Fascinating book on papal response to Nazism draws upon archival material
June 23rd, 2010
By Eugene J. Fisher
“POPE AND DEVIL: THE VATICAN’S ARCHIVES AND THE THIRD REICH” by Hubert Wolf. Translated by Kenneth Kronenberg. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (Cambridge, Mass., 2010). 316 pp., $29.95.
(CNS) – Between 2003 and 2006, the Vatican released for scholarly study all materials in the Secret Archives relating to the pontificate of Pope Pius XI (Feb. 6, 1922-Feb. 10, 1939). With “Pope and Devil,” Hubert Wolf, professor of church history at the University of Munster in Germany, has gone through these materials to provide a fascinating “insider” view of how the Vatican sought to cope with the great danger that was German National Socialism.
The title of the study is from a 1929 statement by Pope Pius XI explaining the treaty he made with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and subsequent treaties with Francisco Franco in Spain and Adolf Hitler in Germany: “If it were possible to save even a single soul, to shield souls from greater harm, we would find the courage to deal even with the devil himself.”
Pope Pius XI’s secretary of state in 1933 was Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who in 1939 would succeed him as Pope Pius XII and who, Wolf shows, strongly shared this view.
Cardinal Pacelli was the nuncio to Bavaria and then to Germany from 1917 to 1930, so Wolf spends a great deal of time on him and his attitudes toward Germany and the Jews, which give necessary background for the decisions he ultimately makes as pope during World War II. Wolf’s careful and balanced analysis will greatly enhance the reader’s appreciation of the complexities facing both Pope Pius XI and Pope Pius XII.
The author details two key experiences of Cardinal Pacelli’s in Germany that he believes lie behind what Wolf calls his “silence” about the Holocaust as pope. The first is the failure of the Holy See’s peace initiative during World War I, from which he learned the necessity of remaining neutral in international conflicts, since there would inevitably be Catholics on both sides of the battle lines and no pope could hope to facilitate peace or justice if the appearance of taking the side of one over the other were given.
The other issue was historical, one ingrained in his training, which was the attack on the Church in Prussia (1871-91), in which the state closed down thousands of Catholic parishes and schools, leaving countless Catholics without adequate catechesis and forcing them to live and die without the sacraments. The lesson, again, was the necessity of working above all to preserve the Church’s right to meet the spiritual and pastoral needs of her people.
Both Pope Pope Pius XI and Cardinal Pacelli clearly abhorred the paganism and racial anti-Semitism of Nazi ideology and considered them to be against the teaching of the Church, the latter because it denied the fundamental unity of humanity, that we are all descended from the same ultimate parents and that each human is made in the image and likeness of God.
But how to effectively attack racial anti-Semitism and Nazism while at the same time maintaining the diplomatic neutrality necessary to ensure the survival of the Church? This is the major question that embroiled the Vatican internally during two papacies.
One example on which Wolf goes into great detail indicates the passions involved in these internal disputes within the Curia. The first involved an association, Friends of Israel, whose membership consisted of about 3,000 priests, among them 19 cardinals and 278 bishops and archbishops. This group fostered love for the Jews, hoping thereby to attract converts. In 1928 it issued a pamphlet, “Pax Super Israel,” denouncing anti-Semitism, and appealed to the Vatican agency for liturgical matters to change the wording of the Good Friday prayer for the “perfidious Jews,” using more positive terminology.
The congregation accepted the group’s new wording, but the Holy Office (now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) rejected any reform of the liturgy as setting a dangerous precedent, and throwing into the bargain a demand to dissolve Friends of Israel. Pope Pius XI compromised. He refused to make the changes and in an announcement disbanding the group specifically and clearly condemned anti-Semitism.
Wolf expressed disappointment with this decision, since such a change in the liturgy in 1928, he feels, likely would have had greater impact in combating anti-Semitism than did Pope Pius’ 1937 encyclical, “Mit Brennender Sorge,” which denounced anti-Semitism and the ideology of Nazism in clear terms. Cardinal Pacelli, who was secretary of state by that time, played a vital and positive role in the drafting of that encyclical.
Fisher is retired associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
From June 25, 2010 issue of Catholic San Francisco.