Cardinal Bertone on Pius XII (Part 2)

“He Had Before Him a World in Thrall to Violent and Irrational Passions”

VATICAN CITY, JUNE 6, 2007 ( Here is a translation of the second part of a speech given Tuesday by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone at the presentation of a book by Andrea Tornielli, “Pio XII: Un Uomo Sul Trono di Pietro” (Pius XII: A Man on the Throne of Peter).

Part 1 was published Tuesday. Part 3 will be published on Thursday.

* * *

4. A Very Precise Historical Period

It seems useful to me to underscore how Tornielli’s book calls our attention again to some things already known by serious historians. I think that this is one of the valuable points about the volume that we are discussing here: It takes account of the difficult times in which Pope Pacelli lived, the Pope whose voice did not enjoy the favor of the powers that be during World War II or during the succeeding period in which the opposing political blocs faced off against each other. How many times did Vatican Radio “not have the requisite electricity” to make the Pontiff’s voice heard; how many times was there “a scarcity of paper” to reproduce his thoughts and uncomfortable teachings; how many times did some accident cause issues of L’Osservatore Romano to be “lost,” — issues that carried clarifications, updates, political notes …

Nevertheless, today, thanks to modern means, those sources have been amply reproduced and been made available. Dr. Tornielli has sought them out and found them and the great body of notes in his book is a testimony to them.

At this moment I would like to draw your attention to an important period. The figure and work of Pius XII, praised and thanked before, during and immediately after World War II, began to be scrutinized by different eyes during a very precise historical period, from August 1946 to October 1948. After “the persecutions of a fanatical anti-Semitism that were unleashed against the Jewish people” [Allocution of August 3, 1946], the desire of the tortured people of Israel to have their own country, their own secure refuge, was understandable.

But it was equally understandable that those people who already lived in Palestine also had rights and expected respect, attention, justice and protection. The newspapers of the times provided ample coverage of the tension that was beginning to manifest itself in that region, but because they did not wish to consider the reasoning and proposals of Pius XII, they began to take positions some on one side, some on another, and thereby transformed the Pope’s reflection — that was attentive to the criteria of justice, equity, respect, and legality and developed in an articulate way — into ideology.

Pius XII was not only the Pope of the Second World War, but a pastor who, from March 2, 1939, to October 9, 1958, had before him a world in thrall to violent and irrational passions. From that moment forward, there began to take shape an incomprehensible accusation against the Pope, namely, that he did not intervene as he should have on behalf of the persecuted Jewish people.

In this connection it seems to me important to recognize that, in any case, those who are free of ideological designs and are lovers of the truth, are well disposed to more deeply understand, in complete sincerity, a long, fruitful, and to my mind heroic, papacy. An example of this is the recent change of attitude at the great sanctuary that is Yad Vashem in Jerusalem to reconsider the figure and work of Pope Pacelli, not from a polemical perspective but from a historically objective angle. It is a fervent wish that such publicly manifested goodwill will have an adequate follow-up.

5. The Duty of Charity Toward All

June 2, 1943, on the occasion of the feast of St. Eugene, Pius XII publicly expounded the reasons for his attitude. First of all, Pope Pacelli speaks again of the Jewish people: “The rulers of nations must not forget that he who ‘carries the sword’ — to use the language of sacred Scripture — cannot decide the life and death of men except in accord with the law of God, from whom all authority comes.”

“You cannot expect us,” Pius XII continues, “here to recount point for point all that we have tried to procure and accomplish to mitigate their sufferings, to better their moral and juridical condition, to safeguard their inalienable religious rights, to bring help in their sufferings and necessities. Every word to this end that we addressed to the competent authorities as well as each of our public allusions had to be weighed and measured by us in the very interest of those who were suffering, so that we should not unwittingly make their situation more grave and unbearable. Unfortunately, the visibly obtained improvements do not correspond to the maternal solicitude of the Church on behalf of these particular groups that are subjected to the most bitter misfortunes, and the Vicar, [who] asking only for compassion and a return to elementary norms of law and humanity, has found himself, at times, before doors that no key could open.”

Here, in the middle of 1943, we find revealed the reason for the prudence with which Pacelli conducted himself in public denouncements: “in the very interest of those who were suffering, so that we should not unwittingly make their situation more grave and unbearable.”

These are words that to me seem to be echoed in the brief address given by Paul VI on Septempber 12, 1964, at the catacombs of Santa Domitilla. On that occasion Pope Montini said: “The Holy See abstains from more frequently and vehemently raising its legitimate voice in protest and outrage, not because it ignores or neglects the reality of what is happening, but out of Christian patience and so as not to provoke worse evils.”

In the middle of the 1960s, Paul VI was referring to the countries behind the Iron Curtain, governed by totalitarian communism. He, who was a close collaborator of Cardinal Pacelli and of Pope Pius XII, thus adduces the same reasons.

Popes do not speak with the idea of pre-constituting a favorable image for future ages. They know that the fate of millions of Christians can at times depend on their every word; they have at heart the fate of men and women of flesh and blood, not the applause of historians.

Robert Kempner, a Jewish lawyer and public official at the Nuremberg trials, wrote in 1964, after the appearance of Hochhuth’s “The Deputy”: “Any propagandistic position that the Church would have taken against Hitler’s government would have not only provoked suicide … but it would have hastened the execution of still more Jews and priests.”


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