What Declassified Vatican Archives Might Reveal about the Church and World War II

March 7 2019

On Monday, Pope Francis announced his intention to open in their entirety the Vatican archives of Pius XII, who served in the papacy from 1939 to 1958. Even after the publication of thousands of documents in the 1960s and 1970s, Pius’s wartime activities have remained the subject of intense controversy, with one author dubbing him “Hitler’s pope” while others have argued that he saved hundreds, if not thousands, of Jewish lives. David Kertzer, a scholar of the wartime church, explains why the archives matter:

Less noticed in initial accounts of the announcement is the fact that Francis’s opening of the Pius XII archives makes available not only the seventeen million pages of documents in the central Vatican archives, but many other materials in other Church archives. Not least of these are the archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Holy Office of the Inquisition) and the central archives of the Jesuit order. They, too, are likely to have much that is new to tell us. . . .

In an effort to respond to critics, the Holy See commissioned four Jesuits to plow through the archives and publish a selection of documents shedding light on the controversy. The result, over a sixteen-year period beginning in 1965, was twelve thick volumes containing thousands of documents. Although skeptics suspected the Jesuit editors of selecting out documents unflattering to the Church, the volumes are far from a simple whitewash of this troubled history. . . .

[In 1999], the Vatican announced the creation of an unusual interreligious historical commission, composed of three Catholic and three Jewish scholars, tasked with shedding light on the role played by the Vatican as the Holocaust unfolded. After examining the twelve volumes of documents that had earlier been published, its members concluded that they could not draw any adequate historical conclusions without access to the archives themselves. When the Vatican refused to grant their request, the members decided to suspend their work, a decision that generated both embarrassment and polemics. . . .

Media coverage of the opening of the Pius XII archives has focused almost exclusively on the question of what we will learn about the role played by the pope and the Vatican during the war. Yet many of the most historically significant documents soon to be made available relate not to the war years but to the immediate postwar period.

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More about: Catholic Church, History & Ideas, Holocaust, Jewish-Catholic relations, Pope Francis, Vatican, World War II


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