Over the vociferous objections of detractors of Pope Pius XII, the world’s most important Holocaust museum modified one of its displays in July to soften the original harshness of its criticism of the wartime pontiff and to include the viewpoint of his defenders. 

Even as relatively minor as they are, making the changes took courage. It demonstrates a willingness to acknowledge a growing body of historical research that paints Pope Pius’ record on assistance to Nazi-persecuted Jews in a much more favorable light than his persistent popular vilification. 

The original seven-sentence exhibit text dedicated to Pope Pius XII presented a grossly distorted summary of the pontiff’s wartime behavior.

The Vatican’s ambassador to Israel, Archbishop Antonio Franco, praised the changes at Yad Vashem, the state of Israel’s official Holocaust memorial, as “being done in good faith in the search for the truth.” 

“It is an opening, very important in the sense of attention to the documents and a more accurate search to try to understand really from the inside what the behavior was of the Holy Father and the Catholic Church,” he told Catholic News Service. 

Archbishop Franco may have had some part in the museum’s decision to rethink the display. Five years ago, he said he would not attend Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony because of the exhibit’s text. The museum said it was “shocked,” and reiterated its call for the Vatican to open up all of its wartime records. But it also said it was “prepared to continue examining the issue.”  

As well it should have. The original seven-sentence exhibit text dedicated to Pope Pius purported to be a simple statement of historical facts but in reality presented a grossly distorted summary of the pontiff’s wartime behavior. It catalogues his supposed failures to act or speak out against the Nazi regime, describes his supposed role in granting official Vatican recognition to the Adolf Hitler government, and leaves readers wondering whether he must not have been motivated by some latent anti-Semitism himself. 

The new text offers important context. It reads in part: 

“The pontiff abstained from signing the Allies’ declaration of Dec. 17, 1942 condemning the extermination of the Jews. Yet, in his Christmas radio address of Dec. 24, 1942 he referred to ‘the hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or ethnic origin (stirpe), have been consigned to death or to a slow decline.’ Jews were not explicitly mentioned. ... The pope’s critics claim that his decision to abstain from condemning the murder of the Jews by Nazi Germany constitutes a moral failure: the lack of clear guidance left room for many to collaborate with Nazi Germany, reassured by the thought that this did not contradict the Church’s moral teachings. It also left the initiative to rescue Jews to individual clerics and laymen. His defenders maintain that this neutrality prevented harsher measures against the Vatican and the Church’s institutions throughout Europe, thus enabling a considerable number of secret rescue activities to take place at different levels of the Church. Moreover, they point to cases in which the pontiff offered encouragement to activities in which Jews were rescued. Until all relevant material is available to scholars, this topic will remain open to further inquiry.” 

Achieving a full picture of Pius’ wartime activity will likely take decades more of scholarly research. But Yad Vashem’s newly demonstrated willingness to revise opinions that are not supported by fact bodes well for the process.  

One hopes its example is widely imitated.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.