The Life and Pontificate of Pope Pius XII: Between History and Controversy by Frank J. Coppa. Catholic University of America Press (Washington, 2013). 306 pp., $29.95.
Frank Coppa has published significant works on modern papal history. In The Life and Pontificate of Pope Pius XII, he focuses not just on what has become the central issue of Pius’ pontificate, the pope’s response to the Holocaust, but on the life and papacy of the former Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli as a whole.
The result is a refreshingly balanced approach in which the pros and cons of many issues which reflect not just on Pius but the Catholic Church of his time are objectively presented, with the final judgment left to the readers themselves.
Coppa brings together the personal character of Cardinal Pacelli with his experience in the Vatican diplomatic corps and the influence of his mentor, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, all of which led him to take an approach of conciliation rather than confrontation with individuals and nations with whom he might have disagreements, even serious ones. This was in contrast with the more combative style of his predecessor in the papacy, Pope Pius XI.
Interestingly, Coppa shows that it was most likely Cardinal Pacelli’s preference for impartiality in Europe’s conflicts, beginning with World War I that led the cardinal-electors to name him pope on the eve of World War II.
It is clear from Coppa’s meticulous account that Papa Pacelli, as he at time calls him, was not indifferent to the evils of fascism and Nazism, especially the latter. Circumstances would, he felt, be made worse for Catholics and others if he adopted a directly confrontational role with these tyrannical regimes.
Cardinal Pacelli did, behind the scenes, do much to ameliorate the situation of the Jews, especially in Italy. But as Coppa notes, historians to this day have differing judgments on whether he could have done more or whether a more public condemnation of Nazism would have helped or worsened the situation not just of Jews but also, for example, Polish Catholics.
Coppa does make some mistakes, such as ignoring the crucial change in Vatican policy in 1967, when it began pushing for "international guarantees" for Jerusalem and the holy places rather than "internationalization."
Overall, Coppa does an excellent job of narrating the post-World War II policies of Pius XII, showing how these paved the way for the Second Vatican Council with its emphasis on world peace and justice.
In sum, this book joins what is now, thankfully, a growing list of balanced studies of Pius and his times.
Fisher is distinguished professor of Catholic-Jewish studies at St. Leo University in Florida.