Most readers alerted to a new biography of Pope Pius XII would no doubt be drawn by the controversy surrounding his failure to publicly denounce the Nazi persecution of the Jews during the Holocaust.

But for history of science buffs there is also some fascinating background regarding the origin of Humani Generis, essentially the famous and only papal encyclical to address the question of evolution.

Soldier of Christ: The Life and Times of Pope Pius XII by Robert A. Ventresca is a critical but not unsympathetic account of the life of Eugenio Pacelli, the lifelong Vatican diplomat who was destined to become pope at the outset of World War II. Ventresca does not spare Pacelli the criticism that other biographers have leveled on his muted response to the Nazis. But he also notes Pacelli’s wide ranging intellectual interests–especially in science and technology.

Indeed in Ventresca’s telling, it’s hard to resist the sense that, deep down, Pacelli was a geek.

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