In many ways, historical accounts have failed Pope Pius XII.
Robert Ventresca, a History professor at King’s University College, will tell you, not only has this controversial pope been misread, his very role is paradoxical, lending itself to conflicting papal legacies.
Ventresca’s most recent work, Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII, has been called a definitive biography of a man who served as the head of the Catholic Church from 1939-58, bearing witness to and facing challenges that came with Nazi, fascist and Soviet regimes, the Holocaust, communism and the Cold War.
“I wrote the book out of frustration. This pope is a controversial figure with so much written about him; it seems everyone has an opinion, especially about his wartime role. I felt there were caricatures of him in the media and in academic circles. I wanted to focus on the full life of the man,” Ventresca said.
Hailed as a rescuer by some, called ‘Hitler’s Pope’ by others, Eugenio Pacelli, known as Pius XII, has been the subject of much criticism, mainly for his inaction in the Nazis’ persecution of Jews.
“Many were controversial, but so many facets of his papal leadership have been obscured by debate. In judging this pope, so much is based on questions we can’t answer,” Ventresca continued.
“I try to understand the rationale and motivations and assumptions of his behaviours. A pope fulfills multiple functions. Some aspects of Pius XII were surprising, progressive. There were ways in which he broke the mould for papal interaction with the world, and yet there were ways in which he was very much a man of his time. He was a paradox and I try to present and capture that.”
Ventresca’s book takes a comprehensive look at the life of Pius XII, shying away from conclusions about his wartime role and leaving room for the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.
“I try to assess what I think is wrong with the interpretations so far – it has to do with the way people use evidence. I use the evidence as impartially as I can. Problems in interpretation come because we know how things could have ended up,” he said, explaining it is easy to make assessments after the fact and voice opinions about how things could, or should have, been done differently.
“I really don’t have a one-dimensional perspective of him because he’s too complicated a figure. You can’t make him fit, which is what I think people have tried to do,” Ventresca added.
There’s a similar dynamic at work when it comes to newly resigned Joseph Ratzinger, known as Benedict XVI, he noted.
“We judge a papacy through the lens of our own perspective. Some will see Benedict XVI as an arch conservative, a man out of touch. Others will see a different pope, one who’s theologically and culturally astute, an astute observer of the Modern Era and a critic of our time. I have no doubt that with him we’ll be hearing wildly divergent accounts, too.”
Ventresca said it is important to keep in mind the complex nature of the papacy, the pope’s job of mediating competing demands and divergent challenges of Catholics around the world, some facing declining congregations while others are facing active persecution.
“Making decisions, trying to mediate conflict, it’s the nature of the position to be wildly admired yet polarizing. Often you’re making unpopular decisions. You can’t please everyone all of the time – there are limits to what one man can do,” he explained.
“If you’re trying to understand papal reasoning, you have to appreciate this perspective of a universal community and a pope who has to be a mindful builder of this community. And ultimately, understanding the legacy of the pope, it takes decades. It will take time.”