Pope Francis Will Unseal Documents Revealing the Vatican Response to the Holocaust

Fred Ramage, Keystone/Getty Images
Fred Ramage, Keystone/Getty Images / Fred Ramage, Keystone/Getty Images

You might not think that the events of World War II could harbor many more secrets. But a major gap in the historical record still exists and has confounded scholars for decades: the silence of Pope Pius XII and the Vatican in the midst of the Nazi regime.

It appears that won’t be the case for much longer. According to The New York Times, sealed archives documenting the thoughts and actions of Pius XII, who led the Roman Catholic Church from 1939 to 1958, will be made available to scholars beginning March 2, 2020, the 81st anniversary of Pius XII’s election as pope. The Vatican's announcement was made by Pope Francis, who approved the decision to release the papers well before the standard 70-year interval between the end of a pontificate and access to its archival material, which in this case would have come about in 2028.

Because information about Pius’s activities during wartime has been scarce, scholars have debated why he seemingly failed to resist the Nazi presence in Italy, assist people of the Jewish faith against persecution, and condemn the systematic murders of the Holocaust. To some critics, Pius’s silence on the matter is incriminating. Others believe Pius realized open resistance would only anger Adolf Hitler and incite further violence. The Vatican sheltered victims, although whether that was the result of official policy or the individual actions of its members has been open to debate.

Historians have long sought details on the Vatican’s actions, and the Catholic Church has periodically released selected information or offered limited access to its collection. Historians, however, wanted unlimited and direct access. Even more pressure mounted when the Vatican moved Pius closer to sainthood in 2009. Lacking conclusive information about his actions during the war, critics questioned the escalation of his historic profile.

It still may be some time before scholars fully understand how Pius reacted to these events. Owing to the sheer volume of material in the Vatican’s archives relating to Pius, it could be years if not decades before researchers are able to provide a more complete picture of one of the darkest chapters in human history.

[h/t The New York Times]