Whenever we discuss Popes related to the Second Vatican Council, two names immediately come to mind: Blessed Pope John XXIII and Venerable Paul Paul VI. A third Pope is hardly ever mentioned: Venerable Pope Pius XII. But this is changing, as the role played by Pius in the work of Vatican II is being ever more appreciated.
“If you study the indexes of the Vatican II documents, you can easily see that, after the citations of Sacred Scripture, the citations from the writings of Pope Pius XII are the most numerous,” the late Cardinal Giuseppe Siri said in his address at the Sixth General Assembly of the 1983 Synod of Bishops (cf. the Italian news agency AGI, October 12, 2012). Siri was speaking in the presence of the late Pope John Paul II, who in turn commented: “We cannot forget how Pius XII contributed to the theological preparation of the Second Vatican Council, especially with regard to the doctrine of the Church, the first liturgical reforms, the new impetus to biblical studies, and the great attention to the problems of the contemporary world.”
The desire for a new Council was much felt in the Catholic Church during the first half of the last century, in order to complete the work of the First Vatican Council, which had been suspended before it could be finished. However, the two world wars proved an unsurmountable hurdle.
The idea was taken up again after World War II, and the Second Vatican Council was carefully and diligently prepared by Pius XII (Pope from 1939 to 1958), as evidenced by the final documents of the Council itself, which contain 201 quotations from and references to 92 acts of the magisterium of his pontificate. In the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium alone, 58 references are made to the magisterium of Pius XII.
A newly-published book on the role Pius XII played in the preparations for Vatican II tries to shed light on this fact. This book, Pio XII e il Concilio (Pius XII and the Council, Cantagalli Publishers, 208 pages, € 13.50) contains essays authored by Fr. Nicola Bux, Fr. Peter Gumpel, S.J., and Professor Alexandra von Teuffenbach, drawn from the proceedings of a symposium held in Rome in late 2011 on this important issue.
The three authors address the complex and somewhat intriguing subject according to their respective spheres of competence. Professor von Teuffenbach writes as an Italian historian (she was born in Padua) specializing in Pius XII and his historical vicissitudes. Fr. Gumpel, a German, is the postulator of the Pope’s beatification cause. The third author, Italian theologian Fr. Nicola Bux, is consultor to the Vatican for papal liturgical celebrations and an expert on the ongoing and heated debate on the correct way to interpret Vatican II. He aims to show the continuity of Vatican II in its official documents with the magisterium of Pius XII, especially in the liturgical realm, against the so-called “hermeneutics of rupture.” This is upheld by those who are bent on dividing the Church between two supposedly incompatible phases: pre- and post-Vatican II, or Pius against John, to put it another way.
According to Fr. Bux, no fewer than 180 explicit references to Pope Pius’ magisterium are to be found in the documents of Vatican II, e.g. Lumen Gentium, 31; Gaudium et Spes, 25; Dei Verbum, 8; Apostolicam Actuositatem, 31; and Ad Gentes, 22, just to name the more relevant ones.
Moreover, this continuity between Pius’ pontificate and the documents of Vatican II could not be more evident than in the realm of the liturgy. Pius XII was, in fact, especially sensitive to the liturgy, as shown in his wonderful encyclical Mediator Dei, which reasserted and confirmed the guidelines of Catholic worship also amply found in Vatican II’s document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.
These are the very guidelines Fr. Bux sees as essential for a correct interpretation and application of subsequent reforms under the “hermeneutics of continuity” so steadfastly upheld by Benedict XVI.
In particular, Fr. Bux points out, in his introduction to Mediator Dei, as early as 1947 Pius XII made it clear that “tradition is necessary, and innovation is ineluctable — both are in the nature of the ecclesial body as well as of the human body” and therefore “it makes no sense to be an extreme innovator or traditionalist.” Rather, Pius XII suggests, the two poles in this confrontation should meet each other and face off without prejudice and with great charity.
What Pius XII was not able to implement, Fr. Bux said, was a codex iuris liturgici, a liturgical code. It might have been contemplated in the preparatory documents drafted by the commissions under Pius XII, but their texts were sidelined after a certain anti-Roman ideology managed to creep into the Council organization and thus oppose anything previously written or produced in the Eternal City. Had this code been in place, Fr. Bux noted, perhaps the liturgical abuses in the wake of Vatican II might have not taken place.
To duly fathom the genesis of Vatican II and aptly assess Pius XII’s essential contribution to its accomplishment, Fr. Gumpel claims we have to go as far back as Vatican I, a Council that remained unfinished due to the Piedmontese conquest of Rome in 1870. Therefore, the successors of Pius IX knew that a follow-up to Vatican I was to have been convened at some stage, but Leo XIII, Pius X and Benedict XV evidently did not think the time was ripe for such an initiative. But Pius XI, and most notably Pius XII, paid much more attention to the issue, up to the point that the latter secretly started to plan what was needed for the Council in terms of the setting up of commissions and an agenda, including preparatory documents as a base for discussion. But ultimately this spadework ground to a halt. Why?
According to Fr. Gumpel, it’s highly likely that Pius XII came to realize that the moral rubble in the aftermath of World War II was more serious than the material one and deemed it unwise for the bishops to gather in Rome while leaving their flocks without their guidance in such a predicament.
Professor von Teuffenbach argues that there has been a strange “veil of silence” with regard to the Vatican II preparations under Pius XII. She notes that the idea of the Council had been mooted by Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini, then archbishop of Palermo, first to Pius XII and then to his successor, John XXIII, with the latter finally acceding to the cardinal’s request and officially opening the Council’s proceedings on October 11, 1962.
Interestingly, this opening was taking place exactly four years after the funeral of Pius XII, who died on October 9, 1958.
Now, four years in the history of the Church are the equivalent of a blink of an eye, and such a short time span in anticipation of the Council might well indicate that John XXIII was somehow aware that the preparatory work need not start from scratch, since it had already been done to a good extent by his predecessor. But most of all, Professor von Teuffenbach underlined, if we look at the quotations from Pius XII’s magisterium in the Council’s documents, we find out that their number is second only to those from the Scriptures, fully confirming what Cardinal Siri was quoted as saying at the 1983 Synod. The only conclusion: that Vatican II simply would not have been possible without the theological, doctrinal and organizational contribution of Pius XII.
Interestingly, this book has to be considered also as a fruit of the Rome-based “Comitato Papa Pacelli,” under whose aegis the 2011 symposium was held. The establishment of the Comitato was occasioned by the 50th anniversary in 2008 of Pius XII’s passage to eternity on October 9, 1958 at Castel Gandolfo, and the unanimous recognition of the heroic virtues of this Servant of God by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints on May 8, 2007.
Though not specifically stated on the Comitato’s official website, where its promoters speak in more general terms of initiatives for “a better knowledge and appreciation of the figure of Pius XII,” one may easily assume that they are ultimately pressing for a speedy and successful conclusion to his beatification process. The website also features a relevant appeal signed by politicians of differing parties and a vast number of other personalities including academics, writers and journalists.
But in the underlying motivations for the establishment of the Comitato, the above reference to a “better knowledge and appreciation” were followed by the fact that these two aspects in turn would “contribute to a correct hermeneutics of Vatican II.”
The Church of the Council, the text goes on, “is indebted to Pius XII no less than to Pope John XXIII.”
In fact, “if you look at the minutes of the discussions of the Council Fathers, his name is mentioned in no less than 1,500 interventions. In the footnotes of the Council documents Pope Pacelli is quoted over 200 times. It is the most frequent quotation, save for Sacred Scriptures.”
Therefore, the subscribers to the appeal are convinced, a fathoming of the figure and teaching of Pius XII, beyond the black legends seeking to taint his name, “may help to interpret the Second Vatican Council itself, not as an event of rupture and discontinuity in the history of the Church, but in compliance with what Benedict XVI, in his address to the Roman Curia in December 2005, called the hermeneutics of reform.”
“Pope Pius XII predicted and paved the way for the Council,” they went on. “Just think of the liturgical reform initiated by him with the encyclical Mediator Dei or the encyclical Divine Afflante Spiritu on the study of Sacred Scripture. The Council therefore concluded what was started under his pontificate.”
Therefore any “confrontation” between Pius XII and John XXIII is pure nonsense, as already pointed out by Paul VI himself, who decided to simultaneously initiate the cause of beatification of his two predecessors. And just to show his veneration for his predecessor, John XXIII in his first radio message for Christmas on December 23, 1958, called him “Doctor optimus, Ecclesiae sanctae lumen, divinae legis amator” (“Excellent doctor, beacon of the Holy Church, lover of divine law”). These are the three titles conferred by a liturgical antiphon on Doctors of the Church.
The historical documents that continue to emerge from the archives show more and more clearly the extent of Pope Pacelli’s action to save lives and protect all persecuted, with particular attention to the Jews. And, in fact, the Comitato is also determined to celebrate the great charity of Pius XII in remaining in Rome, the only authority still staying in the capital after the German invasion, and by ordering monasteries and cloistered convents to open their doors to accommodate thousands of persecuted people, many of them Jews.