Few popes in modern times have so polarised opinion as Pius XII, leader of the Catholic Church during the Second World War. His silence, in the face of compelling evidence as early as 1940 of the Holocaust, has seen him condemned as an anti-Semite, a Fascist sympathiser, and a moral coward. One biographer labelled him "Hitler's Pope". The Church's response to the charges has been equally extreme. It is planning to canonise him.
One of the biggest obstacles to reaching any balanced view of Pius has been the Vatican's refusal to open the relevant sections of its archives. Its excuse is a limp one – that they haven't been catalogued.
Into the embittered gap between the two sides has stepped Gerard Noel. A former editor of the Catholic Herald and vice-president of the Council of Christians and Jews, he has fine credentials as a mediating force. And his sources are strong, if unorthodox. Many are oral, but stretch back through his contacts with senior churchmen to the day when, as a 22-year-old student in 1948, he found himself granted a private audience with Pius XII at his summer residence of Castel Gandolfo outside Rome.
Noel produces a devastating psychological portrait of a flawed individual quite unsuited to his circumstances. Pius was a hypochondriac and depressive. He moved out of the family home aged 38, and soon found a surrogate mother in the formidable nun, Mother Pasquelina, who ruled his household and his papacy, after his election in 1939, as a result of an an intimate relationship that was chaste but thoroughly unhealthy.
In his public policy, first as the Vatican's ambassador to Germany, then the Church's Secretary of State, and finally as Pope, Pius XII placed all his faith in treaties. Inspired by the Vatican's 1929 Concordat with Mussolini, he aimed, at the expense of every other human consideration, to negotiate similar agreements with right-wing dictators around Europe. The partnership of authoritarian rulers and an authoritarian church would, he believed, bring social stability and provide the context for Catholicism to impose moral order.
In order to get Hitler in 1933 to sign a piece of paper every bit as worthless as the Munich agreement, Pius was prepared to ignore the misgivings of his German bishops and then disband the only credible political opposition to Hitler's rise – the Catholic Centre Party. When the folly of what he had done hit home, Pius retreated into silence throughout the war and imagined illnesses thereafter.
It was a combination of his spectacularly bad political judgement and deeply damaged psyche that made Pius such a disaster as wartime Pope, Noel argues. He was a vain and unworldly innocent who, too late, became aware of the true nature of the threat Hitler posed. He tried then to make reparation by, Noel authoritatively shows, offering Vatican protection to many Italian Jews who would otherwise have been sent to the concentration camps. "Hound of Hitler" feels like an overstated title for an otherwise well-balanced book. "Hitler's Fool" might be more appropriate.
Peter Stanford's latest book is 'Teach Yourself Catholicism'