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.