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Some historical figures are eternally debated, either because their actions had such profound consequences for the world, or on account of their captivating and complex personalities. Pope Pius XII, leader of the Catholic Church during the Second World War, doesn't qualify on either count. He was an unworldly figure, hopelessly out of his depth in the politics of the late 1930s, as his latest biographer, Gerard Noel, has shown. So why is his record more regularly discussed today than that of any other 20th-century Pontiff, including even the far more captivating and historically significant John Paul II?

The obvious answer is because Pius stands accused, during the war years, of the crime of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust, never uttering a single word of public condemnation of the slaughter he knew was happening. The controversy revolves around his motives. Was "Hitler's Pope" a raging anti-Semite and Nazi sympathiser, or did he naively believe that public condemnation of the Nazis would do more harm than good?

A final verdict cannot be reached until the Vatican fully opens its archives for the period. Until that happens, however, it is worth asking why the debate over Pius has grown so very loud, with prime-time CBS documentaries in the US, a string of headline-grabbing polemical books from the mainstream publishers, and even Richard Dawkins weighing in to name and shame Pius? To justify such a brouhaha, you would think that something momentous must have rested on Pius's actions in the early 1940s - that, had he spoken out, he might single-handedly have stopped the Holocaust. Yet, Pope or not, Pius was utterly powerless to change the course of history.

So the controversy over this Pope, who died 50 years ago, must have deeper roots. Three possibilities suggest themselves. The first is that he has become a convenient scapegoat for those who want to attack religion. Popes are meant, after all, to stand firm on moral absolutes, but here's one who remained silent while millions died. This stereotyping (and oversimplifying) of Pius is taken as proof positive of the core hypocrisy of Christianity.

The second concerns the way the Vatican has handled criticism of its erstwhile leader. Its response to those who damn Pius has been to go to the opposite extreme and set in motion his beatification, one step short of naming him a saint. It is the ecclesiastical equivalent of sticking up two fingers at the rest of the world - and inevitably only raises the stakes in the row.

And the third is that the whole Pius affair has become a touchstone for the prospects of building better Catholic-Jewish relationships, and, more broadly, for all attempts at fruitful interfaith dialogue. Insisting that past misdeeds must be exhaustively examined before going forward is, to judge by this example, a recipe for stalemate. And so another stereotype then arises - the perception, popular in our secular and sceptical age, that all religion is really about is reliving age-old hatreds. A false one, I hardly need to add, but as hard to get away from at present as the controversy that has engulfed Pius XII.

 
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