Taken from The Sunday Times 12.9.99 (abridged)
Ever since a young German playwright, Rolf Hochhuth, accused Eugenio Pacelli, Pius XII, the wartime Pope, a saint of the Catholic church, of not having done enough to save the Jews from the death camps, the debate over his culpability has gone to and fro. Did his reticence condemn millions of Jews to the gas chamber?
A practising Catholic and a former seminarian, I always believed Pacelli was innocent. I could not imagine that a pope of such evident holiness could be guilty of silent complicity in the Holocaust and I originally set out to write a definitive book in his defence. I knew of the sworn depositions in the Jesuit's keeping and I was eager to have sight of them. After a number of meetings with one of Rome's top prelates, the German Jesuit Father Peter Gumpel, at the headquarters of the Society of Jesus situated next door to the Vatican, he agreed to let me read the 1,000-page typed transcript: the testimonies of 40 years, his doctor, his nephew and his priest secretaries, as well as various bishops and cardinals.
I read the testimonies in an enormous dust-laden reading room filled with portraits of Jesuit missionary martyrs. Gumpel agreed to photocopy, personally, any of the pages I wanted. His courtesy was clearly dependent on his conviction that I would write a glowing portrait of Pacelli, whom he frequently described as "that beautiful, saintly man".
Eventually I flew back to Britain with 650 pages of documentation. The material was to give me a deep and unique insight into the personality and motivations of arguably the most powerful churchman in modern times.
After reading through the combined archives alongside a huge amount of historical scholarship on Vatican diplomacy in Germany during the 1920's and 1930's - in which Pacelli had been the dominant figure - I found myself in a state that I can only describe as moral shock. The material I had gathered, taking the more extensive view of Pacelli's life, amounted not to an exoneration but to a wider indictment.
Spanning Pacelli's career from the beginning of the century, my research told the story of a bid for unprecedented papal power that, by 1933, had drawn the Catholic church into complicity with the darkest forces of the era. I found evidence, moreover, that from an early stage in his career Pacelli betrayed an undeniable antipathy towards Jews.
Having realised the sort of book that I have written, Gumpel attempted to wreck it - not on the basis of inaccuracy, but by legal threats based on the claim that he had never technically given permission for me to use the material in the first place, which was untrue.
Gumpel's anger and dismay went much deeper than mere disappointment at seeing his hero depicted in a bad light. The process of making Pacelli a saint, a project much supported by Pope John Paul II, has enormous implications for the future of the Catholic church.
Pius XII has become an icon of the ever-growing constituency of Catholic traditionalists who want to restore the reactionary policies abandoned by the Second Vatican Council after his death in 1958. A book critical of him has implications for a looming titanic clash between Catholic traditionalists and progressives in the billion-strong worldwide Catholic church.
Vatican II urged a decentralised, more democratic church, which admitted its fallibility and extended friendship to other denominations and religions. But the traditionalists believe that the future and unity of the Catholic church can be secured only by concentrating all authority in the person of the Pope. John Paul II has increasingly endorsed this view.
The canonisation of Pius XII is a key move in the attempts to restore a reactionary papal absolutism. My book shows that the failure of Catholics to resist Hitler, and the failure of the wartime Pope to speak out against the final solution, were precisely linked to the politics of that same absolutism.
Gumpel, in a piece of special pleading, has written that critics of Pacelli "should realise that they are trampling on the sensibilities of Catholics and in doing so hinder efforts to build better relations between the Catholic church and Jews".
After my own journey through the life and times of Pacelli, I am convinced that the cumulative verdict of history reveals him - on political grounds alone - to be not a saintly exemplar for future generations, but a deeply flawed church leader from whom Catholics can best profit by expressing their sincere regret.
The documents also show him to be a deeply neurotic, narcissistic and arrogant man in his private life, the very antithesis of the saintly model he was said to be - and I intend to reveal details of these flaws.
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