Recommended Reading: "A Cross Too Heavy" by Paul O'Shea

  • April 27, 2011

"A Cross Too Heavy is an indispensable addition in the continuing debate over what Pope Pius XII did, and did not do, to help save Jews during the Holocaust."

— Abraham H. Foxman, National Director, Anti-Defamation League

The papacy of Pius XII (1939-1958) has been a source of near-constant debate and criticism since his death over half a century ago. Powerful myths have arisen around him, and central to them is the dispute surrounding his alleged silence during the years of the Holocaust.

The debate over Pope Pius XII's actions during and after World War II have roiled Catholic-Jewish relations for decades. Indeed, in recent days, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, noted that "the current debate about Pius XII has become shrill…".

Dolan, while calling for the expedited release of Vatican documents on behalf of Holocaust survivors, declared that the discussion about Pius XII must be based 'on the historical record."

In his groundbreaking new book, A Cross Too Heavy: Pope Pius XII and the Jews of Europe (Palgrave Macmillan, March 2011), historian Paul O'Shea takes up Dolan's call.

O'Shea gives a careful and detailed overview of Pius XII's actions with respect to the Jewish people during the Holocaust. He examines the papacy as well as the little-studied pre-papal life of Eugenio Pacelli in order to illuminate his policies, actions, and statements during the war. Drawing carefully and comprehensively on the historical record, O'Shea convincingly demonstrates that Pius was neither an anti-Semitic villain nor a "lamb without stain."

O'Shea's balanced research places the limited obtainable evidence into perspective and delivers a bold verdict. Ultimately, A Cross Too Heavy provides an intricate portrait of Pope Pius XII, the man and pope.


Paul O'Shea is an Australian historian and educator whose research has focused on Pope Pius XII and Catholic responses to the Holocaust. His PhD in this area was completed at Macquarie University, Sydney. A founding member of the Australian Institute of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, he lives in Sydney and is currently Dean of Mission at Rosebank College, Sydney.

After Pope Benedict XVI praised so-called "evidence" presented to him at a 2008 Rome conference which claimed that World War II-era Pope Pius XII did everything he could to save Jews during the Holocaust, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) embarked on an unprecedented research project (PDF) with O'Shea to analyze some of these materials.

O'Shea found that out of context texts presented by Pave the Way Foundation are tools in a campaign of misinformation by some Pius apologists who use selective church documents and issue unsubstantiated conclusions about Pius XII to provide a distorted view of history. O'Shea analyzed some 2,300 pages of war-time era documents that had been found in the town of Avellino, near Naples. These documents were originally from the town of Campagna, south-west of Avellino, site of one of the more than 40 Italian internment camps for Jews established between 1940 and 1945. Pius supporters claimed the documents illustrated the pope's efforts to help Jews in the face of Nazism.

But O'Shea concluded that "to use the Campagna files to suggest that Pope Pius XII was active in attempting to rescue Jews is to demand something the historical record cannot sustain."

Drawing carefully and comprehensively on the historical record, O'Shea convincingly demonstrates that Pius was neither an anti-Semitic villain nor a "lamb without stain." Share via Twitter Share via Facebook