So it was a measure of the grace, as well as the gravity, of Jonathan Lewis's film about the war record of Pope Pius XII that it stepped through that minefield without a single detonation of poor taste - save only in its subtitle, "The Silence of the Shepherd", perilously close to "The Silence of the Lambs". Even his angriest critics would not accuse Pius XII of cannibalism.
They might, and did, accuse him of something worse. In the words of Settimia Spizzichino, rounded up with her family just streets away from the Vatican and packed off to Auschwitz, "He was an anti-semitic Pope, and pro-German . . . Nothing, he did nothing to save even a single child." The film weighed the evidence for these grave charges with an air of calm deliberation that was, at times, more moving than any J'accuse-style diatribe.
The surface facts of the case are straightforward enough. Save for a couple of mealy-mouthed allusions to racial persecution, which notably abstained from using the word "Jews", Pius XII said not a word about the Nazi genocide, even though the Vatican was kept well informed of what was happening in the ghettos and death camps. So much is beyond reasonable dispute. What remains open is the meaning of this silence. Was he a pragmatist, a ditherer, or something worse?
There were many possible reasons for silence. The Pope did not wish to cut himself off from his German flock (22 million Catholics); he feared the atheistic hordes of Marshal Stalin; he could point to the savage reprisals which had followed the issuing apastoral letter by the Bishops of Holland condemning Nazi murders. And yet . . .
It may have been the case that for much of the war the Pope could legitimately have believed that his intervention would only make things worse, but there must surely have come a point - around 1942, say, - when Gerhart Riegner realised that Nazi atrocities were part of the Final Solution - at which even the most cautious of men would have to ask how much worse things could possibly become?
When a Polish Catholic called Jan Karski donned a yellow star and smuggled himself into the Warsaw ghetto to report on what was happening there, the Jewish leaders told him that "We know that your Pope has the power to open and close the gates of heaven.Let him close the gates for all of those who persecute us." But Pius XII would not hear their plea.
Lewis's film did not sneer at the Pope's inaction but it was hard to reach its end without being persuaded that his conduct was at best mistaken, at worst . . . well, theology has the appropriate vocabulary. It's possible that Pius XII himself came to think as much, though the film's insinuation that this was so rang somewhat hollow. At its very end, it quoted the Pope's prayer for forgiveness on leaving his office - a prayer full of orthodox Christian humility that, in context, was made to sound like adirect confession of wartime culpability.
But this slightly coercive finale was an uncharacteristic lapse in an admirably lucid and well-documented argument - a dossier prepared with such sobriety that it even denied itself the cheap luxury of a reference to papal infallibility.Reuse content