As The Da Vinci Code arrives in our cinemas with its lurid accusations of a church cover-up of Jesus's life as a family man, Roman Catholic leaders have been vocal in dismissing the film of Dan Brown's bestseller as unsuitable viewing for believers. Cardinal amongst its sins according to them is its suggestion that a church organisation, Opus Dei, would attempt to manipulate history to fit its beliefs. But that, it was charged last week, is precisely what the Vatican is doing in regard of a much more recent event, the Holocaust.
An unflattering spotlight fell on God's business address on Earth when the German Justice Minister, Brigitte Zypries, announced on Tuesday that her country is finally to open its huge archive of Nazi records on 17 million concentration camp inmates and slave labourers. Germany's belated move to answer the pleas for access to its archives by Holocaust survivors and their families now leaves only the Vatican standing all alone in denying them the chance to read what is in its wartime documents.
You might expect an organisation that - as the bishops have been busy pointing out last week to counter the picture of their church presented in The Da Vinci Code - is dedicated to truth, justice, forgiveness and reconciliation to have been among the first to offer access to its files. And its refusal to open its secret files has only increased suspicion that it has something it wants to cover up - principally evidence of the alleged pro-Nazi sympathies of wartime pope, Pius XII.
In the church's official annals, Pius, who died in 1958, is painted as a saintly shepherd who led his flock with great moral courage in difficult times. For many scholars, though, he is at worst the Devil incarnate, "Hitler's Pope", and at best a coward who refused to speak out against the extermination of Jews, gypsies and homosexuals in gas chambers, even when he had compelling evidence that it was happening, lest his words attract Nazi aggression.
Month by month, year by year, more evidence emerges from other sources about where the Vatican's sympathies lay in the Second World War. Earlier this year, for example, a 1946 instruction from Pope Pius to the French bishops was unearthed that ordered them not to hand over Jewish children they had been sheltering to Jewish charities now the conflict was over. According to the outspoken Harvard historian Professor Daniel Goldhagen, Pius was guilty in this instance of "having given the order to take [Jewish] children away from their parents and should be regarded as little better than a war criminal."
The Vatican's response to all such accusations is to issue a blanket denial, insisting that it was neutral throughout the conflict. Yet in the absence of any compelling documentary evidence to buttress its position, few are now willing to take its word as gospel on its war record.
And the pressure has only built since the election 13 months ago of Pope Benedict XVI. Where his predecessor John Paul II had worked during the Second World War with the Polish underground to defeat the Nazis and save Jews, the former Cardinal Ratzinger had been a member of the Hitler Youth, albeit a reluctant one. The Vatican's archives - known curiously as the Secret Archives, though their existence has been well known since 1610 - is under the personal control of the Pope. One word from Benedict and the doors could be thrown open.
While we wait for the church to catch up with the rest of the world, what is known for certain from other sources is that in 1933 as Vatican representative in Germany, the future Pius XII had agreed a treaty with Hitler, whose authoritarian tendencies he admired, to close down the Catholic -dominated Centre Party, one of National Socialism's staunchest opponents. This treaty was based on the Vatican's 1929 agreement with Mussolini, the Italian fascist leader. On being elected Pope in 1939, Pius's first act was to suppress a document denouncing Hitler, entitled Mit Brennender Sorge ("With deep anxiety ...") that his predecessor had been writing on his deathbed. And throughout the war, Pius XII made no public condemnation of the Holocaust, save for a single ambiguous sentence in a 26-page Christmas message of 1942.
Among the various disputed accusations made against him are that he did nothing to protect the Jews of Rome as the Nazis and Italian fascists carted them away to gas chambers from their ghetto in Trastevere under the very windows of the Vatican; that he forbade monasteries and convents to shelter Jews trying to escape the Nazis; that he allowed the church to profit from looted goods taken from the Nazis' victims; and that he turned a blind eye to assistance given by Catholic religious orders, notably in Croatia, to help Nazi war criminals escape to start new lives in Latin America.
The church vigorously denies all these charges, but without access to the Vatican's wartime archive, there can be no independent verification of their unblinking faith that Pius XII was free from the stain of sin. In 1964, the then Pope, Paul VI, did order that a selection of relevant documents be released. These were, however, to be chosen by Vatican historians and, unsurprisingly, tell a resoundingly positive tale of informal initiatives and deep concern about the Holocaust. As Lord Janner, formerly Greville Janner MP, and chairman of the Holocaust Educational Trust, has remarked, the Vatican's edited highlights have been "carefully selected to stress only positive efforts by the Vatican to resist Nazism or to save victims".
In the late 1990s, searching for a way to disarm the ever greater numbers of historians who suspected it of a cover-up, the Vatican allowed the British writer, John Cornwell, limited access to its papers about Pius XII. A cradle Catholic, ex-seminarian and the author of a book which conclusively refuted allegations that Pope John Paul I had been murdered, Cornwell, the monsignori decided, could be trusted.
However, he describes how, having read only a part of the archive about Pius, he found himself "in a state I can only describe as moral shock. The material I had gathered, taking the more extensive view of [Pius XII's] life, amounted not to an exoneration but to a wider indictment."
When Cornwell's book, Hitler's Pope, was published in 1999, it alleged that Pius was seemingly prepared to put up with any Nazi atrocity because he saw Hitler as a good bulwark against the advance across Europe of godless communism from Russia. To paraphrase more recent politicians, the deaths of 6 million Jews was a price worth paying to protect the Catholic church.
The Vatican reacted with a front-page editorial in its official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, attacking Cornwell as "unqualified" to make such judgements. The controversy wouldn't go away, however. Finally, in October 1999, the church agreed to allow access to a joint panel of six Jewish and Catholic experts, appointed by the Vatican and the International Jewish Committee for Inter-religious Consultation. By July 2001 the Jewish members of the group resigned, quoting the "lack of a positive response" from the Vatican. In short, they had refused to let them see anything new.
Despite repeated efforts since, the records remain locked away in the Secret Archive to this day. The Vatican has offered a variety of justifications. A favourite has been to use the same line as the German authorities in defending, until Brigitte Zypries's change of heart, keeping archives closed, namely privacy considerations. Now that Germany has capitulated, however, that excuse has gone out of the window.
At other times "technical reasons" have been quoted, or lack of manpower to do the cataloguing. It has also been suggested darkly that allowing free access would break the seal of the confessional. Matters were not helped in January of this year when Archbishop Sergio Pagano, Prefect of the Secret Archives, gave an interview with the Italian church magazine, Avvenire, where he bemoaned the "strange phenomenon" of all these experts wanting to poke around in the Pope's private papers.
So the archives on this much disputed period remain firmly closed. Such an unflinching commitment to secrecy has soured Catholic-Jewish relationships - overshadowing, for instance, John Paul II's historic March 2000 apology to the Jews for centuries of Christian anti-Semitism.
And many Catholics in the pews are puzzled as to why, when to say the least the jury is out on Pius XII, the Vatican is apparently proceeding with all speed to canonise him. It gives the impression that their church leaders are responding to the outside world's legitimate concern to know the truth about this man with a gesture of defiance that brings the whole canon of saints into disrepute. It is precisely the sort of behaviour that leaves readers and cinemagoers prepared to give credence to Dan Brown's conspiracy theories.
Peter Stanford's book of essays, "Why I Am Still A Catholic", is published this week in paperback by Continuum
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