A top Vatican historian and a U.S.-based Catholic rights group have attacked a new book that claims Pope Pius XII was a visceral anti-Semite who condoned Adolf Hitler's policy toward the Jews and did nothing to stop the Holocaust.
The book, "Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII" by British historian John Cornwell, will be published later this month. An advance excerpt in Vanity Fair magazine has received wide media attention.
Cornwell, a Catholic who says he was given access to "secret material" in Vatican archives, concludes through documents and letters that as pope and earlier as Vatican ambassador to Germany, Pope Pius "nourished a striking antipathy toward the Jews."
Pope Pius, who was pontiff from 1939 to 1958, also had a "fear and contempt of Judaism based on his belief that the Jews were behind the Bolshevik plot to destroy Christendom," the book asserts.
Cornwell says that, as envoy to Germany when he was Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius helped the Reich by taking a position that its anti-Semitic policies were an internal matter.
The Rev. Pierre Blet, a Jesuit historian and expert on the World War II era who co-authored an 11-volume study of Pope Pius, dismissed Cornwell's assertion that Pacelli was an anti-Semite.
Writing in the Catholic newspaper, Avvenire, Blet said Cornwell's book was "not a true historical analysis" and that he had not provided sufficient documentation.
Father Blet repeated the Vatican's defense that Pope Pius worked behind the scenes to help Jews and did not speak out directly against the Nazis during the war for fear of worsening the fate of Catholics and Jews in Germany and Nazi-occupied countries.
"As far as the silence is concerned, we know clearly that a public protest against Nazism would have been a disaster not only for Catholics but above all for the Jews," Blet wrote.
Meanwhile, the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights said the attack on Pope Pius had "reached new heights" and that Cornwell "fails miserably" in an attempt to provide what he was purporting to be groundbreaking scholarship.
The group said the Vanity Fair article was "laced with conjecture and innuendo of the most scurrilous kind."
The group denounced Cornwell for trying to make people believe Pope Pius XII was an agent at the service of Hitler and said the book was "an attempt to derail the beatification of this saintly man."
The Catholic League said that "no one did more to save Jews than Pius XII" and that Jewish leaders had gone to the Vatican after the war and thanked the pope for his help.
There have been repeated Italian media reports that Pope John Paul II wants to beatify Pius XII, John XXIII and Paul VI -- as part of celebrations marking the year 2000.