Pope Francis announced on Monday that he will open up the Vatican’s secret archives on the papacy of Pope Pius XII, who has been accused of failing to speak up about the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews.
Historians have for decades been calling on the Holy See to let scholars study the archives, in order to ascertain once and for all whether Pius XII failed to use his moral authority to oppose the Holocaust.
The argument that Pius turned a blind eye to the Germans’ annihilation of the Jews was most forcefully put forward in the book Hitler’s Popeby the British journalist John Cornwell.
Pope Francis announced his decision during a meeting with staff from the Secret Archives at the Vatican on Monday, declaring that “the Church is not afraid of history”.
He said the archive would be fully opened on March 2 next year, on the 81st anniversary of the election of Eugenio Pacelli as Pius XII.
Francis acknowledged that there had been “moments of grave difficulty and tormented decisions” for Pius, saying he had been treated by posterity with “some prejudice and exaggeration”.
Without referring directly to Pius’s actions towards the Jews of Europe, Francis said his predecessor had engaged in “hidden but active diplomacy” in order to pursue “humanitarian initiatives”.
While some historians have accused Pius of complicity in the persecution of the Jews because of his decision not to speak out forcefully, others said he did all that he could in the circumstances.
They argue that to have criticised Hitler and the Nazi regime more forcefully would have imperiled Catholics across occupied Europe.
The American Jewish Committee (AJC), one of the world’s leading Jewish groups, welcomed the move.
“For more than 30 years, the AJC has called for the full opening the Holy See’s Secret Archives from the period of World War Two,” Rabbi David Rosen, the AJC’s International Director of Interreligious Affairs, told Reuters.
“It is particularly important that experts from the leading Holocaust memorial institutes in Israel and the US objectively evaluate as best as possible the historical record of that most terrible of times, to acknowledge both the failures as well as the valiant efforts made during the period of the Shoah.”
It normally takes the Vatican 70 years from the end of a pontificate to open up its archives relating to the period, but there has been intense pressure to make an exception for those of Pius XII.