“But it doesn’t change the historical judgment” of Pius, “which remains harsh,” she said.
The church’s history of involvement in the persecution of Jews long predates Pius and the massacres of the last century. For well over a millennium, Jews were subjected to forced conversion, expulsion, censorship, mass murder by roving Christian mobs and life in ghettos. And that was all before the Inquisition got going.
In 1964, Pope Paul VI became the first pope to visit Israel, and in 1965, the church issued the Latin document “Nostra Aetate,” or “In Our Times,” which deplored antisemitism and said Jews could not collectively be blamed for the death of Jesus. In 2000, Pope John Paul II offered a sweeping apology for the mistreatment of Jews by Catholics, though he did not specifically apologize for the role of the church leadership in the gravest crimes, including the Holocaust.
In 2019, Pope Francis ordered the archives of Pius opened, saying, “The church is not afraid of history.” Initial evidence from those archives painted a picture of Pius as a pope whose fear of Communism, belief that the Axis powers would win the war and desire to protect the church’s interests and avoid alienating millions of German, and Nazi-sympathizing, Catholics, all motivated him to avoid confronting or offending Hitler.
David Kertzer, a Brown University professor who dug up some of that evidence and who has written several books on the popes of the early 20th century, said in a telephone interview that it was “quite clear” to historians that Pius XII “never called on the Catholic institutions in Rome to shelter Jews during the German occupation and, while he was aware that it was happening,” he was “quite nervous about it, not wanting to antagonize the German authorities.”
Pius “certainly did not want Jews concealed in Vatican City, and very few were,” he added.
Defenders of Pius XII, whose case for sainthood is still being evaluated, have long argued that he worked behind the scenes to help Jews. They have chalked up criticism of him to anti-Catholic animus. Other scholars say it will take years to plumb papers referring to Pius and paint a full picture of his papacy.