Michael Jinkins: Rome is wrong to separate Pius XII's piety from his leadership

The Vatican’s defense of Pius XII’s march toward sainthood alarmingly separates his personal holiness from the effects of his actions as a leader.

One of the more problematic implications of the Enlightenment is the notion that one’s religious or spiritual life (for us, one’s Christian life) is a private matter, one of individual devotion that need not intrude on one’s public commitments and actions. Conversely, this logic would have it that one’s public actions do not necessarily call into question one’s faith.

Christian theologians have become accustomed to critiquing this idea. Some of our very confessions of faith address the issue.

“The Theological Declaration of Barmen” (1934) reminded Christians under the Nazi regime that Jesus Christ is “God’s mighty claim upon our whole life,” thus there are no “areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords.”

The “Confession of Belhar,” adopted in1986 by the synod of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa, reminded a nation shattered by apartheid that the Spirit and Word of God call us to a life that is fundamentally at odds with “the enforced separation of people on a racial basis,” which “promotes and perpetuates alienation, hatred and enmity.”

Yet the fallacy of private faith’s separation from public actions persists, so Christian theologians and pastors often call it into question, especially in its popular cultural forms. This is not surprising.

What was surprising to me was to read a story in the “The New York Times” recently in which a Vatican spokesman defended Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to advance Pope Pius XII toward sainthood despite continuing concerns raised about whether Pius did enough to stop the Holocaust. The concern I want to raise is with the defense mounted by the Vatican spokesman, Federico Lombardi, who was quoted as saying that “the beatification process evaluated the ‘Christian life’ of Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, and not ‘the historical impact of all his operative decisions’.”

The phrase “the historical impact of all his operative decisions” is almost Orwellian in its bureaucratic obfuscation. What is even more problematic is “the big ugly ditch” (G. E. Lessing) that has been dug here segregating something called “the Christian life” from whatever a person does as a leader. Christianity simply does not recognize such a line of demarcation between one’s faith and one’s actions. As Thomas Merton once said, “If you want to have a spiritual life you must unify your life. A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No one can serve two masters.”

The Vatican may or may not have a case to make regarding the beatification of Pius XII. I have grave concerns with reference to its decision, but I’ll leave that discussion to one side for now. I will also leave to one side for now the chilling banality of the phrase chosen to justify Pius’s actions merely as “operative decisions.” The point I want to make today is this: any apologia that begins by fragmenting the integrity of the Christian life is flawed from the very start.

Michael Jinkins is dean and professor of pastoral theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.