Posted on: TIME | March 5th, 2019
Author:  Olivia B. Waxman

On Monday, Pope Francis announced a decision that promises to shed light on a controversial period of Vatican history: starting on March 2, 2020 — years ahead of schedule — the Vatican will let historians access sealed documents about Pope Pius XII, who led the Church during the Holocaust.

Eight decades after Pius XII was elevated to Pontiff on March 2, 1939, his legacy has become the subject of great debate. He has been portrayed as having not done enough to publicly condemn the Nazi genocide of Jewish people in Italy and throughout Europe, and his critics hope historians studying the archive will be able to figure out exactly what his role was in the Church’s approach to that issue. On the other hand, those who say Pius XII privately helped save Jews in other ways hope the new batch of unsealed documents will contain more evidence of this kind, especially anything that could bolster his case for sainthood.

“The church is not afraid of history,” Pope Francis said on Monday, while acknowledging that Pope Pius XII’s legacy includes “moments of grave difficulties, tormented decisions of human and Christian prudence, that to some could appear as reticence.”

Before he became Pius XII, the Pope in question was Eugenio Pacelli, son of a Vatican lawyer. Before he became pope, he served as both the Vatican’s ambassador to Germany and the Vatican’s Secretary of State. During his tenure, he supported General Franco during the Spanish Civil War and the harmonious Vatican-Mussolini alliance led to the creation of the sovereign state of Vatican City in 1929. It was during Italian dictator Benito Mussolini‘s Fascist rule that Pacelli was declared Pope. From the beginning, the world had many questions about the nature of the working relationship between the Vatican and the Fascist regime. “In general the most serious charges against the Church concern the skill with which the Vatican and its hierarchs have fished and swum in the Fascist sea surrounding them,” TIME noted in an Aug. 16, 1943, cover story on the issue.

And yet, feeling about the Pope was perceived as generally positive during the war. Though he never publicly condemned the Nazis for the murder of Europe’s Jew, Pius XII would often speak in general terms about protecting minorities and hating war. In 1942, a Vatican official said Pope Pius XII “neither understands nor approves” of the persecutions of French Jews, and the Church as an institution was often seen as contrary to the values of Fascism. “No matter what critics might say, it is scarcely deniable that the Church Apostolic, through the encyclicals and other papal pronouncements, has been fighting against totalitarianism more knowingly, devoutly and authoritatively, and for a longer time, than any other organized power,” TIME noted back in 1943. The Chief Rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, praised his efforts in 1944.

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