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Of Whetstones and Grinding Wheels:
The Critics of Pius XII

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 19, 2005

In recent years, Pope John Paul II has opened a number of new sections of the Vatican’s Secret Archives. This has been done in part because critics of Pius XII insisted that the Archives must contain damning evidence of that Pope’s lack of effort to help Jews. But even as the books and articles attacking Pius XII continue to be published, the director of the Archives is complaining that the all-important documents are not being used.

Da Vinci Code History

This is hardly surprising. To anyone with the least independence of mind, it has long been obvious that the vast majority of Pius XII’s critics have been grinding axes rather than engaging in critical scholarship. Both during World War II and in the years immediately following, Pius was frequently thanked and praised by the Jewish community for his unstinting efforts on their behalf. Mainstream publications expressed the same sentiment, including a retrospective feature in Life magazine in the 1950’s. But today’s most widely-published authors are not interested in contemporaneous evidence. In nearly every case they bring a preconceived animosity to their subject because they dislike Catholic principles.

It has never made any difference how often proven scholarship has pointed out their fallacies. These media darlings write pop history in the mode of the code—the Da Vinci Code. The wildest charges are made in a historical minestrone of fact and fiction, published by mainstream outlets which themselves make no secret of their antipathy to the Faith—and believed by all who can’t swim upstream. Indeed, it takes no very bad will on the part of readers to be guilty of such knee-jerk credulity. All it takes is a failure to successfully resist the conditioning of our generally secular culture.

Build It and They Won’t Come

Of course, we are all sometimes guilty of believing the worst about people we are not supposed to like. Even those with the most transcendent of perspectives must struggle for objectivity. But scholars are either on guard against their own prejudices or they are not scholars, and when it comes to distinguishing between serious inquiry and vile slurs, there is at least one fairly simple test: the test of careful research.

It is part of the genius of John Paul II’s pontificate that he understands how to administer this test. John Paul has stated repeatedly that the Church is more than willing to admit the mistakes and sins of her members, and will acknowledge wrong-doing whenever there is evidence to support the charge. Again and again he has encouraged scholars and critics to examine the record in order to craft a more perfect common understanding. He has opened the archives and invited all to come. But the vast majority of critics prefer to remain comfortably at home.

An Odd Professionalism

Although my own Ph.D. in history has been unused for years, I can at least explain how the discipline works. There are two critical steps in any project. First, you consult as many primary sources as you can. Second, you make yourself familiar with the work of other scholars and take pains to look carefully at any evidence they may cite that you have not yet seen. Then, when you write up your findings, you both present the truth of the case and attempt to show how those with other viewpoints have misunderstood or misused the available data. You do not plug your ears to alternative theories. You do not ignore large bodies of evidence. And, above all, you never pretend that you are taking seriously evidence that you haven’t reviewed. The same is true for any scholarly discipline.

With this in mind, let us consider the Vatican’s Secret (read private) Archives, which are the greatest single repository of documents concerning the wartime work of Pius XII. In keeping with the usual governmental restrictions on official materials relating to contemporary matters, the documents from the World War II period have become publicly available only in recent years. As with other archives around the world, these documents are retrieved by librarians and loaned to scholars on request for use in special study areas. The materials are exceedingly valuable and carefully monitored. For the archivist to compile a list of those who have consulted them is simplicity itself.

Touring the Archives

These archival papers are the sine qua non of competent research. Therefore, given the frequency of publication on this issue, the Vatican naturally expected them to be in high demand. Instead, Archive Director Msgr. Sergio Pagano had this to say in a January interview with the Italian daily Avenire: “They called for the opening of the archives, as if they were entering a secret fortress and expected to meet resistance. But when the door was opened, those who were calling for the opening did not present themselves—or showed up only for a tourist’s visit.”

The reference to a “tourist’s visit” is revealing. When someone claims he has visited the Archives and found nothing to change his mind, we must learn to read between the lines.

In any case, had they actually studied Pius' record, the critics might have learned the importance of evidence. It was this Pope who established the Vatican Information Service to track countless bits of information about displaced persons during the war years, responding to millions of requests for help, and often providing the evidential links necessary to reunite brothers and sisters, parents and children, husbands and wives. The vast number of requests strongly suggests that everyone at the time knew this and much more about the many papal initiatives on behalf of Jews.

The fact that popular history reads so differently today is a tribute not to the sharpening of insight but to another kind of sharpening altogether, the kind that uses a grindstone. I have already referred to the grinding of axes, which is very useful before taking a whack. But perhaps even this is too generous. Small men generally prefer lighter tools and tasks—the whetstone, the hatchet, and the hatchet job.


For a definitive response to the hatcheteers, see The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII, edited by Joseph Bottum & Rabbi David Dalin, published by Lexington Books (November 2004, 282 pp., $29.95 cloth).

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