In the decades since World War II, controversy has swirled around the legacy of Pope Pius XII, who sat at the head of the Catholic Church from 1939 to 1958. Critics have claimed that he was shamefully indifferent to the murder of millions of European Jews, while his supporters argue that he quietly approved Catholic institutions’ efforts to provide shelter to victims of Nazi persecution. It has been difficult for scholars to fully tease out the nuances of these opposing arguments because many of the documents pertaining to Pius XII’s tenure have been locked away in the “Vatican Secret Archives.” Now, after years of pressure to unseal this repository of information, Pope Francis has announced that the archives will be opened.
According to Elisabetta Povoledo of the New York Times, Pope Francis said that the documents will become available on March 2 of next year, the 81st anniversary of Pius XII’s election to the esteemed position. At a meeting of Vatican researchers, Pope Francis said that the archives will reveal “moments of grave difficulties, tormented decisions of human and Christian prudence, that to some could appear as reticence,” as the BBC reports, though he also opined that Pius XII had been treated with “some prejudice and exaggeration.”
The archives contain some 16 million pages of materials, which researchers have been dutifully organizing for the past 13 years in preparation for making the files public. It is not unusual for such documents to remain sealed for long periods of time; the Vatican typically opens papal archives 70 years after the conclusion of a pope’s tenure. But because the Pius XII archives may contain pertinent information about the Vatican’s policies during WWII, scholars and Jewish groups have lobbied for the archives to be opened early.
Scrutiny of Pius XII’s legacy first gained traction in 1963, after the German premiere of the play The Deputy by Rolf Hochhuth. That work depicted Pius XII as a cold and calculating leader, who turned a blind eye to the Holocaust because he believed Nazi Germany would protect Christians from the rise of communism. In an effort to temper the outrage sparked by the play, the Vatican ordered the publication of 11 volumes of documents, which were released between 1965 and 1981. Critics, however, argued that this selection of documents failed to offer a complete picture of Pius XII’s wartime activities. Demands that the Vatican open its sealed archives intensified in 2009, when Pope Benedict XVI approved a decree declaring Pius XII’s “heroic virtues”—a key step toward the declaration of his sainthood.
Without full access to Pius XII’s archives, defenders and detractors of the controversial pope have latched onto a number of opposing arguments. It is true that Pius XII never publicly condemned the mass murder of European Jews, though he did “speak in general terms about protecting minorities and hating war,” as TIME’s Olivia B. Waxman reports. It is also true that Catholic institutions took in thousands of persecuted Jews, something that “could not have occurred in the face of papal disapproval,” according to Yad Vashem.
Pope Francis is among those who have defended Pius XII’s public silence in the face of Nazi crimes against European Jews. “I don’t want to say that Pius XII did not make any mistakes—I myself make many—but one needs to see his role in the context of the time,” Pope Francis said in 2014. “For example, was it better for him not to speak so that more Jews would not be killed or for him to speak?”
Others, like David Kertzer, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, reject this line of thinking. “The idea that the Pope, by not speaking out, saved Jewish lives, I find hard to credit seriously,” Kertzer tells Waxman.
Another mark against Pius XII lies in his involvement in orchestrating an agreement between the Holy See in Germany in 1933, when he was still a cardinal. The “concordat,” as agreements between the Vatican and secular governments are known, stipulated the Church’s rights within the Third Reich. But the significance of the deal was “ambiguous in its day and still remains so,” Robert A. Krieg argued in the Jesuit publication America magazine in 2003.
“Hitler interpreted the concordat to mean that he had won the church’s approval, thereby gaining international recognition of his Nazi regime,” Krieg wrote. “At least some German Catholics took the signing of the treaty as an indication that church officials had softened their opposition to National Socialism ... The pope and his secretary of state insisted, however, that they approved the agreement simply to protect the church.”
Once the archives are opened, it will likely take several years for scholars to comb through Pius XII’s documents. But scholars and activists hope that the unsealed archives will bring some clarity to the debate that has surrounded the controversial Pope.
“It is long overdue for speculation to be replaced by rigorous scholarship, which is only possible once scholars have full access to all of these records,” Sara J. Bloomfield, director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, said in a statement. “This is important for the sake of historical truth, but there is moral urgency too: we owe this to the survivor generation, which is rapidly diminishing.”