Frank J. COPPA.  The Life & Pontificate of Pope Pius XII:  Between History and Controversy.  Washington, D.C.:  The Catholic University of America Press, 2013.  pp. 260.  $46.85 pb. ISBN 978-0-8132-2015-4. Reviewed by Dr. Karen Monique GREGG, University of Saint Francis, Fort Wayne, IN 46808

Although Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli, more commonly remembered as Pope Pius XII (born 1876, died 1958), has been deceased for decades, his beatification is still hotly debated today in a polemic known as the Pius War, earning him the title of the most controversial pope of the twentieth century. Coppa divides the Pius War into two camps: those who interpret Pope Pius XII, both person and pontificate, in a positive manner, deeming him the first truly “Modern Pope,” and/or the “Pope of Peace,” and those whose interpretations are considerably more negative, questioning his inarticulacy and so-called “silence” and “do nothing” stance during the Holocaust, making him better-known as “Hitler’s Pope,” or “the Hound of Hitler.” While both sides of this debate agree that the pope was indeed “silent,” neither interpretation does justice to what Coppa claims are the “crucial aspects of his life, career, and pontificate” (246). In fact, in the introduction, Coppa claims, “One can no more understand the life and career of Pius XII by examining only a small portion of his life than one can put together a jigsaw puzzle with only a few pieces”  (xxvii). 

Thus, in order to shed new light on these widely divergent interpretations, Coppa offers us a holistic view of Pacelli’s life, guided by his own objective historical inquiry and subsequent interpretation of a vast array of materials, including the accessible data from the Secret Vatican Archives (ASV), Pius XII’s 41 encyclicals, over 1,000 speeches, and a multitude of radio messages, all of which the Pope produced during his pontificate. The result? The picture Coppa pieces together of Pacelli’s childhood, family background, pre-pope years, as well as pontificate years is impressive, especially since the Vatican has yet to relinquish its hold over many of the crucial years of Pius XII’s papacy! 

What do we learn from this book?  From a brief look at Pacelli’s childhood we glean a better understanding of the powerful influence of his highly orthodox Catholic upbringing, particularly the influence of his father, brother, and uncles, and how they were devoted to the papacy. We also learn that the origin of his life-long devotion to Mary derives from the influence of his mother in his formative years. Finally, we develop an understanding of Pacelli’s habit not to reveal his inner-most sentiments and that this character trait can be traced even to his behavior in childhood.

From Coppa’s close examination of Pacelli’s education and career as a diplomat, we comprehend that his quick ascendency in the Catholic hierarchy was not only due to what he knew, but also who he knew. As for the what, we learn that Pacelli was fluent in at least seven languages and that his education taught him negotiation skills, as well as the art of diplomacy. As for the who, Pacelli was consistently sponsored and promoted by Pietro Gaspari and Cardinal Mariano Rampallo. Moreover, in his diplomatic career, we trace the roots of his preference for conciliation over conflict to the continued guidance and backing of Cardinal Pietro Gaspari, but also from the model set by Pope Benedict the XV during World War I. That is, we learn that Pacelli merely borrowed, as opposed to originated, the Holy See’s policy of impartiality as it related to international affairs.

Coppa’s comprehensive examination of Pius XII’s pontificate during the World War II years provides a detailed rationale for how and why Pius XII maintained the Vatican policy of impartiality in the face of horrible human atrocities such as the Holocaust. Coppa makes a convincing argument refuting the claim that Pacelli did “nothing” to help the Jews’ suffering in World War II and shows that it is a patently false and unfounded claim. However, regardless of what the historic record shows, this pope is still criticized for not doing more. Finally, this book helps us understand why a pope, who by some is deemed “silent” about World War II, publicly condemned the threat of communism during the cold war years. Coppa explains how fascism, totalitarianism, and communism each posed a different kind of threat to the Catholic Church – with communism being the biggest threat of all.       

Criticism and Praise. This book is extremely repetitive. However, it is well-written with each chapter pushing us along a chronological path of Pacelli’s family background, education, career as a diplomat for the Vatican, and ascendency into the highest rank in the Catholic Church. What does all of this background do for the reader?  It sets up a closer examination and better understanding of Pius XII’s decisions and behaviors dealing with three distinct historically important topics: the Holocaust, the question of Palestine and Israel after World War II, and the Cold War. Therefore, a little repetition is warranted for the separate treatment of each of these topics. This makes Coppa’s book excellent for division into separate readings for a college course on the Holocaust.