The National Catholic Review

The title of this book, translated from the Italian, is misleading. The book is in fact a political biography of Pope Pius XI and does not cover events beyond his death in 1939. It does, however, provide great insight into Pius XI’s pontificate and contributes to our understanding of the troubled question of Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust.

The Roman historian Emma Fattorini is the premier scholar working in the recently opened Vatican archives of the pontificate of Pius XI, including the papers of the Secretariat of State headed by Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, Pius XI’s successor as Pius XII. Simply put, this is the most thorough and best documented study yet to appear on Pius XI.

While Pacelli, as Pius XII, has gained most of the attention in what are called “the Pius wars” over his role in the Holocaust, it is important to note that Pius XI, whose pontificate stretched from 1922 to 1939, faced many more problems than the awful single problem of World War II faced by his successor. Pius XI had to deal with the rise to power of both Hitler and Mussolini, the horrendous anticlerical fury of the Spanish Civil War that killed thousands of clerics and laypeople, the violence against the church in Mexico, the solidification of Communist power in the Soviet Union and the resultant growth of the Communist Party in France, the anti-Semitic persecutions spreading from Germany into Italy and, finally, the mounting crises in the late 1930s that led to the outbreak of war. No pope in modern times has faced so many widespread problems. The story of how he dealt with those problems is the essence of this book; and for the most part, Pius comes off well indeed.

Pius was a short-tempered autocrat; that we already knew (I recall years ago running across a document describing his picking up a chair and smashing it against the floor in a fit of anger at one of Franco’s diplomats), and this book confirms that feature of his character beyond a doubt. His subordinates in the Vatican feared his “nearly unmanageable personality,” and when he died there was palpable relief in Rome. But that same character trait led to his outspoken criticism of the Nazi and Fascist dictators.

It was not always that way. In the early years of Pius XI’s pontificate, he viewed Hitler and Mussolini as bulwarks against the Bolshevik penetration of Europe. Nor was Pius a democrat; he believed that authoritarian governments were those best suited to deal with problems. But as the dictators consolidated power, he began to see that their totalitarian policies threatened the church as well, and then by the late 1930s threatened humanity with their despotic actions.

Pius was an intensely spiritual person. He was devoted to St. Thérèse of Lisieux (whom he canonized), and he held her up as a spiritual guide to everyone with whom he came in contact. He viewed politics in spiritual terms, saw the church as a totalitarian institution and therefore opposed the totalitarian political ideologies as competitors for the souls of humanity.

There are interesting insights in this well-documented book. One has to do with the intense infighting within the Vatican and the opposition to Pius’s policies from within. It is an eye-opener for anyone who thinks that popes have complete authority in the Vatican. There were strong anti-Semitic currents both within the papal Curia and from Wlodimir Ledóchowski, the Jesuit general superior, as well as pro-Nazi elements among the clergy, so strong that there was no protest against Jewish persecution in Germany in 1933 because this was considered to be “internal meddling” in the affairs of another state and hence would violate the terms of the Reichskoncordat. Furthermore, Pius’s famous statement in 1938 to a group of Belgian pilgrims that “spiritually we are all Semites” was not published in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano nor in the Jesuit-controlled Civiltà Cattolica.

The question of the persecution of the Jews in Germany, and by 1938 in Italy, shows the Vatican mindset in its convoluted approaches to dealing with the problem, particularly the attempt to distinguish between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism. Pius was not always on the side of the Jews, and it was not until the persecutions increased in Germany, and most especially in Italy when Mussolini decreed legislation closing the universities to Jews and forbidding Jews to marry non-Jewish Italians in 1938, that he risked breaking relations with the Italian state and began stronger criticism of Nazi Germany.

Putting the brake on Pius was Cardinal Pacelli, who as secretary of state was the moderating influence on the pope. The author claims the two complemented e ach other, Pius the temperamental hothead, Pacelli the prudent moderate. Thus, whenever Pius suggested a strong action, Pacelli generally prevailed in tempering the pope’s statements. This facet of Pacelli’s nature carried through to his own pontificate after he was elected as Pius XII in 1939, and it characterized his response to the Holocaust. The documents confirm Pacelli’s cautious behavior (the author notes that Pacelli made daily notes of his meetings with Pius and other officials but destroyed them all when he became pope).

The “speech that was never made,” alluded to in the title, refers to a speech Pius XI composed and scheduled for delivery in early February 1939 strongly critical of Mussolini, particularly of the Duce’s anti-Semitism and the Fascist regime’s denial of Jewish persecution in Germany. Pius died two days before he was scheduled to give this speech, and Pacelli saw to it that the document was never released. This suppression of a papal document is similar to that taken by the Jesuit general Ledóchowski, who deliberately kept from the pope the “hidden encyclical” against racism that John LaFarge, S.J., had written at the pope’s request in late 1938.

The author concludes by arguing that the documents tell us that if Pius XI had lived another five years, there is little doubt that he would have made the strong condemnation of Hitler and the Nazis that Pacelli as Pius XII is criticized for not making. We do not know what effect that condemnation would have made or whether Hitler would have paid any attention to it, but it would certainly have enhanced the moral prestige of the papacy.

José M. Sánchez is emeritus professor of history at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.