"Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII" by Robert A. Ventresca. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (Cambridge, Mass., 2013). 414 pp., $35.
"Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII" by Robert A. Ventresca. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (Cambridge, Mass., 2013). 414 pp., $35.

Robert Ventresca presents in "Soldier of Christ" a scholarly yet readable life of Pope Pius XII, from his youth as a scion of the "black nobility" of papal Rome in the late 19th century to his death in 1958 in the midst of the Cold War which he waged as a "soldier of Christ" against communism.

Pius died on the verge of the Second Vatican Council, which his many writings as pope over the years presaged and in a real sense made possible.

During his pontificate, the years 1939 to 1946 saw the outbreak of the most devastating war in human history and the previously unimaginable evil of the Holocaust. Most of the books about Pius judge him, positively or negatively, based upon his policies during that period. Ventrasca sets Pius' decisions within the larger context of his life and achievements, bringing a fresh perspective to what has aptly been described as "the Pius war."

This balanced account takes seriously both the criticisms of Pius' policy of "impartiality" and his use of official neutrality as a cover to save the lives of Jews and others. The narrative is a complex one.

Ventresca cites and agrees with both Pius' critics and his defenders. He concludes that Pius' approach of public neutrality and behind-the-scenes diplomatic activity was, in the end, ineffective.

He argues as well that it was not lack of concern or compassion for the plight of the victims of the war that motivated this very spiritual and caring leader, thrust into the center of a maelstrom arguably beyond the control of any single human being, but faithfulness to the diplomatic process in which he was trained and which characterized his years as Vatican secretary of state under his more mercurial predecessor, Pope Pius XI.

The actions of the Vatican in the aftermath of the war are also taken up in some detail, since the charge has been made that the Vatican used its influence and resources to aid the escape of war criminals from Europe to the Americas.

True, some highly placed individuals such as German Bishop Alois Hudal were involved in such activities.

But Ventresca is careful to place this in the context of the activities of the Allies themselves and their "ratlines" in assisting Nazi and Ustashi leaders to escape justice. There was, he concludes, no systematic Vatican "ratline" comparable to those of the Allied powers, including the United States.

Ventresca describes the significant contributions of Pius to the key theological, biblical and liturgical studies that established the framework for the Second Vatican Council.

Again, the narration is complex, since Pius also strove to keep theological discussions within "safe" boundaries and in continuity with church tradition, even while himself re-interpreting that tradition to take into account advances in science and other areas of thought of the modern world of the second half of the 20th century.

The book concludes with an overall appreciation of Pius and a cautionary note that further historical work needs to be done before history