XII, and recent reference to the Enabling Act in the book Memory and Identity by Pope John Paul II, who cites it as an example of the dangers present even in a democracy. Critics cite the danger of the destabilisation of a democracy by a church.

Becoming Pope Pius XII

Following the death of Pius XI, Cardinal Pacelli was elected Pope by the conclave on 2 March 1939, his 63rd birthday, and took the name Pius XII. He was the first Secretary of State to become pope since Clement IX in 1667. Pius XII's papal coronation was the grandest for over a hundred years.

World War II

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Pope Pius' Coat of Arms

Pius' pontificate began on the eve of the Second World War. During the war, Pope Pius XII followed a policy of public neutrality mirroring that of Pope Benedict XV during the First World War. However, as Cardinal Pacelli, Pius XII was against the Nazis' increasing political power in Germany and in August 1933 wrote to the British representative to the Holy See his disgust with the Nazis and "their persecution of the Jews, their proceedings against political opponents, the reign of terror to which the whole nation was subjected."

When he was told Hitler was a strong leader to deal with the communists, Archbishop Pacelli responded that Hitler and his Nazis were infinitely worse. [ref (http://www.catholicleague.org/pius/piusxii_faqs.html)]

Pius XII established diplomatic relations with the Japanese Empire in March 1942. As the war was approaching its end in 1945, Pius XII advocated a lenient policy by the Allied leaders for the vanquished in an effort to prevent the mistakes made at the end of World War I. He attempted to negotiate an early German and Japanese surrender, but his initiatives failed.

Pius XII's role during World War II has been a source of controversy. Critics accuse him of remaining silent towards the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes. Though the Pope actually did speak out, e.g., in his Christmas message of 1942, he did so in a careful manner. Pius's main argument for that policy was twofold. That public condemnation of Hitler and Nazism would have achieved little of practical benefit, given that his condemnation could effectively be censored and so unknown to German Catholics (who in any case had been told as early as the early 1930s by the German Roman Catholic hierarchy that Nazism and Catholicism were incompatible). Secondly, Pius argued that had he condemned Nazism more aggressively, the result would have been reprisals within Germany and countries occupied by her, making the Church's efforts against Nazi policies at the parish level difficult. Indeed such a reprisal occurred, when the Dutch bishops protested against the deportation of the country's Jewish population. The occupants retaliated by singling out Jewish converts to the Church for deportation, the most notable example being Edith Stein. Accordingly, the Pope mostly concentrated on practical measures, such as hiding Jews in convents. Also an "underground railroad" of secret escape routes had been set up by prominent Catholics such as Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty, who operated under the tacit, if not implicit, approval of Pope Pius XII (as portrayed in the 1983 TV-movie "The Scarlet And The Black").

According to the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, "Preserving Vatican neutrality, and the capability of the Church to continue to function where possible in occupied Europe and Nazi-allied states, was a far better strategy to save lives than Church sanctions on a regime that would have merely laughed at them."

Although Pius XII is fiercely condemned by the press today for not condemning Nazism explicitly enough, it is estimated that about 300,000 Jews were saved through the Vatican during World War II. After the war had ended, Pius XII was praised by numerous Jewish organizations. The head rabbi of Rome (Israel Zolli) converted to Catholicism, citing as his reason Pius XII's witness to religious fraternity.

Pope Pius XII's critics' view

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Pius XII praying

Critics suggest that if Pius had spoken out publicly in strong enough terms against Nazism, an explicit condemnation by the Pope could have seriously undermined Hitler and Nazism among Germany's many Catholics. While the world was divided politically and geographically, many Catholics are united behind their Pope. Had Pope Pius XII denounced Nazism in the strongest possible terms, it is possible that it could have not only caused unrest amongst Catholics in the German army, but it could have also caused Catholics working in German war factories to undermine German army support and logistics systems. This would have dealt a serious blow to the German war effort. Conversely, such action probably would have caused heavy suppression of Catholics, given that Nazism was more focused on Protestantism in the first place.

Counter-point to Pope Pius XII's critics

The counter-point to the critics' argument is that these critics base their opinion upon a Catholic stereotype hundreds of years out of date by vastly overrating the influence of a Papal speech on the opinions of modern Catholics, especially in a pre-dominantly Protestant country as Germany.

Furthermore, on September 6, 1938, in a statement which though barred from the Fascist press made its way around the world, Pius XII said:

"Mark well that in the Catholic Mass, Abraham is our Patriarch and forefather. Anti-Semitism is incompatible with the lofty thought which that fact expresses. It is a movement with which we Christians can have nothing to do. No, no, I say to you it is impossible for a Christian to take part in anti-Semitism. It is inadmissible. Through Christ and in Christ we are the spiritual progeny of Abraham. Spiritually, we are all Semites."

This statement was made while the most powerful nation in Europe had an officially anti-Semitic government and was poised only a few hundred miles to the north of Rome. Everyone understood their significance, especially the victims. In January 1939, The National Jewish Monthly reported that "the only bright spot in Italy has been the Vatican, where fine humanitarian statements by the Pope have been issuing regularly."

For more information and for a more detailed rebuttal to the aforementioned allegations, please see the Catholic League's special report on Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust (http://www.catholicleague.org/pius/framemain.htm).

Hitler's views

Adolf Hitler said "[Pius] is the only human being who has always contradicted me and who has never obeyed me." Historians in general differ as to whether or not Pope Pius XII did enough to prevent the Holocaust and save lives, and indeed whether any intervention by him would have any impact on the number of deaths caused by Nazi policies.

Joseph Goebbels was clear about the Reich's attitudes toward the Roman Catholic Church. His 26 March 1942 entry in his diary reads, "It's a dirty, low thing to do for the Catholic Church to continue its subversive activity in every way possible and now even to extend its propaganda to Protestant children evacuated from the regions threatened by air raids. Next to the Jews these politico-divines are about the most loathsome riffraff that we are still sheltering in the Reich. The time will come after the war for an over-all solution of this problem." (Lochner, The Goebbels Diaries, 1948, p. 146)

A recent report in the Italian newspaper Avvenire suggested that Hitler ordered SS General Karl Wolff, a senior occupation officer in Italy, to kidnap Pius, but he refused.

Pope Pius' encyclicals

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Pius XII at his coronation of 1939.

Among his most prominent encyclicals were:

  • Mystici Corporis Christi: On the Mystical Body, 29 June 1943
  • Communium Interpretes Doloraum: An Appeal for Prayers for Peace, 15 April 1945
  • Fulgens Radiatur: Encyclical on Saint Benedict, 21 March 1947
  • Mediator Dei: On the Sacred Liturgy, 20 November 1947
  • Auspicia Quaedam: On Public Prayers For World Peace And Solution Of The Problem Of Palestine, 1 May 1948
  • In Multiplicibus Curis: On Prayers for Peace in Palestine, 24 October 1948
  • Redemptoris Nostri Cruciatus: On the Holy Places in Palestine, 15 April 1949
  • Anni Sacri: On A Program For Combating Atheistic Propaganda Throughout The World, 12 March 1950
  • Humani Generis: Concerning Some False Opinions Threatening to Undermine the Foundations of Catholic Doctrine, 12 August 1950
  • Munificentissimus Deus, 1 November 1950 (on the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven) This particular encyclical is considered infallible. Perhaps contrary to popular conceptions, it is very rare for a pope to invoke papal infallibility. This was one of those rare occasions—the only one in the 20th century.
  • Ingruentium Malorum: On Reciting the Rosary: Encyclical promulgated on 15 September 1951
  • Fulgens Corona: Proclaiming a Marian year to Commemorate the Centenary of the Definition of the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception, 8 September 1953
  • Ad Caeli Reginam: On Proclaiming the Queenship of Mary, Encyclical promulgated on 11 October 1954
  • Datis Nuperrime: Lamenting the Sorrowful Events in Hungary, and Condemning the Ruthless Use of Force, 5 November 1956
  • Miranda Prorsus: On the Communications Field: Motion Pictures, Radio, Television, 8 September 1957

Additionally, as Papal Secretary of State, Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli wrote Mit brennender Sorge (With Burning Anxiety) for His Holiness Pope Pius XI.

Beatifications, canonisations, and teachings

During his reign, Pius XII canonized eight saints, including Pope Pius X, and beatified five people. He consecrated the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1942.

In 1950, Pius XII infallibly defined the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven. This doctrine teaches that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was taken into Heaven body and soul after the end of her earthly life. This belief had been held by Catholic and Orthodox Christians since the early centuries of the Church (for example, by St. Gregory of Tours), but it had never been formally defined as a dogma until 1950.

Pope Pius and the College of Cardinals

Only twice in his pontificate did Pius XII hold a consistory to create new cardinals, a decided contrast to Pius XI, who had done so seventeen times in seventeen years on the papal throne. The first occasion has been known as the "Great Consistory", of February 1946; it was the largest in the history of the Church up to that time, and brought an end to over five hundred years of Italians constituting a majority of the College. By his appointments then and in 1953 he substantially reduced the proportion of cardinals who belonged to the Roman Curia.

Pope Pius in later life and after his death

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Pius XII lying in state.

Pius was dogged with ill health later in life, largely due to a charlatan, Riccardo Galeazzi-Lisi, who posed as a medical doctor and won Pius's trust. His treatments for Pius gave the Holy Father chronic hiccups and rotting teeth. Though eventually dismissed from the Papal Household, this man gained admittance as the pope lay dying and took photographs of Pius which he tried, unsuccessfully, to sell to magazines.

When Pius died, then Galeazzi-Lisi turned embalmer. Rather than slow the process of decay, the doctor-mortician's self-made technique sped it up, leading the Holy Father's corpse to disintegrate rapidly, turning purple, with the corpse's nose falling off. The stench caused by the decay was such that guards had to be rotated every 15 minutes, otherwise they would collapse. The condition of the body became so bad that the remains were secretly removed at one point for further treatments before being returned in the morning. This caused considerable embarrassment to the Vatican and one of the first acts of Pius' successor, Pope John XXIII, was to ban the charlatan from Vatican City for life.

Pope Pius XII became a candidate for sainthood under Pope John Paul II in the 1990s. He has been raised to Venerable, an early step through the process of sainthood.


  • Note 1: Eamon Duffy, Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes p.341.
  • Note 2: John Cornwell, Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII pp.130-131.
  • Note 3: On the question of Pius XII's attitude toward the Nazi persecutions, see also the New York Times editorial page for Christmas Day of 1941 and 1942.

Additional reading

  • Ronald J. Rychlak, Hitler, the War, and the Pope (Our Sunday Visitor; 2000). ISBN 0879732172
  • Anonymous, Persecution of the Catholic Church in the Third Reich (Publisher: Pelican Pub Co; February 2003). ISBN 1589801377 (originally published in 1941)
  • Eugenio Zolli, Before the Dawn (Roman Catholic Books; Reprint edition, February 1997). ISBN 0912141468 (author is the former wartime chief rabbi of Rome who took the name "Eugenio" at his Baptism in honor of Pope Pius XII)
  • John Cornwell, Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII (Viking, 1999) ISBN 0670876208
  • Sr. Margherita Marchione, Pope Pius XII: Architect for Peace (Paulist Press, 2000). ISBN 080913912X
  • Karl Scholder, The Churches and the Third Reich (London, 1987)
  • Susan Zuccotti,Under his very Windows, The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000). ISBN 0300084870

External links

Preceded by:
Pius XI
Succeeded by:

Template:End boxca:Pius XII cy:Pab Pws XII de:Pius XII. (Papst) es:Po XII eo:Pio la 12-a fr:Pie XII it:Papa Pio XII nl:Paus Pius XII ja:ピウス12世 (ローマ教皇) pl:Papież Pius XII pt:Papa Pio XII ru:Пий XII, папа sl:Papež Pij XII. sv:Pius XII


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