The forgotten pope who challenged Hitler

By Marvin Hier Earlier this year, eighteen Catholic scholars from the United States, Germany, and Australia, took the unprecedented step … Continued

By Marvin Hier

Earlier this year, eighteen Catholic scholars from the United States, Germany, and Australia, took the unprecedented step of writing a letter to Pope Benedict XVI, urging him to slow down the canonization process that would designate Pope Pius XII a saint of the Catholic Church, until more evidence could be found to defend the action against charges that he failed to do enough during the Nazi Holocaust. Pope Benedict inherited the Pius XII dossier from his predecessors but angered critics, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center, when he issued a decree in December 2009, recognizing Pius’s “heroic virtues,” moving him one step closer to Sainthood.

Normally, it is not the business of Jews who the Catholic Church designate a saint, but Pius XII must be an exception to the rule because it would require us to teach our children and grandchildren that while history’s greatest crime was being committed and 6 million Jews, 1/3 of all of world Jewry were exterminated, a saint was sitting on the throne of St. Peter.

While the Vatican continues to push the candidacy of Pius XII, the other Pope who lived during the times of Adolf Hitler, Pius XI, is never mentioned as a candidate for Sainthood. Yet it is this Pope more than any other that many believe came closest to dramatically changing the course of WWII. Achille Ratti took the name Pius XI in 1922, when he was elected Pope, the same year Benito Mussolini marched on Rome.

But his misfortune was presiding over the church during the advent of the ‘age of the dictators,’ Mussolini and Hitler. In the early years, Pius XI, despite his misgivings, sought accommodation with them fearing confrontation would weaken the church. So in 1929, he signed a Concordat with fascist Italy which protected the independence of the Vatican, but lessened his ability to confront Mussolini’s aggression.

He also allowed his Secretary of State, Cardinal Pacelli (the future Pius XII), to sign a Concordat with Hitler in 1933, hoping to preserve Catholic institutions in Germany. But the moral cost was high. He did not protest when the Germans passed the first antisemitic laws in 1933 excluding non-Aryans from public office, or when they passed the infamous Nuremberg Laws in 1935.

But Pius XI soon became very troubled by his deal with the ‘devil’ and the more he observed their inhumanity and deceit, the more determined he was to confront them. In his 1937 Encyclical “Mit Brennender Sorge (With Burning Anxiety),” he lambasted those who worshiped the superiority of race. A year later, when the Austrian Cardinal Innitzer welcomed Hitler’s takeover of Austria, Pius XI summoned him to the Vatican and forced him to issue a humiliating public retraction.

But the apex of his resistance came when he ignored his own inner circle of advisors and instructed an American Jesuit priest visiting the Vatican, Father John Lafarge, to write an encyclical condemning racism and antisemitism. The pope had read Lafarge’s book on the racial injustice done to American ‘Negroes’ and knew instinctively that Lafarge was the right man for the job. He told the startled priest to write the encyclical as if he were the Pope. Lafarge and two colleagues worked feverishly outside of Paris to prepare the document they called, “Humani Generis Unitas (The Unity of the Human Race).”

On September 20, 1938, Father Lafarge handed in the completed document to Wladimir Ledochowski, the Father Superior of the Jesuits in Rome. Although the document retained elements of Catholic teachings – that the Jews’ rejection of Christ caused them “to perpetually wander over the face of the Earth,” it also condemned anti-Semitism in language never before uttered by a Pope and never acknowledged by the church for twenty centuries. “…Millions of persons are deprived of the most elementary rights, denied legal protection against violence and robbery, exposed to every insult and public degradation, innocent persons are treated as criminals, even those who in time of war fought bravely for their country are treated as traitors…. This flagrant denial of human rights sends many thousands of helpless persons out over the face of the earth without any resources….”

Coincidentally, on the day Lafarge handed in the Encyclical, Pius XI, speaking to a group of Christian pilgrims, said, “…Abraham is our patriarch and forefather. Anti-Semitism is incompatible with that lofty thought…. It is a movement with which we Christians can have nothing to do…. No, no, I say to you…. It is impossible for a Christian to take part in anti-Semitism. It is inadmissible…. Spiritually, we are all Semites.”

Tragically, Father Lafarge’s document was too shocking for some conservative prelates in Rome. They delayed sending it on to the ailing Pope who kept asking for it but never saw it until it was too late. With Lafarge’s Encyclical on his desk, Pius XI died on February 10, 1939, before he could sign it. The new Pope, Pius XII, refused to issue it. Mysteriously, the document soon disappeared and not another word was heard about it until the National Catholic Reporter broke the story some 43 years later.

What would have happened if the encyclical had been signed? Many believe that it would so have divided Germany’s 45 million Catholics that it would have delayed or prevented Hitler’s plans of launching WWII.

Rabbi Marvin Hier is the Founder and Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

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  • calexanderbrown

    I was not aware of Pope Pius XI and his deeds, and I am a reasonably informed person. He is the one, not his successor, who deserves to be made a Saint. First of all, someone should write a book about him. His papers are obviously in the Vatican’s archives. Secondly, their MUST be agitation for his elevation to sainthood. People of conscience need to take up this task, and launch a Crusade within the universal Catholic Church. Third, this whole matter needs to be raised with The Curia and Pope Benedict. C. ALEXANDER BROWN

  • mrsm117

    Dear Rabbi Hier.I would like to call your attention to the article which can be found by clicking on the attached link. I hope that you and your readers will find it informative.The charity of Pius towards the Jews was remarkable to the extent that the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, and his family converted to Catholicism after the war. Christianity is a religion of embracing God’s love and exhibiting that love in tangible ways to others. The Pope is the Vicar of Christ. An understanding of what it means to be an authentic Christian and the Vicar of Christ is lacking by those who condemn this Pope. Anyone who understands what it means to be an authentic Christian and the Vicar of Christ would find it incomprehensible to accuse this Pope of not helping his brothers and sisters.

  • sekstract

    Why is it that doing the right thing qualifies anyone for Sainthood? As the Spiritual leader of millions of people, speaking out against wrongdoings is simply part of the job description, certainly not qualification for Sainthood. Being in such a position and not speaking out while atrocities were committed, that would be the antithesis of Sainthood.

  • mrsm117

    There is more that is involved in proposing one be canonized as a saint than speaking out for atrocities as important as that certainly was. To be declared a Saint requires that two medical miracles be attributed to that individual.

  • mrsm117

    Mr. Brown,You didn’t indicate your relgion or faith but frankly I find the notion of people launching a Crusade(that was a very deliberate word you chose) in the universal Catholic Church quite arrogant.The Catholic Church tells no religious group whom they may venerate. What is this preoccupation by some to attack the Catholic Church and demand investigations and launch protests?

  • pludwa

    “Many believe that it would so have divided Germany’s 45 million Catholics that it would have delayed or prevented Hitler’s plans of launching WWII.”Wasn’t going to happen. Issuing the mystery Encylical wouldn’t have changed one thing. Cardinal Pacelli, being the Papal Legate to the Weimer Republci knew what kind of man Hitler was. The reason behind the Condordat was to at least give the appearance that the Church tried to come to a reasonable agreement. Hitler couldn’t use Vatican animosity as a pretext. In fact,”Hitler easily promised all that was demanded by the Holy See, with, it seems, the deliberate intention of repudiating his pledges as soon as practicable. Hitler’s real views were: “Religions are all alike, no matter what they call themselves. They have no future-certainly none for the Germans. Fascism, if it likes, may come to terms with the Church. So shall I, why not? That will not prevent me from tearing up Christianity root and branch and annihilating it in Germany.” In fact, as soon as possible, Hitler ignored the Concordat. “Persecution of the Church began in earnest in 1935 and proved severe despite Nazi disclaimers of its existence. At first every effort was made to discredit the clergy by cartoons, loud-speaking trucks, “exposes,” and trials of clerics for alleged moral lapses. Chanceries were searched for incriminating documents, communication with Rome hindered, mails and phones tapped. Fines and imprisonment were inflicted upon outspoken clerics, but though the Nazis claimed 7,000 convictions, actually of 25,634 German priests but 49 were accused and 21 convicted of moral frailty, Nazi propaganda represented the Church as unpatriotic, hoarding wealth; its clerics as idle and avaricious. Catholic Action in all its forms was curtailed by threats, decrees, or violence administered by party thugs. Catholic workers were forced into state unions; Catholic youths into the Hitler-Jugend; Catholic welfare organizations restricted or abolished. Catholic schools were at first annoyed, and then, by April 1, 1940, wholly converted to state or party uses…..Catholic libraries were gradually “expurgated,” and the Catholic press, especially after its bold publication of Mit Brennender Sorge in 1937, confiscated or muzzled. The sermon-carefully monitored’ by Nazi observers-remained the sole means of communication for the hierarchy, but the German bishops spoke out boldly and repeatedly.”Had Pius XII, knowing the type of man Hitler was, issued the Encyclical, it’s more likely more Jews, Catholics, gypsies, etc, would have been sent to the camps. Reference 4 Dutch Bishops who spoke up against the Nazi’s…..German retribution was a stronger crack down which brought about the death of one Anne Frank.

  • diffal

    Pope Pius XII did actually publish this encyclical. But as it was only a draft of “Humani generis unitas” that was sent by the authors to the pope, it had to be reworked before being published. It was published October 20, 1939 as “Summi Pontificatus, Encyclical Of Pope Pius XII On The Unity Of Human Society”