Newly discovered U.S. diplomatic documents including a confidential memo written by the future Pope Pius XII indicate that whatever the pontiff's failings to publicly confront Adolph Hitler, he came to privately believe that compromise with the Nazi regime was "out of the question."
A year before Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli -- the future Pius XII -- cautioned against compromise in a 1938 memo intended for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a U.S. diplomat reported that Pacelli had described Hitler as "an untrustworthy scoundrel" and "a fundamentally wicked person."
The new findings by Catholic historian Charles R. Gallagher of St. Louis University, to be published in the Sept. 1 issue of the Jesuit magazine America, are certain to renew debate over Pius' attitude toward Nazism and his public silence in the face of Hitler's Final Solution that exterminated 6 million Jews.
Though some historians said it has long been thought that Pacelli held anti-Nazi views -- a controversial position in itself -- the discovery of the two documents at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and at a Harvard University diplomatic archive may provide the first written evidence of Pius' antipathy toward Hitler and Nazism.
"We've always known that Pius XII disliked Hitler and probably always thought he was an evil man," said J. Michael Phayer, author of "The Catholic Church and the Holocaust" and professor emeritus of history at Marquette University.
"But we never had that in words before. We now know he's already formed his opinions clear back in 1937 while he was still [Vatican] secretary of state," he said.
"It gives a record of Pacelli having made a moral determination about Hitler. That is something we haven't seen before," he said in an interview. "If there has been a moral determination made in this way, it has not been as stark."
Even the pontiff's critics said they were intrigued by the revelations. Rabbi Marvin J. Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, called the documents "very interesting" but all the more puzzling when held up against Pius' failure to publicly condemn the Holocaust.
"When he had an opportunity to practice what he preached, that Nazism is so terrible ... he ducked and wouldn't do it," Hier said.
Gallagher said it was too early to tell if the documents would help to rehabilitate Pius' reputation.
Gallagher said he made his first discovery in May after the Kennedy library opened to scholars the diplomatic papers of Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, the late president's father.
Among the documents was a four-page, typewritten and unsigned memorandum, apparently written by Pacelli. An attached cover letter, dated April 19, 1938, and signed by Kennedy, attested to its authenticity.
Kennedy met Pacelli in Rome in April 1938. At the time, Kennedy was U.S. ambassador to Britain. Kennedy wrote that Pacelli handed him the memorandum and gave him permission to pass "these personal private views of mine onto your Friend." The friend was President Roosevelt.
Pacelli charged that the Nazis struck at the "fundamental principle of the freedom of the practice of religion." He also worried that the Nazis would launch a cultural war -- a Kulturkampf -- against the church.
Pacelli wrote that the church "at times felt powerless and isolated in its daily struggle against all sorts of political excesses from the Bolsheviks to the new pagans arising among the young 'Aryan' generations," a reference to the Nazis. Gallagher said Pacelli assured Kennedy that any political compromise with the Third Reich was "out of the question."
Phayer said that Pacelli was undoubtedly speaking from his own disillusionment after the Nazis failed to live up to a concordant Pacelli had negotiated in 1933 -- the year Hitler came to power. In the concordant, the church accepted the dissolution of all Catholic political groups. In return, Germany was to allow the Vatican tight control over German bishops and purely religious matters. Among other things, the pact has been blamed for silencing the church as the Nazis moved against Jews.
A second document was found by Gallagher in June at Harvard University among the papers of U.S. diplomat Jay Pierrepont Moffat. One of the documents, written by U.S. Consul General Alfred W. Klieforth, recounted a 1937 meeting he had with Pacelli in Rome.
"His views, while they are well known, surprised me by their extremeness," Klieforth wrote. "He said that he opposed unalterably every compromise with National Socialism [Nazism]. He regarded Hitler not only as an untrustworthy scoundrel but as a fundamentally wicked person. He did not believe Hitler capable of moderation, in spite of appearances, and he fully supported the German bishops in their anti-Nazi stand."
Gallagher holds a doctorate in American Catholic history from Marquette and is completing philosophy studies at St. Louis University on the road to ordination as a Jesuit priest.