"He was glorious, ol' Pius was!" recalled the porter of the lodge of the Oxford Oratory to me one night several years back. Those who remember Eugenio Pacelli tend to think of him as either the last great pope before the cruel hammer of Vatican II smashed the glass Church into shards or as a spiritual jailer from whom the Council freed us. When one thinks of Pope Pius XII the mind naturally travels to images of the native Roman Pontiff waiving to enthralled crowds from the sedia gestatoria or him wearing the tiara with pious solemnity. What everyone often forgets is who he was and what he did. Perhaps no pope in centuries is as misunderstood and inaccurately remembered as Pope Pius XII. History may be very kind or very harsh to him, but that does not preclude our contemporary endeavor to evaluate his time atop the Petrine chair with greater scrutiny than previous generations.
First, we should get the Holocaust story out of the way. Pius XII was not Hitler's pope nor was he anti-Semitic. On the contrary, one would be hard pressed to find anyone since Moses who did as much for the Jews as Pius XII. Many compare his quiet approach to Nazism during World War II with his predecessor's more visible opposition to Nazism and Fascism, ignoring that Pacelli engineered Pius XI's foreign policy as Secretariat of State for the Vatican. As Pius XII Pacelli undercut Nazi deportation attempts in Poland, France, and Italy by delaying trains and applying pressure to local authorities through the Church's prestige. More locally he ordered the churches, monasteries, and convents of Rome to house whatever Jews approached seeking refuge. His very own Castel Gandolfo housed 3,000 Jews on the run from the Nazi occupants. Hitler found Pius so loathsome he at one point considered an assassination. Pius XII and the Church emerged from the Second World War with tremendous prestige and popular approval for combating Nazi efforts. The chief rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, converted to Catholicism and took Eugene as his baptismal name in honor of Papa Pacelli. Golda Meir and Leonard Bernstein (who as a secular Jewish bisexual would be as far from Catholicism as London from the ISS) expressed deep sorrow when Pius XII died in 1958. His reputation did not suffer until 1963 when playwright Rolf Hochhuth wrote The Deputy, a historically imaginative bit of nonsense wherein Pius XII daydreams about the Vatican's banking issues whilst his staff cry over the sufferings of the Jewish people of Europe. Without carrying on too much concerning Pius XII's efforts between 1939 and 1944, it suffices to say that his efforts saved many Jewish lives and the people of his time recognized this.
Yet we can say this was Pius XII the diplomat and Pius XII the humanitarian. What of Pius XII the pope? Again, many see Pius XII as a staunch conservative in all matters and the last pontiff of a particular age. Like him or not, little could be further from the truth. Pius XII was certainly not a liberal, but he was no staunch conservative either. The best term the Rad Trad can find to describe this pope is "modernizer." His papacy was a bridge between the declining ultramontanist mood after Vatican I and the budging urge to engage directly with the non-Catholic world which triumphed at Vatican II.
Consider his personality. The cult of personality that surrounds Pope Francis did not begin with John Paul II in 1979, when he first started to travel. It began during the reign of Pius XII, whose charisma and charm made him a powerful personality at a time when television and radio began to supplant newspapers as the primary means of transmitting information. His waves, smiles, rolling voice, and other dramatic gestures rival those of Churchill, Hitler, Mussolini, and Roosevelt. Outwardly he looked like everything an optimistic, post-War, Papa-centric Church could want in a leader. He was the product they demanded.
Next, think about the influence of his pontificate on centralization. After his election, Pacelli appointed Luigi Cardinal Maglione as Secretariat of State. After Maglione's death, the Pope absorbed the secretary's duties into the Papacy, making the him both a spiritual leader and a visible political player in the new media age. It also meant that the Pope had very direct dealings with bishops throughout the world, who, though they had the right to meet with the Pope before Pius XII, would normally interact with the Vatican through the Secretariat's office. Consequentially, the Papacy, not just the Vatican, became an administrative, political, and spiritual center for governments and dioceses. The Pope, in Mystici Corporis in 1942, went as far as to state that bishops receive their power not from the Church, generally speaking, but from the Roman Pontiff (cf. Mystici Corporis, 42). Cardinal Ottaviani stated that this was infallible. Whether it is or not is not our purpose here. The point is that Pius XII centralized not just spiritual dignity, but political power around the Holy See.
Yet Papal prestige was not enough to efface the blossoming power of liberal factions, particularly in secular universities and in religious orders. Men like Jesuit Karl Rahner lost very little sympathy among his fan base after the publication of Mystici Corporis and perhaps even gained an excitement factor that made his ideas all the more potent two decades later.
Can you imagine the diffusion of the "Spirit of Vatican II" without the "Spirit of Pius XII?" I cannot. Pius XII's governing style was not an immediate cause of the "Spirit of Vatican II," but it was certainly a necessary cause. The cardinals and bishops who went along with the changes in liturgy, Church policies, and attitude did so because they thought Rome wanted it. Is it any coincidence that most of these cardinals and bishops were appointed by Pius XII, not Paul VI or John XXIII?
Pope Pius also re-introduced some Eastern elements of thought into Rome. First the de-Latinization process in Eastern Catholic Churches began not with the Conciliar document Orientalium Ecclesiarum, but a decade earlier. The aforementioned Mystici Corporis, although brimming with statements of Papal supremacy (42, 44, 50, 69, 91), incorporates a very Eastern and organic approach to defining the Church, returning to St. Paul's statements that the Church is the "Body of Christ" (15) visible on earth, that Christ is the Head through which grace flows, that the Church is not entirely about hierarchy (17), that the Sacraments nourish the Body (18-19), that Baptism does not just wipe out Original Sin but actually incorporates one into the Body of Christ (26), and that the Holy Ghost is the soul of the Church (31). At one point Pius even quotes St. Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Moses in bluntly equating the Church with Christ (53). The Rad Trad can hardly imagine Pius IX referencing a then-obscure Eastern Father. The Western fascination with the East, seemingly in everything save liturgy, was just beginning when the Pope published this encyclical.
Lastly there was Pope Pacelli's novel liturgical moves. Saturday night Masses substituting for Sunday worship, lay people reading at Mass, shortened Eucharistic fasts, excessive singing of hymns, and lay people speaking the priest's parts did not begin in the 1960s, but under Pius XII in a series of liturgical innovations meant to make the liturgy more accessible. If the Rad Trad is forgetting something, perhaps the more knowledgeable Rubricarius can chime in below. Above all, Pius XII assembled the team of reformers that would make the liturgical overhaul of the 1960s happen. They began their work under Papa Pacelli's patronage in 1948. Some remove blame for the liturgical novelties of the 1950s from Pius XII for health reasons; his health declined quickly after the War. Still, Pius XII was, if anything, a powerful and competent administrator. Under Pius XII a new Common of Popes was introduced, as was a new Holy Saturday liturgy in 1951 and again in 1952, a brand new Holy Week came out in 1955—the same year most octaves were eliminated and semi-doubles merged with simples and doubles, and the commemoration system was reduced in 1958. The liturgy of Vatican II c.1965 only differed in the suppression of Prime and the introduction of more vernacular in Mass. Eugene Pacelli was, beyond dispute, a very progressive pope in liturgical matters. As Pope Paul VI wrote in his Constitution Missale Romanum: "The beginning of this renewal was the work of Our predecessor, this same Pius XII, in the restoration of the Paschal Vigil and of the Holy Week Rite, which formed the first stage of updating the Roman Missal for the present-day mentality."
The Rad Trad lacks a formal opinion on Pope Pius XII. He did a lot to save lives during World War II. He centralized power and set the scene for the big changes of the 1960s. His foreign policy against the Russians was vocal, yet forgettable. And his liturgical novelties put the key in the door and turned it, leaving the handle to Paul VI. Pius XII remains an anomaly. He was no liberal nor was he a traditionalist. For the time being the Rad Trad will consider him a "modernizer." What say ye?