Discussing 'The Pope's Last Crusade'

In the epilogue of his latest book, The Pope’s Last Crusade: How an American Jesuit Helped Pope Pius XI's Campaign to Stop Hitler, Peter Eisner offers an interesting insight on the men who held the seat of Peter during the 20th century. Of the seven pontiffs that were elected during that time, six are either beatified or being seriously considered for beatification. The only pope not to have a cause initiated on his behalf is Achille Ratti – Pope Pius XI. This aspect of the papacy in the last century will confound the readers of Eisner’s book. Of all the men that are depicted in Eisner’s account (Eugenio Pacelli, Wlodimir Ledochowski and several others in positions of power within the church), only Pius XI was courageous enough to speak out against the programs of racial discrimination in Germany and Italy. Only Pius XI infuriated Hitler and Mussolini by his public statements against the vicious anti-Semitism of the two Fascist leaders. Only Pius XI concluded that Fascism was a more immediate and malicious threat to Christian Europe than Soviet communism. Lastly, in the final days of his life, Pius XI attempted to fight through symptoms of congestive heart failure long enough to denounce publicly Mussolini and Hitler, perhaps even to excommunicate them. In the end, Eisner offers one haunting sentence encapsulating Pius XI’s death, “He had died a day too early” (193).

We have just witnessed a conclave and the election of a new pope. Last month, after Benedict XVI departed Vatican City by helicopter, there was massive speculation as to who the next pope might be. Essentially, Eisner’s account is a snapshot of ten turbulent months in Europe: May 1938-March 1939, concluding with a papal election. After Pius XI’s death in February 1939, Eugenio Pacelli was elected pope on March 2 by a conclave lasting less than 24 hours. The 1939 conclave was as decisive as the one that elected Pope Francis, yet, as much as the current pope is an outsider, Pope Pius XII was the ultimate insider. Most Catholics are aware of the controversy surrounding Pius XII’s reign during World War II. Eisner’s work serves to bring Pius XII’s predecessor to light. Perhaps the Roman numerals are confusing, but once one reads Eisner’s work, there will be a clear distinction between XI and XII.

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Three Jesuits figure prominently in Eisner’s story. The first is John LaFarge. Since his ministry as a young priest, LaFarge worked for civil rights in the United States. LaFarge’s book decrying racial injustice in the United States caught Pius XI’s attention in Europe, and the pope summoned LaFarge in June of 1938 while LaFarge was in Europe. John LaFarge later became editor-in-chief of America and a prominent Catholic witness in the fight for civil rights. He also served on the editorial board of the Catholic Book Club for a number of years. He is an important figure in the history of America. Second, there is Wlodimir Ledochowski, who was Superior General of the Society of Jesus from 1915-1942. Ledochowski manipulates both Pius XI and John LaFarge and succeeds in preventing anything to come of LaFarge’s work for Pius XI. In Eisner’s account, Ledochowski appears to be quite vile and conniving. He formed his own conclusions about the state of the world and the church’s correct response to the reality of Europe in 1938-39. He ultimately helped to dictate the church’s policy toward German and Italian Fascism and silenced LaFarge’s work by destroying it. Third, there is a German Jesuit, an academic named Gustav Gundlach, who collaborated with LaFarge in his work on behalf of Pius XI. Gundlach was quite aware of what might happen to LaFarge’s work if he brought it to Ledochowski before the pope. Gundlach had a healthy skepticism about the Superior General and was ultimately correct. Gundlach’s relationship to LaFarge is reminiscent of the relationship between Fowler, the cultured, skeptical European, and Pyle, the quiet American from Graham Greene novel about Vietnam in the 1950’s. Gundlach, perhaps, had a better understanding of the anti-Semitism of the European Church in the 1930’s – a hatred that did not simply emphasize a racial disparity, but was rooted ultimately in the understanding of Jews as the nation that rejected Jesus Christ. European anti-Semitism was also anti-Judaism. Certain elements of the institutional church cultivated such anti-Judaism. Perhaps, LaFarge was unable to realize the depths of hatred toward Jews within his own church – a question to consider, among the following three questions I offer below.

Please, feel free to comment on any aspect of Peter Eisner’s The Pope’s Last Crusade or respond to the following questions. I welcome all discussion.

1. Realpolitik is the notion that success in politics is determined by the clever manipulation of others and the shrewd and careful use of power to achieve one’s ends. Robert Caro’s multivolume biography suggests LBJ is a clear example of effective realpolitik in his work to guide civil rights acts through Congress. Do Pius XI and LaFarge ultimately fail in their noble efforts against Fascism because they do not effectively employ realpolitik to achieve their ends? Are Pius XI’s vituperative denunciations of Mussolini and Hitler ultimately ineffective because of imprudence? At the other end of the spectrum, do LaFarge’s naïveté and his earnest obedience to his Superior General ultimately render his own efforts ineffective?

These questions infer the question of obedience – especially on the part of a vowed religious.

2. What about the complexity of Europe in 1938-39: should we allow Pacelli and Ledochowski some slack? Should we consider the thorny realities of the Spainish Civil War, the military weakness of France and Britain, and the might of Stalin’s Soviet Russia? Were their inclinations toward Fascism completely unfounded?

3. Ultimately, does the reader of Eisner’s book sense in Pius XII, Ledochowski and others, the same inclinations that might be detected in the clergy sex abuse crisis at the end of the century: the institution must above all be protected?

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Tim Reidy
4 years 7 months ago

Thanks for starting the conversation, Kevin. Just a note to our readers that author Peter Eisner may also drop in for this discussion, which starts today but can continue through the weekend. For a longer introduction to the book, listen to Kevin's podcast interview with Mr. Eisner.

Tim Reidy
4 years 7 months ago

Peter Eisner mentions in his interview that Pius XII, as secretary of state Eugenio Pacelli, was intimidated by the imperious Piux XI. Judging from the picture above, I can see what he means!

Peter Eisner
4 years 7 months ago
Kevin's discussion of realpolitik is excellent. The pope was practicing effective manipulation of opinion via world media, aided by his few allies, often Americans. He defended a statement by Cardinal Mundelein of Chicago in 1937, who called Hitler "an Austrian paperhanger, and a poor one at that." He promoted the actions of then-Monsignor Joseph Hurley, who in 1938 was the ranking American at the Vatican Secretariat of State. Hurley, though nominally under the aegis of Cardinal Pacelli, was also the pope's personal interpreter in English. He served as a conduit with the U.S. ambassador to Italy, William Phillips, as I describe in the book. It appears that the pope was maneuvering with Roosevelt -- who had his own political problems -- to rally opposition against Hitler. The pope's rapid decline in 1938 made it difficult to carry on with the program.
Tim Reidy
4 years 7 months ago

Glad to hear from you, Peter! It's interesting how these diplomatic maneuvers unfolded at a time when the United States had no formal ambassador at the Vatican. In our last book discussion (on the Patriarch) the author (David Nasaw) mentioned that Joe Kennedy became a de facto conduit between the Vatican and Rome in the 1940s and 1950s. But we know that at this point in history, Joe had his hands full in London as ambassador.

William deHaas
4 years 7 months ago
To your questions: - realpolitik....not sure we can really project what would have happened. Compare/contrast to Pius XII and a couple of ideas emerge: a) Pius XI appears to have been able to correctly see that both Nazism/Fascism and Communism were threats but that Nazism needed to be the focus. So, even the Spanish Civil War did not cloud his instinct on this. b) and if he had been able to speak out...well, contrast with Pius XII's version of English appeasement masquerading as realpolitik. - enjoyed Eisner's approach but there is insufficient historical information about Ledochowski to draw or make any conclusions. Note that he was superior general for 30 years - a very long time to dominant a complex worldwide religious community. Like many other catholic European figures in the 1930s, he exhibits catholic cultural traits - anti-Semitism; control/obedience; concept that church is an international power like any major nation. Why did he remain in power - what was going on in the Jesuits that allowed this to happen? - yes, it is easy to compare and draw a conclusion that Pius XII put the institution first - even over gospel values. And like WWII, a few catholic bishops, priests, people spoke out; put their lives on the line, and suffered & died at the hands of Nazism and Communism (even through the 1950s). And very few of these individuals were metioned by the institutional church. One other interesting conclusion - the complex levels of leadership and authority (religious communities to curia to pope) is another current issue. Thus, suggest that you can deduce that certain curial folks or bishops in conferences/religious superiors can hinder, delay, or destroy gospel impulses; good works and ideas; and isolate folks that want to impact church evangelization, ecumenism, theology, etc. And the fact that a centralized pope can become isolated from the people of God; from listening; from learning, etc.
ed gleason
4 years 7 months ago
At a lecture at USF 15 years ago a rabbi/historian suggested that a Catholic, European, anti-Semitic stance was the mothers milk of the aristocratic classes who felt they alone were the inheritors of European culture and the Jews were spoilers. Pacelli and Ledochowski ,both from aristocratic families were nursed from childhood on that notion. I buy that idea.
Geneva Haertel
4 years 7 months ago
I am wondering about the role that obedience played on the part of the Jesuits--in particular John LaFarge and the two Jesuits that helped him prepare the document. They completed the manuscript as requested by Pius XI,but did not deliver to him directly. They turned it over to their Superior, Ledochowski. I know, based on Peter Eisner's text, that they did follow up on the whereabouts of the manuscript, but Pius XI's efforts were largely thwarted within the Vatican, and the mission failed. How does one think about the vow of obedience in this situation? .
Cody Serra
4 years 7 months ago
Probably the idea of the "primacy of conscience" even over a vow of obedience, was not part of the Catholic/priests and Jesuit formation. I remember that Thomas Merton. when he was prohibited to publish by his Abbot, he sent his manuscripts abroad... Certainly, that happened many decades later.
Geneva Haertel
4 years 7 months ago
The reply by William DeHaas addresses the third of the questions put forth by America in this discussion. To me, the role of the Jesuit Superior seemed to interfere with a good Gospel impulse--the identification of the evil associated with racism. So,one interpretation of events might be that there was a trade-off between protecting the institution of the Church and the impending destruction associated with Hitler's efforts. Seems like the same form of argument/justification could be made around the sex abuse scandal? What do others think?
Kevin Spinale
4 years 6 months ago
Ms. Haertel - Thank you for your question. Mr. Eisner offers an account of Pius XI's commissioning of John LaFarge that is based largely on LaFarge's own account of the meeting in his correspondence with his editor at America, Francis X. Talbot, SJ., dated July 3, 1938. LaFarge understood that Pius XI wanted him to keep this commission a secret. Pius XI even admits that he should have taken up his request with Ledochowski, the General, but did not - implying that Pius might not want him to know of the encyclical. Yet, LaFarge recognized the enormity of the task of writing such an encyclical and immediately sought the General's help. Obedience in the Society of Jesus is a defining characteristic of the order. The character of obedience extends to gauging the intent or the will of a superior. Though Pius is the ultimate authority in the Church, LaFarge had the strong sense that Ledochowski would want to know about Pius' request and oversee the response to some extent. LaFarge's manner of obedience seems ordinary - even in the midst of these extraordinary circumstances.
Kevin Spinale
4 years 6 months ago
Mr. deHaas - Thank you for your comments. I agree that Ledechowski is a tremendously complicated figure and, perhaps, a worthy subject for an academic biography. He was elected Superior General at the age of 49. The office is ad vitam, and so, he served until his death twenty-seven years later. Peter Hans Kolvenbach was the first Superior General to retire. After 25 years, he sought and was granted permission by Benedict XVI to step down from his position as General in 2008. Benedict XVI himself stepped down from what had been defined as an ad vitam position - as we know. Certainly, Ledechowski may have become terribly insulated from the actual apostolic work of the Society. Modern Generals have made a point to travel widely to get a sense of the provinces beyond the ordinary correspondence that reports apostolic activities to the Curia.
Tim Reidy
4 years 6 months ago

Thanks to everyone who took part in the conversation. The Catholic Book Club's next selection is Tenth of December, a collection of short stories by George Saunders. Check out our CBC page in the coming days for more information.

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