Controversy over the Roman Catholic Church’s alleged “silence” about the crimes of Nazism shows no sign of being settled, despite the overly optimistic subtitle of this flawed but revealing history.
Godman, a Vatican scholar who has taught most recently at the Univ. of Rome, was the first allowed to see the archives of the Roman Inquisition, the Vatican body in charge of faith and morals, where debates on the Nazis occurred. Materials related to these deliberations were considered so dangerous that in 1940 they were moved to the US to avoid falling into Axis hands. In contrast to John Cornwell’s sensational but shoddy Hitler’s Pope, Godman absolves Pope Pius XII of anti-Semitism. Yet he finds the papacy fallible in formulating a strategy as Hitler and Mussolini cast ever-larger shadows across Europe. The roots of the problem, Godman suggests, lay not in the papacy of Pius XII but in that of his predecessor, Pius XI. As cardinal–Secretary of State, Pius XII (then known as Eugenio Pacelli) hewed to the line set by his mentor, “in that spirit of diplomatic legalism appropriate to his role and congenial to his character.” The real advance here lies in the depiction of the Vatican, a bureaucracy riven with competing agendas that not even the pope could wholly master. By 1935, angered by the Nazis’ flagrant violations of a concordat, their use of eugenics, and their racism, Pius XI secretly commissioned a pair of German Jesuits to prepare a condemnation that listed 47 heretical propositions of the regime. But the document ended up watered down in a wider condemnation that linked Nazism with Communism and Fascism as “errors of the age”—and even that was shelved because the German bishops were uncertain how to react to Hitler’s mix of lies and threats. Although Godman has uncovered important new information on the behind-the-scenes maneuverings between Rome and Berlin, he does not always present it with clarity. Worse, he stops in 1939, just before Pacelli succeeded Pius XI, so that the wartime action and inaction of the Vatican that have ignited opprobrium are undiscussed.
While critical of the papacy, a more balanced treatment of its policy than Cornwell’s—though a longer, more intensive treatment is still in order.