Did Pope Pius XII do enough to protect Jews during the Holocaust? That question has raged since World War II. But since historians have no access to Roman Catholic files related to his reign, it has gone unanswered.
Until now. Pope Francis announced on March 4, 2019 that the Vatican will open its secret archives on Pius XII. During an event commemorating the 80th anniversary of Pius XII’s election to the papacy, Francis said he had given orders for the archive to be opened in March 2020. “The Church is not afraid of history,” he told the group.
The decision was hailed by historians, who have been agitating for more information on Pius XII’s activities during World War II for decades. Though some Catholic institutions rescued Jews during the Holocaust, Pius has been criticized for his silence during the war years and his failure to publicly condemn the Nazis.
“Information received by the Vatican from 1942 onwards was not disseminated, nor was direction given to bishops and the Catholic faithful, with regard to the treatment of Jews,” notes Yad Vashem. But though Pius XII’s public silence is known, it’s unclear how he may have responded in private.
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The decision represents a change of course for the Roman Catholic Church, which usually waits at least 70 years to release documents about popes. Since World War II, the Vatican has given historians outside the Catholic church minimal access to the files.
That lack of direct access has led to speculation on the part of historians and confusion about Pius’s role within history. In 2009, when the Catholic Church announced Pius XII was being considered for sainthood, the move was widely criticized despite Church insistence that he had quietly helped save Jews.
Though the archives are called “secret,” they are not actually hidden. The name was given to the Catholic Church’s official archives due to the Latin word “secretum,” which means private. Historian David I. Kertzer notes that the decision will also make documents available in non-Vatican archives, like that of the Jesuit order.
READ MORE: Step Into the Vatican’s Secret Archives
What will the papers reveal? That’s still unclear. It will take years for scholars to sift through the documents, and some historians doubt they will contain as much information as scholars will like. The Church may have documented little due to a fear that the Nazis would use the papers against them, historian Anna Foa told the New York Times. But regardless of what the files hold, their opening is viewed as a victory by those who have advocated for them.
The American Jewish Committee, a global Jewish advocacy group that has pushed for their full opening for decades, celebrated the decision. “It is particularly important that experts ... objectively evaluate as best as possible the historical record of that most terrible of times,” Rabbi Rosen, the group’s director of inter-religious affairs, said in a statement. "To acknowledge both the failures as well as the valiant efforts made during the period of the systematic murder of six million Jews."