55 years ago tomorrow, Pope Pius XII died at Castel Gandolfo after a 19-year reign. I was 10 years old at the time and was fascinated both by the ritual and the politics surrounding the death and burial of the Pope and by the election and coronation of his successor, Pope John XXIII. (I was even aware - from the news coverage - of the problem posed by the rapid decomposition of the Pope's poorly embalmed body, although the full story I would only read about years later as an adult).
To a 10-year old, who had known no other pope, Pius XII - aristocratic, ascetic, magisterial - personified what a pope should be. Since then, we have had six other popes, and my (and the world's) notions of what a pope should be have been expanded in ways hardly imaginable in 1958. Even so, it is hard to overstate the high esteem Pius was widely held in at the time of his death - almost universally lauded not only within the Church but by statesmen (including the Israeli Foreign Minister, Golda Meir) and the secular press. I remember one of my aunts commenting that we would never agin see so holy a pope! Who knew then that two of his successors would both be canonized 55 years later, while Pius's cause still waits in line?
Complicating Pius's cause, of course, is the unending controversy about his role in World War II - a controversy sometimes referred to as "the Pius Wars" and which was triggered by the German playwright Ralph Hochhuth's 1963 play The Deputy, which portrayed the Pope as distant from and silent in the face of Nazi atrocities. That one work of fiction was sufficient to transform a reputation so radically reflects, on the one hand, the de-mythologizing culture of the 1960s, which diminished the aura in which authorities and institutions had hitherto been held, and, on the other hand, a heightened interest in the Holocaust, giving it greater prominence in the overall picture of World War II than was the case either during the war in the decades that followed.
The Holocaust was, of course, a consequence of that war and was ended, finally, in the only way it could have been ended - by the military defeat of Germany. It is hard to imagine how any pope could have ended the Holocaust - or any of the other atrocities of that war, for that matter. Still, the debate continues and often focuses on competing interpretations of Pius's wartime behavior - some accenting the very real efforts the Pope and other Church figures made to save lives (and the many actual lives that were saved), others accenting the Pope's cautiously prudential personality and diplomatic style which avoided a more direct (and possibly counter-productive) "prophetic" posture toward Nazi Germany. This debate will continue as long as people care about the history of World War II. An excellent recent contribution to this discussion is Robert A. Ventresca, Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII (Harvard, 2013). A review of that book and good summary of the state of the question by Eamon Duffy can be found in The London Review of Books (September 26, 2013).
Like most pontificates, Pius's probably deserves mixed reviews - not just for how he handled the unprecedented challenges posed by the war, but in domestic Church affairs as well. On balance, I think his record in domestic Church affairs has stood the test of time. It is hard to imagine the accomplishments of Vatican II, for example, without the ground-breaking preparatory work begun by Pius in such fields as liturgy, biblical studies, and ecclesiology.
But should he be canonized? In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI approved the decree acknowledging Pius's "heroic virtues," thus advancing him to the status of "Venerable." If normal procedures are followed, he could be beatified after the certification of one miracle attributed to his intercession. (It would then take a second miracle for him to be canonized. Of course, the Pope can dispense with that requirement, as Pope Francis has done in the case of Blessed Pope John XXIII, scheduled to be canonized on April 27, 2014, along with Blessed John Paul II.)
Needless to say, acknowledging Pius's "heroic virtues" is not a definitive judgment on his wartime policies. In the nature of the case, there will always be debate about that as about all political judgments. (There continues to be a great industry, for example, in the constant reevaluation of the wartime policies of Roosevelt and Churchill.) Nor, for that matter, does it represent a definitive judgment on the specifics of his pontificate, much less an endorsement of everything he ever aid or did. A canonization represents an infallible act of the papal magisterium, but it does not mean a judgment that the saint in question was himself flawless.
Unrelated to Pius's personal merits is the question of how many popes to canonize. In the contemporary world, an un-holy pope is unlikely. A plausible case could probably be made in support of a sainthood cause for any 20th century pope. Adding John XXIII (1958-1963) and John Paul II (1978-2005) to Saint Pius X (1903-1914) means that three of the 20th century's popes will now be venerated as saints. Perhaps that is sufficient for now.