Pius XII (1876-1958), pope from 1939 to 1958, guided the Roman Catholic Church through the difficult years of World War II and the postwar period, when much of the eastern Catholic Church was heavily persecuted by Soviet communism.
Pius XII was born Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Pacelli in Rome on March 2, 1876. Because of poor health he was allowed to study for the priesthood at his home. Ordained a priest in 1899, he took up work in the Vatican Secretariat of State in 1901, working there until 1917. In that year he became archbishop of Sardis and was sent to Munich as apostolic nuncio to Bavaria. In 1918 he became nuncio in Berlin to the new Weimar Republic. During his German years Pacelli acquired a love of the German people and a knowledge of German affairs. He was a close observer and on a few occasions an eyewitness of Bolshevik riots in Germany, which developed a strong fear in him that Soviet Marxism was the prime enemy of Christendom. This fear, together with his love of Germany, influenced his judgments during World War II. Pius XI recalled Pacelli to Rome in 1929 and named him a cardinal. In 1930 he became secretary of state, remaining at this post until his election as pope on March 2, 1939.
Pius XII's main determination, upon the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, was to preserve cordial relations with all belligerents. He had concluded from his years in Germany that the Vatican should engage in the role of international peacemaker. He therefore refused, in spite of Anglo-American pressures, clearly to declare against the Axis Powers or publicly to describe the German invasion of Soviet Russia as a crusade against communism, as the Axis Powers wished him to do. His attempted neutrality in word and action led Pius XII into an extreme form of abstention from all effective moral protest in the war. He consequently did not intervene to denounce or to halt the Nazi campaign against the Jews or the genocidal acts of the Hitler regime.
This lack of action brought much public criticism of Pius after the war. The Pope, it was argued, had a moral obligation to speak out specifically against all and every kind of injustice. In his defense, it has been alleged—accurately—that any such denunciation might have brought the full wrath of Hitler upon the Church in all the occupied countries as well as in Germany. Privately, Pius organized shelters and other places of refuge for Jews. He also organized the highly effective Work of St. Raphael, which aided in locating and resettling war refugees. The Vatican itself and many Vatican buildings were used, with Pius's tacit approval, for sheltering war refugees, downed pilots, and Allied military personnel.
Toward the end of the war, when Communist partisans appeared in northern Italy, Pius XII communicated his fears to President Franklin Roosevelt of the United States, and in postwar Italy Pius organized Catholic Action groups, which played a great part in bringing the Christian Democrats to power in 1948, thus keeping Italy within the western orbit. Pius continued to battle against Italian communism to the end of his life, issuing a formal excommunication decree against all Catholics who joined the Communist party. At the end of Pius XII's reign, the status of the Church was high on the international scene; his popularity had waned among the intellectuals of the Church; and Pius had placed the Vatican in intransigent positions regarding both non-Catholics and non-Christians.
Role in the Church
Within the Roman Church, Pius XII exercised an authoritarian influence on all developments. In spite of his dogmatic intransigence regarding the ecumenical movement and his refusal to meet with leaders of Eastern Orthodox churches, many of Pius's provisions and reforms laid the ground for the more radical reforms achieved by the Second Vatican Council (called by his successor, John XXIII) and for the participation of Roman Catholics in the ecumenical movement. Pius introduced evening Mass, relaxed the laws on fasting, encouraged the indigenous hierarchies of Africa and Asia, permitted the use of the vernacular in certain Church ceremonies, and reformed the ancient liturgy of the Easter celebration. In doctrine and in theology, Pius was extremely conservative and fomented in the Roman government of the Church a repressive and reactionary spirit. The various offices and ministries of the Vatican, under his rule, exercised great control over the teachings and writings of Roman Catholic scholars and thinkers. This state of affairs provoked the counterreactions characteristic of John XXIII's reign and facilitated the work of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council.
Pius ruled autocratically, imposed his views, and expected exact obedience from all. But not all of his directives concerning the teaching of the Church on dogmatic matters were repressive in their final effect. His Divino afflante Spiritu (1943) gave fresh life to Roman Catholic biblical studies by admitting that the Bible as a book had been influenced in its literary forms by the cultures in which its various parts had been composed. His Humani generis (1950), although repressive in many ways, did not completely block all scientific inquiry into the natural truths underlying the facts of religion and religious territory.
Pius XII was the first pope to make use of the radio on an extensive scale. Indeed, he took every suitable occasion to address both Catholics and non-Catholics on a variety of subjects. During his pontificate the prestige of the Church rose enormously, and his presence in Rome attracted more pilgrims and visitors from varying faiths and countries than ever before in the history of the Vatican. Pius XII died at Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of the popes, on Oct. 9, 1958.
Further Reading on Pius XII
For Pius XII's own writings see Sister M. Claudia Carlen, Guide to the Documents of Pius XII, 1939-49 (1951). A biography of him is Oscar Halecki, Eugenio Pacelli, Pope of Peace (1951; rev. ed. 1954). Pius is discussed in John P. McKnight, The Papacy: A New Appraisal (1953). The controversial question of Pius XII's role immediately preceding and during World War II is the subject of Carlo Falconi, The Silence of Pius XII, translated by Bernard Wall (1970). Pius is also examined in Falconi's earlier and somewhat controversial work, The Popes in the Twentieth Century (1967; trans. 1968).