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Pius XII

A Dictionary of Popes

J. N. D. Kelly,

Michael J. Walsh

Pius XII 

(2 Mar. 1939–9 Oct. 1958)

A lawyer's son and descended from a family of jurists in the service of the holy see, Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli was born in Rome on 2 Mar. 1876, attended a state secondary school, and studied at the Gregorian University, the Capranica College, and the S. Apollinare Institute, Rome. Ordained priest in Apr. 1899, he entered the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs in 1901, rising through the ranks to become Secretary to the Congregation in 1914, and from 1904 to 1916 was Cardinal Gasparri's right-hand assistant in codifying the canon law; for several years he also taught international law at the Academy of Noble Ecclesiastics. In 1911 he visited London as part of the Vatican's delegation to the coronation of King George V, his first official mission. Under *Benedict XV he tried to prevent Italy's entry into the First World War, and travelled to Vienna to attempt to persuade the Austrian government to be more understanding of Italy's position. In Apr. 1917 Benedict appointed him nuncio in Munich and titular archbishop of Sardes, and in June 1920 named him nuncio to the new German republic. These were busy years, for during the First World War he had to negotiate with the imperial government about Benedict XV's abortive peace plan (1917), while after the war he agreed a favourable concordat with Bavaria (1924) and a less advantageous one with Prussia (1929). As nuncio in Berlin he engaged in ultimately fruitless negotiations with representatives of the USSR, and in his offices ordained as bishop the Jesuit Michel d'Herigny (1880–1957), who was sent into Russia to organize an underground Catholic church. Named cardinal on 16 Dec. 1929, he succeeded Gasparri as secretary of state on 7 Feb. 1930, and as such was responsible for concordats with Austria (June 1933) and National Socialist Germany (July 1933). Although Berlin took the initiative in the latter, Adolf Hitler's repeated violations of it and the deteriorating position of the church in Germany led to increasing difficulties for the holy see. Meanwhile Pacelli, an accomplished linguist, paid official visits to Argentina (1934), France (1935 and 1937), and Hungary (1938), and an extensive private one to the USA (1936). With the Second World War threatening, he was elected at a one-day conclave at the third ballot, obtaining 48 out of 53 votes. No secretary of state had been chosen since *Clement IX, but he was the best-known of the cardinals, and possessed the gifts and experience that seemed called for.

Pius saw himself as the pope of peace, and until 1 Sept. 1939 strove to avert war by diplomatic moves, on 3 May calling for an international conference to settle differences peacefully, and on 24 Aug. making a radio appeal to the world to abstain from resort to war; until the Italian prime minister Benito Mussolini's entry into the war on 10 June 1940, he worked to keep Italy out of it, even paying a courtesy call on the Italian king at the Quirinal, the first time a pope had visited the former papal palace since its confiscation by the Italian state. He achieved neither aim, but through his efforts and presence Rome was treated as an open city. Faithful to the Lateran Treaty (art. 24) as well as to his conception of the church's role, he remained strictly neutral (‘impartial’, he preferred to call it), but repeatedly called for a just and lasting peace on the basis of natural law. In his allocution for Christmas 1939 he laid down the five principles essential for one; they included general disarmament, recognition of minority rights, and the right of every nation to independence. Although convinced that communism was even more dangerous than Nazism, he did not endorse Hitler's attack on Russia, and he deplored the Allies' demand at Casablanca (Jan. 1943) for unconditional surrender. Throughout the war he supervised, through the Pontifical Aid Commission, a vast programme for the relief of war victims, especially prisoners of war; and when Hitler occupied Rome on 10 Sept. 1943, Pius made the Vatican City an asylum for countless refugees, including numerous Jews. He has been criticized, however, for failing to speak out sufficiently firmly against Nazi atrocities, especially the persecution of the Jews. His defenders have pointed (a) to unmistakable denunciations, albeit in general terms, of extermination on grounds of race (esp. 24 Dec. 1942 and 2 June 1943); (b) to his conviction, expressed more than once, that more explicit protests would only stimulate barbaric reprisals; and (c) to the assistance he personally gave, or connived at the giving of, to vast numbers of individual Jews. What remains clear is that the veiled or generalized language traditional to the curia was not a suitable instrument for dealing with cynically planned world domination and genocide. There also remains the question why he did not publish the encyclical condemning anti-Semitism, Unitas humani generis, which had been prepared on the instructions of his predecessor in the papal office.

Unaffected in his teaching office by the war, Pius published two major encyclicals while it was still raging. In Mystici corporis Christi (29 June 1943) he expounded the nature of the church in terms of Christ's mystical body, while in Divino afflante Spiritu (30 Sept. 1943) he permitted the use of modern historical methods by exegetes of Scripture. Closely linked with the former was Mediator Dei (20 Nov. 1947), which called for the intelligent participation of the laity in the mass. In 1951 and later he reformed the entire Holy Week liturgy, while in Christus dominus (16 Jan. 1953) and Sacram communionem (19 Mar. 1957) he standardized relaxations of the eucharistic fast and the holding of evening masses, which wartime conditions had made necessary. Always Marian in his piety, he defined the dogma of the bodily Assumption of the BVM into heaven in Munificentissimus Deus (1 Nov. 1950), and devoted Ad coeli reginam (11 Oct. 1954) to her royal dignity, leaving open, however, the question of her mediation and co-redemptive role. He was the first to appreciate the Marian importance of Fátima. A conservative note was sounded in Humani generis (12 Aug. 1950), which warned against the accommodation of Catholic theology to current intellectual trends. Politically he inveighed against communism, threatening (e.g. 1 July 1949 and 28 July 1950) members of the party and its promoters with excommunication, and concluded accords advantageous to the church with Dr Salazar's Portugal (18 July 1950) and General Franco's Spain (27 Aug. 1955). In the moral field he condemned, with Germany in view, the conception of collective guilt (24 Dec. 1944; 20 Feb. 1946), and also any kind of artificial insemination (29 Sept. 1949). In Miranda prorsus (8 Sept. 1957) he sought to lay down guidelines for the audio-visual media.

Pius canonized 33 persons, including *Pius X. He created an unprecedentedly large number of cardinals, 32 in 1946 and 24 in 1953, drawing them from many countries and reducing the Italian element to one-third. Although the church suffered severe restrictions and losses in his reign, it also made striking advances, the number of dioceses rising from 1,696 in 1939 to 2,048 in 1958 and hierarchies being set up in China (1946), Burma (1955), and several African countries. He promoted important excavations (1939–49) under St Peter's aimed at identifying the Apostle's tomb. He sought to encourage relations with the Greek-rite Catholic and Orthodox churches of the east, and somewhat relaxed his predecessor's negative attitude to the ecumenical movement, formally recognizing it on 20 Dec. 1949 (after the formation of the World Council of Churches in 1948), and permitting Roman Catholics to engage in discussions with non-Romans on matters of faith. Tall, slender, ascetic in appearance but friendly in manner, he made a profound impression on the millions who flocked to Rome for the Holy Year of 1950 and the Marian Year of 1954, and on the thousands who attended his innumerable audiences. He was the first pope to become widely known by radio and television. Authoritarian in style, he acted himself as secretary of state from 1944, and increasingly diminished the role of the cardinals. In his latter years, however, when he was frequently prostrated with serious illness, this solitary bent placed undue power in the hands of the narrow, not always scrupulous, circle on which he was forced to depend. This brought a shadow over his pontificate, and when he died at Castel Gandolfo his moral authority probably stood higher in non-Roman than Roman circles.

Further Reading

E. Pacelli, La personalità e la territorialità delle leggi specialmente nel diritto canonico (Rome, 1912)Find this resource:

    AAS 33–50 (1939–58)Find this resource:

      Discorsi e radiomessagi di S.S. Pio XII (20 vols., Vatican City, 1939–58)Find this resource:

        Actes et documents du S. Siège relatifs à la seconde grande guerre mondiale, ed. P. Blet and others (Rome, 1965 ff.: ET, 1968 [only one volume was published])Find this resource:

          S. Friedländer, Pius XII and the Third Reich (ET, London, 1966)Find this resource:

            I. Giordani, Pio XII, un grande papa (Turin, 1961)Find this resource:

              L. Chaigne, Portrait et vie de Pie XII (Paris, 1966)Find this resource:

                R. Leiber, ‘Pius XII as I Knew Him’, Catholic Mind, 57 (1959), 292–304Find this resource:

                  EThC 130–31 (J. Gelmi)Find this resource:

                    Histoire xii. 25–30Find this resource:

                      Levillain ii. 1210–20 (A. Riccardi)Find this resource:

                        NCE xi. 396–400 (R. Leiber/R. McInerny/eds.)Find this resource:

                          ODCC 1305Find this resource:

                            O. Chadwick, Britain and the Vatican during the Second World War (Cambridge, 1987)Find this resource:

                              J. Cornwell, Hitler's Pope (London, 1999)Find this resource:

                                J. Sánchez, Pius XII and the Holocaust (Washington, DC, 2002)Find this resource:

                                  J. Biesinger, ‘The Reich Concordat of 1933’, in F. Coppa (ed), Controversial Concordats (Washington, DC, 1999), 120–81Find this resource:

                                    J. Pollard, Catholicism in Modern Italy (London, 2008), 88–130Find this resource:

                                      S. Zuccotti, Under his Very Windows (New Haven, 2000)Find this resource: