Declassified: Pope Opens WWII Files to Academics

 
L: Pope Francis visits a favela in Brazil during World Youth Day 2013.Photo Tânia Rêgo CC BY 3.0; R: Polish prisoners toast their liberation from Dachau concentration camp.
 
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The church has withstood a lot of criticism because it did not take a public stand against Nazi Germany and its treatment.

The Catholic church is under a lot of fire these days as accusations of sex abuse by priests continue to echo globally. Furthermore, the church’s insistence on celibacy in the priesthood is considered, by many, as an outmoded practice, as is its continued unwillingness to allow women into the priesthood.

But one recent move by the church, thanks to Pope Francis, is earning it a lot of praise. Earlier this month, the Vatican announced that it will open its archives to academics and researchers who wish to examine the church’s actions during World War II.

The church has withstood a lot of criticism because it did not take a public stand against Nazi Germany and its treatment, in particular, of Jews. Consequently, Jewish groups around the world have applauded Pope Francis for his new openness about this dark period of modern history.

When making the announcement, the Pope told a number of Vatican researchers, “the church is not afraid of history.”

Cesare Orsenigo (left, with Hitler and von Ribbentrop), nuncio to Germany, also served as de facto nuncio to Poland.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H26878 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The Pope declared that the archives will be open by March 2020 and that he understood that some feel the church was remiss in its duty by not commenting publicly, at the time, on the suffering engulfing the Jews.

Pope Pius XII was head of the church from 1939 – 1958, which includes the war years, 1939 – 1945. Hence, Pius’s reputation was seriously bruised by what people viewed as his unwillingness to speak out and take a stand against Nazi Germany.

Entry of Allied Troops Into Rome, 5 June 1944. Pope Pius XII addressing the crowd in St Peter’s Square, Rome, from the balcony of St Peter’s Cathedral at 6 o’clock in the evening.

Pope Francis said that he understands why many see the church’s behavior as cowardly but that Pius has been unjustly criticized. He stated that the period “included moments of grave difficulties, tormented decisions of human and Christian prudence, that to some could appear as reticence.”

But Francis said that his predecessor deserves to be reconsidered by history, insisting that Pius’s reputation has been tainted with “some prejudice and exaggeration.”

It has taken a considerable length of time (well over a decade) for the archives to be readied for scholars and historians. There are approximately 16 million pages researchers will be allowed to access.

Members of the Canadian Royal 22e Regiment, in audience with Pope Pius XII, following the 1944 Liberation of Rome

The Jewish community’s response to the news was swift and largely positive. Although some complained about the length of time they’ve been waiting for access, others said they are cautiously optimistic that the move will shed light on the church’s position – or lack thereof – during the rise of Nazism, the war years, and the treatment of Jews.

The Vatican began readying the papers in 2006 under Pope Benedict XVI, but in spite of requests from rabbis and Jewish historians, only opened papers covering the period 1922 – 1939, the year the war began with the invasion of Poland.

But, as Rabbi David Rosen, International Minister of Inter-religious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) recently told BBC News, this latest development is a vital step in a new, open approach by the church.

Public execution of Polish priests and civilians in Bydgoszcz’s Old Market Square, 9 September 1939. The Polish Church suffered a brutal persecution under Nazi Occupation.

“It is particularly important that experts from the leading Holocaust memorial institutes in Israel and the U.S. objectively evaluate, as best as possible, the historical record of that most terrible of times, to acknowledge both the failures as well as the valiant efforts made during the period of the Shoah [Holocaust].”

Historians have long requested access to the relevant wartime documents, but it is only because of Pope Francis that this step has been taken. No matter what the papers reveal, however, the Pope insisted during his recent announcement that Pius XII deserves re-evaluating by scholars and historians, particularly as he is now being considered for sainthood.

Pope Pius XII

In 2014, Pope Francis said that Pius was “a great defender of Jews,” and had insisted various churches in Italy give shelter to fleeing Jews. “One needs to see his role in the context of the time,” Francis said in 2014. “For example, was it better for him not to speak so that more Jews would not be killed, or for him to speak?”

Read another story from us: Declassified Files: The Pope Accused of Inaction During the Holocaust

The fact remains, however, that Pius did not sign the 1942 Allies’ declaration that condemned the Nazi’s killing of Jews and their forced deportation from Rome to Auschwitz. This is just one sore point that rankles about those years.

But Pope Francis’s willingness to shine a light on the church’s role during those years and Pius’s place in history is a step lauded by Jews, Catholics, and other religions worldwide.

 
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