Pope Pius XI, Pope Pius XII and Two Different Responses to Hitler’s Anti-Jewish Laws

Recently I watched Amen, a Costa-Gavras film about an SS officer and a Jesuit priest trying to get the Vatican to denounce the Holocaust.  It was very critical of the Pope for his feeble response to the atrocities being committed against millions of Jewish lives.  How fair is that criticism?  I decided to research the actions of the two popes during the 1930s and 1940s and see how they reacted to Adolph Hitler and his policy against the Jews.  Pope Pius XI, the pope during most of the 1930s, was increasingly confrontational of Hitler and the Nazis as their actions began to affect more people.  Pope Pius XII, the wartime pope, privately approved of sheltering Jewish refugees in church property, but he never publicly condemned the shipping of Jews in concentration camps and the killing of Jewish lives.  The two different reactions of the two popes offers a microcosm of the way religion has dealt with authoritarian governments and atrocities against its citizens.

Pope Pius XI was formerly Achille Ratti, a scholarly clergyman and librarian who spent 45 years of his life presiding over two great scholarly collections, the Ambrosian Library in Milan and the Vatican Library in Rome.  He was a great lover of books, and he held great faith in the power of knowledge that good books endowed upon the reader.  Ratti presided in Poland after World War I and was selected as cardinal of Milan soon afterwards.  In 1922, he was elected as pope as a compromise candidate in a divided conclave.

Georges Passelecq and Bernard Suchecky chronicled Pope Pius XIs interactions with Hitler in a good book titled The Hidden Encyclical of Pius XI.  At first Pope Pius XI signed concordants with Mussolini and Hitler in the late 1920s and early 1930s the hopes that these agreements would help maintain religious autonomy in churches and catholic schools.  To get Hitler and Mussolini to agree to this, Pius had to sacrifice the influence of Catholic political parties in the two dictators countries, and this severely weakened any political opposition to Hitler and Mussolini. 

Pius’s hopes that the concordants would allow the church to run without interference from the Nazis was dashed as Hitler broke promise after promise.    Pope Pius XI reacted in kind, increasing his criticisms of Hitler and the Nazi racial policies.  In 1937 he asked Cardinal Faulhaber to draw up an encyclical that would criticize Hitler’s nonadherence to the concordants and had his secretary of state Eugene Pacelli  secretly sent to the German churches to have them read from the pulpits and published in small local presses.  This encyclical, Mit Brennender Sorge or “With Burning Dismay”  (http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_14031937_mit-brennender-sorge_en.html), denounced the Nazi intimidation of Catholic schools and the hostility of the Nazis towards free religious activity.  In one passage, the encyclical states: 

Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community – however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things – whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds. ”

With this statement, Pius XI began to increasingly criticize Hitler’s racial policies to different groups.  In a 1938 address to Belgian pilgrims, the pope said that “we are the spiritual offspring of Abraham…  We are spiritually Semites.”   Four months earlier, he had commissioned an American priest named John LeFarge to write an encyclical titled Humani Generis Unitas to more explicitly denounce the Nazi policy against the Jews.  LeFarge was chosen because of his work in the Catholic Interracial Council and the Catholic Rural Life Movement and his 1937 book Interracial Justice, which attacked the segregation laws of the southern states of the U.S.  Before LeFarge could finish the encyclical, however, Pope Pius XI died in 1939 and his successor shelved the project.

Eugenio Pacelli succeeded Pope Pius XI and became Pope Pius XII in 1939.  While Pius XI was becoming increasingly confrontational with Hitler and his policies, Pius XII preferred to work behind the scenes and use diplomacy to get things done.  This was due, in part, to his previous experience as a Vatican diplomat and Secretary of State.  Dan Kurzman’s book A Special Mission:  Hitler’s Secret Plot to Seize the Vatican and Kidnap Pope Pius XII makes clear that in spite of his more circumspect approach towards Hitler, Pope Pius XII deeply disliked the dictator and the Nazi idealogy.  In the early part of his papacy, Pius XII had been involved in a plot to oust the Fuhrer.  When Pius first became Pope, he created a special department for the Jews in the German section of the Vatican information office to make it easier to protect them.  Pope Pius XII allowed convents and monasteries to shelter Jewish refugees in Rome when the Nazis were rounding up people to ship to concentration camps.  In March 1940 Pope Pius XII privately protested the persecution of Poles and Jews to German foreign minister Ribbentrop when he visited Rome.  The pope arranged for several thousand to escape to countries that would accept them.  Kurzman notes that after the war, notable Jewish leaders like Golda Meir and historian Martin Gilbert commended the pope for his efforts.

In spite of these efforts, critics ask if Pope Pius XII should’ve made an explicit denunciation of Hitler’s policies towards the Jews and especially the Holocaust, as his predecessor Pope Pius XI was going to with his encyclical Humani Generis Unitas?   Two reasons are given in Kurzman’s book for the pope’s decision not to make that denunciation.  One is that Pius worried about persecution against Catholics that would result from such a denunciation.  He also worried that an explicit statement against the Holocaust would worsen the persecution against the Jews.  Kurzman wrote:

The strongest justification offered for Pius’s public silence was that any papal protest would provoke Hitler into drastic retaliation.  The pope’s supporters argue that because Dutch prelates protested vehemently against Hitler’s deportations in Holland, several hundred additional victims, mostly Jewish converts, including Edith Stein, the philosopher, were dragged out of Church institutions to their death.  And the supporters further note that about 80 percent of Holland’s Jews were ultimately deported, a higher percentage than in any other Nazi-occupied country.”

When Pius XII made statements critical of the Nazis or in reference to the plight of the Jews, he often couched them in vague language.  His most explicit address was his Christmas address of 1942 (http://www.ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/P12CH42.HTM) where he stated: 

Mankind owes that vow to the countless dead who lie buried on the field of battle: The sacrifice of their lives in the fulfillment of their duty is a holocaust offered for a new and better social order. Mankind owes that vow to the innumerable sorrowing host of mothers, widows and orphans who have seen the light, the solace and the support of their lives wrenched from them. Mankind owes that vow to those numberless exiles whom the hurricane of war has torn from their native land and scattered in the land of the stranger; who can make their own the lament of the Prophet: “Our inheritance is turned to aliens; our house to strangers.” Mankind owes that vow to the hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or to a slow decline.”

Though I empathize with the quandary that Pope Pius XII was in, I tend to agree with critics that he should’ve followed his predecessors example and made an explicit statement against the Holocaust.   Costa-Gavras noted in his movie Amen that the Catholic Church took a stand to stop the Nazi policy of euthanasia of the mentally ill.  At another time, gentile wives of Jewish men protested as a group the roundup of their husbands and the Nazis released them.   Though there would be consequences to taking such a public stand, the enormity of the Holocaust made it an imperative that any spiritual leader should’ve spoken out against it.   Though Pius XII probably felt that his diplomatic skills were what was needed to save the thousands of lives sheltered in Catholic churches, the millions that died in concentration camps demanded more of an explicit stand.

Pope Pius XI and Pope Pius XII offered two different responses to a great moral evil.  Pius XI was more confrontational of the racial policies of Adolph Hitler, and at the time of his death, he was moving towards making more explicit condemnations.  Pius XII was more circumspect, making a front of being neutral, but working behind the scenes to try to shelter Jewish refugees in monastaries and convents and move them to safer countries.   A case can be made for either approach for a church to use in dealing with difficult moral decisions.  During the time of slavery, the Quakers and Evangelicals made strong moral condemnations of the institution of slavery.  The Anglican Church founded the idea of Via Media as an effective diplomatic way to make peace between the Catholic and Protestant believers in Elizabethan England.   These two examples show that some times call for the confrontational style of a Pius XI, while other times call for the more diplomatic style of a Pius XII.   Though I commend Pius XII for secretly saving many Jewish lives, I think he was the wrong leader for a time that needed a more forceful pope like Pius XI.

About angelolopez

I’ve wanted to be an artist all my life. Since I was a child I’ve drawn on any scrap of paper I could get a hold of. When I went to San Jose State University, I became more exposed to the works of the great fine artists and illustrators. My college paintings were heavily influenced by the humorous illustrations of Peter De Seve, an illustrator for the New Yorker magazine. I also fell under the spell of the great muralists of the 1930s, especially Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera. I graduated with a degree in Illustration. Angelo Lopez has had illustrations published in Tikkun Magazine, the Palo Alto Daily News and Z Magazine. From April 2008 to May 2011, Angelo's cartoons were regularly published in the Tri-City Voice, a weekly newspaper that covers the Fremont, Hayward, Milpitas, Neward, Sunol and Union City areas in California. He did a political webcomic starring his cartoon character Jasper for the progressive blogsite Everyday Citizen. Since December 2011, Angelo does a regular weekly political cartoon for the Philippine News Today, a Filipino American newspaper based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Angelo is a member of the Sunnyvale Art Club, and the Northern California chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. During the 1990s, he was a member of the part-timer workers SEIU unit in the city of Sunnyvale. Angelo won the 2013, 2015 and 2016 and 2018 Sigma Delta Chi award for editorial cartooning for newspapers with a circulation under 100,000. He has also won the 2016 RFK Book and Journalism Award for Editorial Cartoons. Angelo won first prize for the Best of the West contest in 2016 and third prize in 2017. Angelo is married to Lisa Reeber. They enjoy taking walks, watching movies and hanging out with their nieces.
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2 Responses to Pope Pius XI, Pope Pius XII and Two Different Responses to Hitler’s Anti-Jewish Laws

  1. Angela Lopez

    Nice post

    Pius XII distinguished himself in the lead up to the 1939 War, by his appeal for peace, Truman, Chamberlain and most of the European leaders recognised his leadership in this case, but making statements as though under the spiritual inflence of John the Baptist would not have helped because the central motivation for the emergence of the NSDAP in 1920 was The Treaty of Versailles of 1919, and the hatred of Jews was endemic throughout Europe at that time and although there were only 500,000 Jews in Germany (less than 1% of the population) they were singled out as the focus of criminal and hateful blame, they were the motes and beams which Hitler projected into the eyes and hearts of the German people.

    Previous to the events which led to Hitler’s appointment as Reich Chancellor (before the Enabling Act) Hindenburg thought Hitler the “upstart corporal” with no chance of governing Germany, for example the apointment to Reich Chancellor in January was followed in March by the Enabling Act which gave Hitler full Dictatorship power, and for 1st April that year rapid enactments in Law which systematically discriminated against the jews terribly, yet the world was not moving as fast as it was today, I have newspaper articles from my home town for May 17th 1933

    London has always been the principal market for the fur trade. Its warehouses store the pelts of the fur bearing animals from all parts of the world, and buyers from most countries attend the auction sale. The spring sale lasts three weeks and is now being held.
    the only rival to London is Leipszig in Germany but it has been hit by the Nazi war on the Jews. The fur trade is almost entirely in the hands of the jews. Racial feeling in Germany is driving the Jews out of business in the country and foriegn Jews are transferring their dealings from Leipszig to London.
    The persecution and boycotting of the Jewish traders in Germany will do immense injury to her trade and commerce, it does not arise out of any sudden outburst of resentment. For many years anti -semitism has been very prominent in Germany, and it was proclaimed by the Hitlerite movement in its early stages that when it rose to power it would mean death for the Jews.
    To a large extent, the origin of this racial animosity can be traced to jealousy. In Germany the Jews have been conspicuous in the arts and sciences, and as sucessful business men in the fields of commerce and industry. End Quote

    Source Dunstable Gazette

    At the War Crimes Tribunal Ribbentrop admitted that the Vatican had sent many letters ( he admitted that there was a room with drawers full of them) they were never examined because they railed against the Concordat of 1933, which applied to Germany and because the (church violations) to countries which were conquered territories did not have the protection of the Concordat, no complaint would be addressed, these letters were not only for violations against the guarantees of the concordat as regards church property, they addressed murders commited against priests in Poland and in the concentration Camps 7000 priests lost their lives altogether. the Concordat was an issue which Ribbentrop had to address at his trial, for the most part it was better to have than not have it, the Catholic Central Party as a Catholic voice would not survive the Laws that Hitler was now implementing so much so that the writing was on the wall and legal guarantees were more necesary than a party that would be gagged.

    I believe Hitler would have had no second thoughts about killing the Pope, at the time of his order to have plans prepared to kidnap him. The Ambassador to the Holy See for Germany was Ernst Von Weizsacker and he had been approached by parties willing to end the war, unfortunately Martin Bormann became suspicious and had him followed, but Weizsacker was the link between the Pope and the Aliies in a plan to wrest Hiter from power but it never materialised.
    Weizsacker was aware of the scale of the persecution of the Church and it was he to whom Pius XII enunciated his complaints, he is recorded as saying in the War Crime Tribunal that “When the day comes that these events are made known there will be two heroes Pius XII and General Kesselring”.

    As Cardinal Pacelli he was the Papal Nuncio to Berlin and also Munich during this 13 year period and it is probably to his credit that Pius XI wrote Mit Brennender Sorge, which was read in every church in Germany on Palm Sunday , this mass is presents to the mind of Catholics that Christ the King has entered Jerusalem and that they are his followers.

    This encyclical emphatically denied cults of personality, and PiusXI also published Divini Redemptoris which put forward how the Church was willing to see its mission and National Socialism.

    I also noticed how the rise of Hitler was so well organised and found that he embodied Mein Kampf with his followers because of this book they did not need to find out what he believed it was all before them, and in the economic conditions of Germany at that time many people were decieved by him but this was part 1 of 3 of his program

    !. To conquer the people
    2. To Conquer the Government
    3. To conquer the Army

    The teaching of Carl Von Clausewitz is very evident here because once these objectives have been met you can wage aggressive warfare, and total warfare.

    The nucleus of his forces were the SS and the SD which were able to act as an army within an army and a Government within a government.

    This also was established at the War Crimes Tribunal

    To truly understand what Hitler did we are able to see the same tactics being used today with racial hatred.

    My favourite books on this subject are
    Hitlers Germany by Roderick Stackleburg he puts forward a very detailed history (and defines his interpretation of “what is history”)
    The Nazi Persecution of the Churches 1933- 1945
    J.S Conway both these authors are excellent

    Hitlers Pope John Cornwell whilst i admire this author’s research i believe that he has become far too judgemental, he might do wqell to rewrite this book.

    On War Carl Von Clausewitz this author was around in Napoleons day and i imagine thatHitler read into it what he needed to hypnotise the German people, Der Juden Der Juden.

  2. angelolopez says:

    Thank you James for your comments. You have some knowleadge that I didn’t know of. I still stand by my opinion that Pius XI and his increasing assertiveness against Hitler was a more appropriate response to Hitler’s anti-Jewish politicies than Pius XIIs more circumspect style of leadership. I wish Pius XI was able to deliver the encyclical Humani Generis Unitas before he died, so it would’ve forced Pius XII to take more explicit stands against the Holocaust.

    You have a point though that Pius XII and the Catholic faithful faced grave consequences if he would’ve taken a more explicit stand against Hitler and the Nazi Jewish policy. Pius XII would’ve risked his life if he took a stronger stand and it may’ve instigated reprisals against the Catholic population. It was a tough situation to be in. And I’m not trying to ignore the commendable things that Pius XII had done for peace and to secretly help Jewish refugees.

    I think though if Pius XI was increasingly taking stands against Hitler and was on the verge of releasing an encyclical against anti-semitism in 1939, I don’t see why Pius XII shouldn’t have continued what Pius XI started and explicitly challenge Hitler.

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