James Felak on Pope Pius XII, the Wartime Pontiff
Date: July 9th, 2012

Imagine that you were just appointed the head of the Catholic Church at the outset of the most devastating war ever known to mankind.  Further imagine that this war was raging on the continent in which you were headquartered and that you were living in the capital city of one of the primary belligerents of this war.  How would you respond knowing that millions of innocent civilians — both Catholic and Jewish — were being slaughtered outright?  We take up the life and times of Pope Pius XII, who ascended to the papacy on the eve of Germany’s invation of Czechoslovakia and Poland, with Prof. James Felak, professor of history at the University of Washington.  We start out with a brief examination of how popes choose their names and then dive into the nature of the controversy surrounding Pius XII.  Interestingly, Prof. Felak notes that Pius XII was widely lauded for his courageous actions during World War II and that the controversy over his seeming “inaction” only emerged in 1963 following the release of Rolf Hocchuth’s play The Deputy.  It was reawakened again in 1999 following another book accusing Pius XII of being “Hitler’s pope.”  We roll back history a bit to examine the early life of Eugenio Pacelli and his pathway to the “Throne of St. Peter.”  We then spend significant time examining the wartime context in which Pius XII found himself in so as to better understand the diplomatic manuevering of the Vatican at this time.  Prof. Felak notes how the pope tended to keep his criticism of war attrocities at a general level so as not to endanger the Church in various nations, nor to threaten some of the activities of grassroots Catholic activists in places such as Germany and Poland.   This discussion also entails an examination of how the Church functions institutionally with a realization that clergy, religious orders and lay members have a certain degree of autonomy from the Holy See.  Following this discussion, we then look at the other proclamations and activities of Pius XII on issues such as medical ethics and how he laid the foundation for the Second Vatican Council.  Prof. Felak finishes with some general observations about the legacy of Pius XII and what we can take away from his tenure to better understand our contemporary times.  Recorded: July 3, 2012.


Prof. James Felak’s biography at the University of Washington.

After Hitler, Before Stalin: Catholics, Communists, and Democrats in Slovakia, 1945-1948, by James Felak.


James Felak on Pope John Paul II and Communism.

Jon Sweeney on the Pope Who Quit.

Lan Chu on Catholicism in Vietnam.

Catherine Wanner on Religion in Russia.


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