Defender of the Church

A new biography attempts to capture the most puzzling of 20th-century popes

The recent election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the successor of Pope Benedict XVI was surprising on several counts. The new pope took the name of Francis, comes from what the Vatican still thinks of as the New World and is a member of the Companions of Jesus or the Jesuits. All papal firsts.

He has communicated by gesture, tone and style that the accoutrements of papal living, the ornate vesture and the spirit-constricting protocols that have defined the papacy for centuries, will be put aside as so much imperial baggage, the residue of an earlier time and a more monarchical modality.

Francis is not the first pope to begin stripping away the majestic rubrics and finery associated with the papacy. John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II and even Benedict XVI sought to simplify the ministry of Peter: the Noble Guards were disbanded, the sedia gestatoria (the throne upon which the pope was borne aloft by twelve footmen and flanked by two elaborate fans) was shuffled off to the museum, the triregnum tiara or papal crown was dispensed with, and more besides.

The pope, however, for whom all of this ceremonial and ancient custom was as natural as the air he breathed, is the subject of Canadian historian Robert A. Ventresca’s new biography: Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII. This is but the latest of an eclectic range of biographies and critical studies of the most Roman of Roman pontiffs, Eugenio Pacelli, and Ventresca diligently works to establish a perspective on the pope that is not confined to the controversies that continue to swirl around his legacy: his reputed inaction during the Holocaust, the debates around his cause for canonization, his involvement with the shaping of post–World War Two Europe and his alleged reactionary approach to modernity in all its forms.

The actual record, of course, is both more complicated and ambiguous, and Ventresca labours admirably to ensure that his portrait of Pacelli eschews the polarizing rhetoric, selective indignation and pious piffle that has defined the work of the pro- and anti-Pacellists over the last three decades, work that includes such recent publications as the quirky Pius XII: The Hound of Hitler by Gerard Noel and the incendiary Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII by John Cornwell. Ventresca’s biography, by contrast, is defined by its meticulous reliance on archival materials, its avoidance of polemical fire and its measured assessment of the complex factors that shape a pontificate.

Ventresca rehearses all the known details of Pacelli’s life: his deep Roman roots, the family’s standing in the lower nobility, his education, his early career in the Curia (the administrative arm of the Vatican), his posting as papal nuncio to Munich and Berlin, his appointment as secretary of state by Pope Pius XI (Achille Ratti) and his election as pope in the 1939 conclave.

From the outset, Pacelli entertained no doubts that the destiny of Rome and the papacy are inextricably linked, that the fortunes of the Vatican and the Italian state are connected. The loss to the papacy of its large swath of land known as the Papal City States during the unification of Italy in 1870, the retreat into the Vatican by the then Pope Pius IX and the compelling need to resurrect and jealously guard the history and mission of papal Rome were moral and spiritual imperatives for him: “If Eugenio Pacelli did fit the model of the prete romano, it was because, unlike many priests who came from outside Rome or Italy, he accepted and defended the claims of papal supremacy and saw the pope’s survival in Rome as providential and historical proof of Rome’s ‘universal mission’.”

The papacy’s destiny and Pacelli’s are one and the same. And so, although he would occasionally confess that his preference was for the pastoral role of an ordinary parish priest, from the very beginning he was engineered (it was in the Pacelli family’s DNA) for diplomatic service in the interest of the church. Trained at the Pontifical Academy of Noble Ecclesiastics, schooled in canon and civil law, and under the patronage and tutorship of key Vatican insiders, Pacelli was fast-tracked through the hierarchy and stationed in the hottest of European hot spots: post–World War One Germany.

Pacelli’s well-known Teutonophilia (when he was pope his immediate inner circle of confidants consisted of German Jesuits and nuns) enabled him to build up a measure of trust and respect among most of the warring factions that constituted the messy political reality of between-the-wars Germany. To that end he worked with a maddeningly inhuman intensity to negotiate the 1933 Reichskonkordat with the Hitler government because he was persuaded—and he never budged from this position during his tenure as nuncio, secretary of state or as pope—that negotiating with unethical regimes rather than engaging in denunciations was the only way to guarantee any protection of the church’s rights and freedoms:

As he explained to Bishop von Preysing of Berlin, the aim was to avoid a greater evil—ad majora mala vitanda. This single phrase expresses the reasoning behind Pius XII’s refusal to speak out forcefully to condemn directly Nazism and its manifest crimes throughout Europe. The principle of avoiding greater evil was consistent with all his diplomatic training and his cautious character.

His rigorous, although personally often deeply unsettling, adherence to this principle has come to define the Pacelli pontificate, and any student of the modern papacy or biographer of Pius XII must face directly the whirligig of emotions and opinions—scholarly or otherwise—occasioned by Pacelli’s decision when confronted with egregious behaviour by secular governments to elect diplomacy over condemnation, no matter how heinous the situation. Ventresca does not shy away from addressing this issue because he recognizes its centrality in passing any kind of fair judgement on the Pius of the war years.

But Ventresca is right when he struggles to situate the controverted legacy of the wartime pope within the larger context of Pacelli’s nearly two decades of papal oversight. To that end, his final chapter, “The Universal Pope,” and his epilogue, “A Virtuous Life?,” serve both a summary and apologetic purpose, no matter how subtle the latter, in an attempt to show the touches of greatness, genius and sanctity that fill out the picture of Pacelli, the prete romano of delicate health, emotional anguish and formidable conviction, the soldier of Christ with a Teutonic devotion to obedience.

Ventresca’s biography is a factual narrative, linear, intelligible and informative. But in the end it is too cautious, too tentative—his efforts to redress the damage caused by decades of scorching partisanship limited by his focus on the pontifical record to the exclusion of the life. It suffers from his disinclination to interpret a life as opposed to chronicling it, his preference for evaluating the pontificate instead of the man. This prevents his biography from becoming an aperture into the soul of a quiet, shy, eccentric and tortured leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

Pacelli eludes his latest biographer as he has done many before. And in great part that is not a failure of the biographers per se but rather a testament to the mystique of the papacy Pacelli harnessed for his numerous battles with the forces that would sunder Rome; he allowed himself to become subsumed by the papal persona. In the end, Pacelli was the apotheosis of a papacy that eliminated the individual in a grand heroic drama that demanded nothing less than promethean dedication.

This Olympian perception of the Office of Peter the Fisherman is too costly for the man and the church. And that is why the style of the subtle and simple Jesuit from Buenos Aires is as distant from the august Pacelli style as the Tiber is from the River Plate. And that is why it is a blessed liberation.