Ever since the appearance of Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy in 1963, the role of Pope Pius XII during the WWII has been a subject of heated controversy, a controversy that has intensified in recent years as the Vatican proceeds with the investigation that may eventually lead to his beatification. Rychlak (Law/Univ. of Mississippi) here presents a defense of the pontiff.
The first third of the book offers a look at the early careers of Pius XII and Hitler, the situation of the Catholic church in the postwar world, the uneasy relations between the papacy and the governments of a united Italy that culminated in the Lateran Treaty, the rise of Nazism, and the negotiations that led to the 1933 concordat between Germany and the Vatican. The remaining two-thirds is largely made up of a review of the events of the war years, the statements and actions of the pope, and the reactions to them by the Allies, the Axis, and Jewish and humanitarian organizations. The last chapter considers questions frequently asked about Pius and his behavior during the war. Was he an anti-Semite? Would a statement from Pius have diminished Jewish suffering? Should he have excommunicated Hitler? An epilogue contains a detailed refutation of John Cornwell’s controversial study Hitler’s Pope (1999, not reviewed). On every count, Rychlak finds the case against Pius wanting. Rychlak says that “to evaluate [Pius’s] performance, one must begin by looking at all of the evidence in context,” and so he has surrounded Pius’s story with details that will be familiar to many readers and are of arguable relevance to a judgment on Pius. Even in the context Rychlak provides, some of the more serious charges (such as Pius’s reaction to the Nazi roundup of Jews of Rome in October 1943) remain disturbing; others (like the alleged assistance the church gave to fugitive war criminals) are disposed of in passing.
Readers who are looking for an answer to Cornwell may find this book helpful; those who have followed the controversy about Pius XII will find little new here.