Pius XII Becomes Pope Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Pius XII became Pope six months before Hitler’s invasion of Poland officially began World War II. Prewar attempts at avoiding large-scale conflict were not productive, and throughout the war Pius XII was concerned with maintaining an independent role for the Vatican and the Church in the face of German domination. Accusations that Pius XII was anti-Semitic and supported Hitler’s Germany were later refuted by scholars.

Summary of Event

Before he assumed the papacy and became Pius XII, Cardinal Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli served as secretary of state for Pope Pius XI, a capacity in which he continued his diplomatic work, focusing particularly on the position and interests of the Church in Germany. In 1917, he had served as an archbishop and was nuncio to Bavaria, where he developed a concordat between the provincial Bavarian government and the Vatican. In 1925, he was assigned to Berlin to work on a similar treaty with the German government, and he remained there until 1929, when Pius XI appointed him secretary of state of the Vatican and elevated his rank to cardinal. [kw]Pius XII Becomes Pope (Mar. 2, 1939) [kw]Pope, Pius XII Becomes (Mar. 2, 1939) Roman Catholic Church;popes Popes;Pius XII[Pius 12] [g]Italy;Mar. 2, 1939: Pius XII Becomes Pope[09960] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Mar. 2, 1939: Pius XII Becomes Pope[09960] [c]World War II;Mar. 2, 1939: Pius XII Becomes Pope[09960] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Mar. 2, 1939: Pius XII Becomes Pope[09960] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar. 2, 1939: Pius XII Becomes Pope[09960] Pius XII Pius XI

The future Pius XII was aware of the fragility of the German Weimar Republic and witnessed the rise of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party in the wake of the impact of the Great Depression. As papal secretary of state he traveled widely: He visited the United States and many other nations in North and South America. During his travels, he developed an appreciation of the extent of Catholicism’s reach and of the Church’s different, often region-specific problems. Later, Pius XII played a particularly important role in developing the concordat with Hitler’s Third Reich on July 20, 1933. Fearing the loss of extensive Church property, the closure of Catholic schools and seminaries, and restrictions on the clergy and on chuchgoers, Rome entered into the agreement with Hitler. The terms, however, were not in the Vatican’s favor: The agreement subordinated the Church to the state, silenced German Catholic opposition to Hitler, and gave credibility to Hitler’s regime.

Pope Pius XII.

(Library of Congress)

From 1933 to 1939, Roman Catholic interests in Germany suffered: After the outbreak of the war, the Church and its priests were ignored or subject to persecution. As the war neared, Cardinal Pacelli played a crucial role in the drafting of the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, Mit brennender Sorge (encyclical) Roman Catholic Church;papal encyclicals which denounced Nazism and fascism, used diplomacy to indicate Vatican displeasure with German policies, and reprimanded Catholic bishops for not adequately denouncing German aggression and authoritarianism. When Pius XII was elected pope on March 2, 1939—on the first and only ballot—the Germans condemned his elevation, and they blocked his efforts at mediation. Throughout the late spring and summer of 1939, Pius XII called for a conference to resolve the differences among European powers, but his efforts were unsuccessful.

Despite the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, and the outbreak of World War II, World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Roman Catholic Church Pius XII continued his diplomatic efforts. While he was unable to bring the conflict to a close, Pius XII served as a conduit between the internal German resistance to the war and the Allied Powers, especially Britain and the United States. After Italy entered the war in June, 1940, as a German ally, Pius XII strove to keep Rome out of the battle: He sought—but failed—to have Rome recognized as an international city. Only once during the war did a bomb hit the Vatican; that incident occurred on March 1, 1943, when Italian members of the Fascist Party caused the explosion. (Rome, however, was not spared, and a July 19, 1943, attack destroyed parts of the San Lorenzo quarter.) Although Pius XII opposed the unconditional surrender required by the Allies, Vatican attempts to alleviate hunger in Rome and its vicinity reached more than 3.6 million individuals each month. Pius XII also supported efforts to identify missing persons and return displaced persons to their homes.

Scholars have been concerned about claims that Pius XII was an anti-Semite and that he could have been more attentive to the plight of European Jews during the war, but study of the documentary evidence indicates that these accusations are largely without merit. Pius XII directly intervened to save Jews in the Vatican and supported a wide range of actions to alleviate the distress and horrors they experienced during the Nazi regime. The papacy provided more than four million dollars in relief to Jews during the war and, on two occasions, December 24, 1942, and June 2, 1943, Pius XII denounced the German plan to exterminate the Jews. Holocaust;papal response The papacy was also actively involved in attempts to address the many factors inherent in Europe’s refugee crisis.

After the defeat of Germany and Japan in 1945, Pius XII appointed a new generation of cardinals, worked to support the United Nations and other institutions that were focused on maintaining peace, and expanded his anticommunist policies and programs throughout the world. Pius XII viewed Russian communism’s atheistic and material core as the next threat to Christianity and organized religion, and in 1949 he proclaimed that any Catholic who was aligned with communism was automatically excommunicated from the Church. Theologically, Pius XII declared the Assumption of Mary into Heaven as a dogma of faith in his encyclical Munificentissimus Deus (1950), and he declared 1954 as the Marian Year to commemorate the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Pius XII’s health declined during the 1950’s, and he died on October 9, 1958. He was succeeded by Pope John XXIII.


The nineteen years of Pope Pius XII’s pontificate saw the turbulent outbreak of World War II, the subsequent defeat of the Axis Powers (Germany, Japan, and Italy), the postwar diplomacy that led to the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the mounting concern that the Roman Catholic Church was detached from the world and its needs. Pius XII defended the interests of the Vatican and the Roman Church while advancing the cause of human rights, and his actions resulted in the rescue of many Jews from the horrors of the Holocaust. His postwar years focused on the recovery of the Church in Europe and on combating forms of Marxist communism that denounced God and religion and sacrificed individual rights and liberties in the name of collectivist values.

Pius XII was consistently opposed to statism, fascism, communism, and all other variations of totalitarianism. Theologically, he was a conservative who produced many encyclicals that reinforced traditional Church doctrine; his most notable doctrinal and liturgical achievements were his declaration of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven as a dogma of faith and his establishment of the Marian Year in 1954. His conservatism tended to stifle those who desired greater freedom from the dictates of the Church hierarchy, and his succession by the more liberal Pope John XXIII resulted in the creation of the Second Vatican Council, which John XXIII hoped would “let light shine into the church.” Roman Catholic Church;popes Popes;Pius XII[Pius 12]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blet, Pierre. Pius XII and World War II: According to the Archives of the Vatican. Translated by Lawrence J. Johnson. New York: Paulist Press, 1999. A study of Pius XII’s role as defender of the Vatican, the Church, and human rights during World War II.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bottum, Joseph, and David G. Dalin, eds. The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2004. A response to and defense of the interpretations of John Cornwell and other scholars who advanced criticisms of Pius XII’s actions and failures during World War II.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cornwell, John. Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII. New York: Viking Penguin, 1999. Cornwell’s critique of Pius XII is the most widely cited; he argued that Pius XII failed to take a stand against Hitler and the horrors of the Holocaust.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dalin, David G. The Myth of Hitler’s Pope. Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2005. A defense of Pius XII and his actions during World War II; Dalin attempts to dismantle the Cornwell thesis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Friedländer, Saul. Pius XII and the Third Reich: A Documentation. Translated by Charles Fullman. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966. An examination of primary sources that raise questions about the relationship between the Vatican and Hitler’s Germany during World War II.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sánchez, José M. Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 2002. An important, valuable, and balanced study that examines the multitude of factors that emerged in the controversy of Pius XII’s actions toward the Jews during World War II.

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Categories: History