Pius XI Revealed

Interview with Professor Matteo Luigi Napolitano

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ROME, OCT. 2, 2006 (Zenit.org).- The opening of Vatican Secret Archives from the pontificate of Pope Pius XI may help historians to reevaluate the years preceding World War II.



The archives, opened Sept. 18, include millions of letters relating to the years 1922-1939, covering events such as the Catholic Church's persecution in Mexico and Spain, the advent of Fascism and Nazism, and the spread of Communism in Europe.

In this interview with ZENIT, Matteo Luigi Napolitano, associate professor at the University of Molise, comments on the first steps of analyzing the documents found in the archives.

Napolitano is also a delegate of the Pontifical Commission of Historical Sciences to the International Commission for the History of World War II.

Q: From the historical point of view, of what importance is the opening of the Vatican Archives on the period of Pius XI's pontificate?

Napolitano: The opening of the archives, in the greatest possible number, is in general the great desire of historians. In particular, the Holy See's international relations can also be documented based on different Vatican archives.

It is the case with Pius XI's pontificate: The valuable work carried out by experts of Italy's Foreign Ministry, in the '80s, under the guidance of professor Pietro Pastorelli, has enabled us to have access to an enormous quantity of material relative to the relationship between the Holy See and Fascist Italy.

The work of similar commissions abroad and the publication of diplomatic collections, has enhanced our knowledge of many other aspects of Pius XI's diplomacy.

But the opening of the papers of the Vatican Secret Archive represents an enormous enrichment, not only because of its own importance, which needs no explanation, but also because the internal dynamics of the Holy See can be understood, especially in great moments of change in the contemporary world in which the Vatican was involved.

Q: What do the documents say about Hitler's visit to Rome on May 2, 1938? How did the Holy See conduct itself?

Napolitano: From Father Giovanni Sale's research in the archives opened in 2003, one deduces that neither Pius XI nor Pius XII were "Hitler's Popes." The papers now available enlarge the horizon on Pius XI's pontificate and specify two aspects that were already known for a long time.

Documented, in the first place, is the Vatican's criticism of a passive Mussolini, imitator of Hitler.

Recorded, in the second place, is the concern given the crushing of Italy because of German politics, not only in regard to the racial issue, but more broadly in choosing an alignment fraught with dangerous consequences.

In this connection, Hitler's visit on May 2, 1939 to which you allude, is symptomatic.

The Vatican did not approve of having the German chancellor in Rome.

The Pope's departure for Castel Gandolfo and his allusion to the other cross that was rising over Rome, which was not Christ's, is only an example of a larger theme of unfolding events, such as the controversy over street decorations, over the route Hitler should follow, the instructions to the Italian episcopate and religious not to participate in manifestations of homage to Hitler, and the fear that the Axis would become an alliance.

But also recorded was the Fascists' conviction that the Vatican's anti-Nazi posture not only compromised the attempts to moderate Nazi anger against the German Church, but ended ultimately by favoring the "popular fronts," and, specifically, the "Bolsheviks" and French "Masons" with whose position the Holy See seemed to be in agreement.

Q: What is your assessment of what the documents say about Pius XII?

Napolitano: The proclivities to controversy might now be tempted to launch accusations, according to which the Vatican had a "Hitler's Pope" and a "Mussolini's Pope" and, perhaps, also a "Franco's Pope."

But controversy and ignorance sometimes are related. This is demonstrated in a Sept. 23 article by John Cornwell -- author of the controversial book "Hitler's Pope" -- in the British review The Tablet, in which he writes that the new opening of the Vatican Archives of the period 1922-1939 "is an important event for all researchers interested in the Holy See's relations with Nazi Germany."

Cornwell demonstrates consequently that he is unaware that the Vatican documents on the period 1922-1939 relating to German-Vatican relations were opened in February of 2003. This is an example of a supposed "expert" who is three years behind in regard to history!

To return to more serious matters, Pius XI's pontificate was certainly great, including the way he addressed international affairs, along with his principal collaborator, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII.

There are already -- and others will come -- proofs of the reservations of Pius XI and Cardinal Pacelli vis-à-vis exasperated nationalist phenomena such as Hitlerism. I would not be surprised also to find documentary proofs that deny the old theory that the Vatican was soft toward Nazism and inflexible with Communism.

Thanks to some documents, one can now perceive, for example, the Fascists' judgment on Pius XI: Mussolini always saw the Pope as too aligned against Nazi Germany and too tolerant toward the Bolsheviks. But a more detailed judgment will only be possible when the examination of existing documentation is complete.

Q: What was the relationship like between Pius XI and his secretary of state, Cardinal Pacelli?

Napolitano: I would limit myself for now to verify what the other archives say. In the archive of Italy's Foreign Ministry there is a profile of possible "papables" -- papal candidates -- prepared by Monsignor Enrico Pucci in anticipation of the conclave and given -- perhaps -- to the Italian ambassador in the Vatican, Pignatti Morano de Custoza.

In the profile relating to the future Pius XII, the following is read: "Instead, it seems increasingly clear that the candidate preferred by Pius XI for an eventual succession is Cardinal Pacelli. Pius XI, especially recently, has never missed an occasion to manifest, even in public addresses, the qualities of his immediate collaborator and of showing him his predilection."

The document was published by professor Mario Casella in 2000. The Vatican documents -- and I am thinking especially of the "Diary" of the audiences written by Pacelli -- will undoubtedly confirm this privileged relationship between the Pope and his closest collaborator.

Beyond personal differences, therefore, neither Pius XI nor his successor were Hitler's or Mussolini's Popes.