Will opening the Vatican Archives change anything?

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By Gerard Leval

Où était le Pape? (“Where was the Pope?”) As I was growing up, whenever my father would recount his years in southern France during the Nazi occupation, invariably and repeatedly, he would utter these words. He would utter them with a mix of regret and anger.


Born in a shtetl in northeastern Poland, my father was sent to France to study at the University of Caen in Normandy. When just seven years later, he was forced to flee the German onslaught into France, he made his way south, settling in the town of Foix in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Blending into the local community by pretending to be a Catholic, he survived the occupation of France by his wits.

Isolated and living in fear of arrest and deportation, my father lived with the hope that upon instructions from Pope Pius XII, the local priest would be prompted to urge his parishioners to help the Jews who were systematically being hunted down by the Nazi occupiers and their French sympathizers. To his dying day, he firmly believed that if only the pope had encouraged Catholics throughout Europe to protect their Jewish neighbors, he and other hidden Jews would have been extended a helping hand by their Catholic neighbors. But, that encouragement never came.

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For my father, the passive complicity of the Vatican in the crimes perpetrated against Europe’s Jews was self-evident. He did not need additional information, he did not need to review the Vatican archives, he merely needed to recall his precarious existence during the war and the silence of the Church as his life hung in the balance.

For many decades, Jewish leaders and organizations have been clamoring for the opening of the Vatican archives. Ostensibly this has been done to better understand the actions of the pope during the years of the Holocaust. The push to open the Vatican archives was given new impetus a few years ago when Pope Benedict XVI chose to begin the process of beatification of Pius XII. Many in the Jewish community actively sought to challenge Benedict XVI’s decision and urged disclosure of Vatican documents to undermine the process toward sainthood for the wartime pope.


My father would have told them how unnecessary all of this clamoring really was.

First, it is truly not the business of the Jewish community to determine which individuals should be elevated to Catholic sainthood. It is up to the leaders of the Church to determine which individuals they believe represent the ideals of the Catholic faith. In turn, the rest of us can then draw our judgments of the Church and its leaders based upon those choices.

Second, there already exists an eloquent and tragic record of the conduct of Pius XII during World War II. It is possible that the pope assisted the besieged Jews of Rome and saved a few of them from death. He may even have taken a few risks destined to assist various individuals or to challenge some of the more egregious policies of the Italian fascists. However, it is also incontrovertible that he remained publicly silent in the face of Nazi atrocities and never overtly condemned Nazi leaders or urged his followers to lift up their hands to help Jews who were being persecuted by the Nazis.

Catholic apologists for Pius XII assure the world that he acted in many quiet and discreet ways. That kind of conduct would be laudable for a private individual or a local priest living in daily fear of a vicious occupier. However, the pope was the leader of hundreds of millions of Catholics. He was a public figure, whose public pronouncements and actions mattered. The record of those pronouncements and actions is clear, it does not require review of hidden documents.

In a generally welcome move, on March 2, 2020, Pope Francis finally opened the Vatican archives relating to Pius XII’s papacy. As a student of history, I applaud the Pope for his decision. The documents in the Vatican archives will likely clarify certain matters of historical importance.

Possibly the Vatican archives will even disclose a variety of documents tending to indicate that privately Pius XII took actions to help the Jews of Europe. But, even if there are documents that indicate such actions, they will only change our perception of Pius XII and the role of the Vatican hierarchy during World War II at the margins, not at the core. Pius XII’s conduct during the war cannot change. Sadly, his silence in the face of unspeakable barbarity can never be altered. And, as the Vatican proceeds to elevate Pius XII to sainthood and therefore demonstrates to the world that it holds his conduct as exemplary, there is reason for deep disappointment.

Although in the interest of historical accuracy the opening of the Vatican archives is an important milestone, there never was a need for any non-Catholic to try to persuade the Vatican to open its archives. Regardless of the documents that may emerge, they simply cannot alter the basic facts. And, if the Vatican insists that Pius XII warrants sainthood, the Church is sending a powerful and, in my view, regrettable message about the values of the Vatican and the value the Church places upon its relationship with the Jewish community.

For me, as it was for my father, opening the files on Pius XII in the Vatican archives has been and remains unnecessary. It is sufficient merely to ask, “Where was the Pope?”

Gerard Leval is a partner in a Washington law firm. He writes and lectures on topics of French and Jewish interest.

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