ON A VISIT TO THE AUSCHWITZ death camp in late May, Pope Benedict XVI said, "In a place like this, words fail." Those are especially understandable words coming from a man of faith whose native country carried out the Holocaust and who was conscripted into the Hitler Youth and the German army.
As it happens, though, words can give new understanding to the most horrific events of the past. So it was far more significant when, one month after the pope's visit, the Vatican announced last week that it would release the files from the papacy of Pius XI, which lasted from 1922 to 1939 -- encompassing the rise of Nazi Germany but ending just before World War II and the height of the Holocaust.
It's not Pius XI whom scholars are interested in, of course. It's his secretary of state from 1930 to 1939, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who oversaw the Vatican's diplomatic relations during that time and forged a treaty with Nazi Germany -- and who, upon Pius XI's death, became Pope Pius XII.
In that papal role, depending on which historians and religious figures are talking, he either deserves sainthood for taking steps to save Jews from extermination or should be censured for cowardice, at the very least, for refusing at almost every turn to help the Jews in word or action. There's evidence for both.
By detailing many of Pacelli's inner thoughts on the subject, the Vatican files are expected to clarify the debate, which has raged since Pope John Paul II publicly apologized for Catholics' indifference to the Jews' suffering during the Holocaust but stopped short of implicating the Roman Catholic Church itself. Should the files reveal a man with no interest in helping the Jews or curbing anti-Semitism, that would almost certainly put the brakes on the Pius XII sainthood movement.
This Vatican openness, though late, is praiseworthy -- but likewise limited. The issue that the church remains unwilling to tackle is the possible fallibility of an individual pope and, through him, the papacy itself. By releasing only the papers from before Pius XII's papacy, not during his tenure, the church avoids providing information that might point to a deeply flawed pope.
Benedict XVI is clearly willing to extend the olive branch toward Jews and historical truth that was first offered by his predecessor. The question is, how far?