Ahead of the anticipated release of previously undisclosed documents from the Vatican archives in March, “Holy Silence” is a damning expose that unveils the dark politics and complicity of the Catholic Church during World War II.
As Hitler rose to power and Mussolini mimicked his anti-Jewish measures in Italy, Pope Pius XII took a neutral stance on the war, with the belief that fascism could win and the church needed to take measures to protect itself in wartime chaos. Controversy has surrounded his papal legacy since, as people debated whether or not he did everything in his power to prevent the death and persecution of Jews during the Holocaust and in fascist Italy.
The film interviews contemporary historians, focusing on American actors during the war who were in contact with the Vatican in attempts to influence the institution politically in favor of the Allied cause.
The tangled politics and the Vatican’s moral failure are heavily criticized by historians who study the pope’s role in the war. The question posed by the film seems, even before the secret archives are released, to have a pessimistic answer to the church’s questionable decisions.
As the Vatican used its authority to call morally upon politicians to spare Rome, monasteries, and other religious institutions, and support a peaceful conclusion to the war, they ignored the horrors that were being waged against the Jews.
Many American voices are heard in the documentary, including Catholic clerics who are critical of this pope’s lack of action in trying to save the lives of Jews and what that means for the moral authority of the Catholic Church today. As the documentary debates the role of the pope historically, it raises a larger moral question about the complicity of inaction and silence in the face of atrocities.