Why did the Catholic Church not raise its voice against the cruelties of racism, the brutality of totalitarianism, the repression of liberties in the Third Reich? Did the notorious silences about the Nazis on Rome's part undermine its claims to moral authority? These questions have not been raised neutrally. Spiced by speculation, polemic has focused on "Hitler's Pope": Pius XII (1939-58). It has not been known that, long before he was crowned, during the 1930s, a condemnation of the moral and doctrinal errors of National Socialism was prepared by the Holy See. That condemnation was couched in terms intelligible to Adolf Hitler, such as the following:
The Church condemns as heretical the opinion that human nature is not essentially the same in all people, but that mankind which now inhabits the earth is composed of races so different from one another that the lowest of them is even further from the highest race than it is from the highest kind of animal that resembles man.
Had this sentence been made public, it is certain that Hitler would have recognized the damned opinion because he had expressed it himself in his "victory speech" held before the congress of the National Socialist Party on November 3, 1933. The Führer would no doubt have reacted with rage to criticism by the Church, for racism was a cardinal doctrine in the Nazi creed.
The Vatican's plans were far-reaching. Aimed at views stated in Mein Kampf and in Hitler's other writings or speeches, they struck at such fundamental elements in the ideology of National Socialism as "blood" and its "purity": "The Church condemns the view that any mixture of blood with a foreign and inferior race, in particular a mixture of the Arian with the Semitic race, is, by reason of that mixture alone, a most heinous crime against nature and marks a grave fault in the conscience."
Nor did the attack on Hitler stop there. His ideas and those of other Nazi leaders on subjects ranging from "eugenics" to sterilization, from education to leadership and individual rights, were damned by the Vatican in successive drafts:
All people about whom there are grounds to fear that they may produce imperfect offspring may be prevented from contracting a marriage that could be fertile, even if they are otherwise capable of marriage, and they may be sterilized, even against their will. Children conceived by parents of this kind may be removed by the direct intervention of an abortion.
The first and chief right to educate belongs to that institution which has the first and chief right to provide for the race, i.e.: the state, neither to the Church nor the parents...
As to the education of young people, they should not, in first place, be imbued with religious sentiments or with love and fear of God but with a feeling of affection for the race so that they regard nothing on this earth with more respect than the race and the state built on the basis of racial character.
Nothing but the absolute and unlimited leadership of one man is the form of government in the state that is in keeping with the lawful path which nature follows in selecting races and individuals.
Any other form of government is more or less a contravention of nature.
Single individuals and associations of people have no rights, either by divine or natural law, which are prior to the state or independent of it and not only is the exercise of rights decided upon by the state but even their origin and simple existence.
The program of National Socialism and its practice were being branded as incompatible with Christianity years before Pius XII mounted the throne of St. Peter in 1939. His predecessor Pius XI (1922-39) and other leading figures in the curial establishment believed that such statements would be interpreted, in Germany, as a declaration of spiritual war.
The story of how and why the Catholic Church planned to condemn the Nazis, and of what became of those plans, sheds new light on the inner workings of the Vatican on the eve of the Second World War. The sources, previously inaccessible, enable us to penetrate behind the scenes and understand the ways in which, after the Nazis came to power, Rome thought and operated.
The operations of the Roman authorities -- not always a model of efficiency -- were conducted through an ill-coordinated bureaucracy that followed procedures which had developed over centuries. Attentive to precedents set in the past, members of the Curia knew that history provided them with several possible forms of condemnation, at various levels of solemnity.
The forms in which Rome's statements were made, and the contexts in which they appeared, could convey messages subtler and more precise than the public declarations of a secular state. There was a significant difference, for example, between a papal pronouncement of disapproval reported in the Vatican's semiofficial newspaper, Osservatore Romano, and an anathema leveled by the Pope as head of the Church's Supreme Tribunal. The first resembled a rumble of thunder, menacing but remote. The second was similar to a bolt of lightning, aimed to strike at an error, root and branch.
A decree from the Supreme Tribunal, signed by the Pope, had binding force on Catholics in matters of doctrine and morals. In these matters of fundamental importance, the judgment of the Supreme Pontiff was definitive. When he condemned an error with the weight of his unerring authority, it was announced by that papal tribunal known, since the sixteenth century, as the Roman Inquisition or Holy Office. One of its severest sentences, delivered as punishment, was excommunication -- exclusion from the community of the faithful, to which Adolf Hitler nominally belonged.
Less punitive in effect and more positive in purpose were the encyclicals, or papal letters, which expressed the magisterium ("teaching") of the Pope. Issued in his name, often on the basis of contributions made by members of the Vatican's bureaucracy, such documents represented declarations of principle by the head of the Roman Church. Beneath these two peaks of solemnity -- the encyclical and the inquisitorial decree -- lower levels of publicity could also signal the Vatican's view.
Works might be placed on the Index of Prohibited Books, indicating that they were banned for Catholics; diplomatic notes of protest or clarification might be exchanged with foreign governments; instructions might be imparted to orthodox institutions of learning, ordering them to contest suspect ideas. During the 1930s, all of these possibilities were considered or implemented by Rome. When and why they were employed or discarded, and by whom, were questions that engaged Hitler's attention.
The Führer was sensitive to the nuances of the Vatican's official voice. Ambiguous in his alternations between respect and loathing for the Church, he hesitated to repudiate Christianity. Its language, its categories, its images loom large in Mein Kampf and in his later writings and speeches. Divine providence, Hitler claimed, guided National Socialism in its struggle for "racial purity." Jesus Christ, for him, was not only "the true God" but also "our greatest Aryan leader." The next figure in the Führer's pantheon appears to have been himself.
Like Mussolini, he saw himself as a redeemer. Unlike the Duce, Hitler claimed that his movement had discovered the true meaning of the New Testament. The Old Testament was excluded because it was "Semitic"; God's law was to be identified with racism. Hitler portrayed himself as the prophet of this doctrine, which the Catholic Church had perverted; and the "positive Christianity" to which the program of the Nazi Party referred was meant to heal the confessional divisions between German Catholics and Protestants, and to unite the nation in its fight against the Jews.
The Jews and the "Bolsheviks" played leading parts in Hitler's melodrama of hatred, and he dressed them in demonic costumes. Yet the confusion of roles produced by his misuse of religious language never led the Führer to forget that, on the world stage that he desired to dominate, the Vatican still occupied some of the limelight.
There opinions were divided from the beginning. Some in the Vatican saw Hitler as a perfidious enemy of Christianity, others as a Catholic conservative who might be taken at his word. That the Führer's words, public and private, changed as bewilderingly as Proteus made him difficult to pin down. That difficulty was compounded by the fact that the two sides spoke different languages and came from different cultures. Italian priests trained in the subtleties of theology or the rigors of law had little in common with an Austrian autodidact whose scant knowledge of both subjects was borrowed and whose ideas were all too often his own.
Direct experience of the Nazis was a more reliable guide to their intentions than the confusing rant of their rhetoric. One of the few in the Vatican, during the 1930s, who commanded such experience was Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII. As papal nuncio to Bavaria, he reported to the secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, on November 14, 1923, about Hitler's failed attempt at a putsch in Munich five days earlier. The Nazis, Pacelli stated, had attempted to rouse the rabble against the Church, the Pope, and the Jesuits. A "vulgar and violent campaign" in the popular press, directed by Hitler's followers against Catholics and Jews, was signaled on April 24, 1924. No sympathy for National Socialism, as he encountered it in Germany, can be read into the dispatches of the diplomat who, in 1939, allegedly became "Hitler's Pope." Pacelli recognized the movement headed by the Führer for what it was. Yet it was he who, in 1933, concluded with the government of Nazi Germany a Concordat that would cast, throughout that decade, a shadow on the policy of the Vatican.
To follow Pacelli's own definition, "Concordats are agreements binding in international law which establish a link between states, and have the purpose of justly balancing and clarifying, in the form of a treaty, religious and ecclesiastical interests on the one hand and the interests of the state on the other, in such a way that complete reciprocity is guaranteed." Nothing, for Hitler, was guaranteed by the Concordat except a boost to his international prestige. Gleeful at the Vatican's acknowledgment of his government's legitimacy, he ignored the concept of "reciprocity" from the outset. Violations of the treaty would be flagrant between the time of its signing (July 20) and its ratification (September 10) in 1933. And that raises the problem of Rome's motives in concluding such an agreement with a partner whom it had every reason to regard as treacherous.
Several of those motives are revealed, in a memorandum dated June 20, 1933, by Cardinal Gasparri, then Pacelli's predecessor as secretary of state:
As long as Hitler does not declare war on the Holy See or the Catholic hierarchy in Germany:
- I. The Holy See and the Catholic hierarchy in Germany should refrain from condemning Hitler's Party.
- II. If Hitler wants the Catholic Centre to be dissolved as a political Party, he should be obeyed without fuss.
- III. Catholics should be free to become members of Hitler's Party, just as Catholics in Italy are free to become members of the Fascist Party.
- IV. German Catholics should be equally free not to become members of Hitler's Party, providing that it is always within the limits of the law, as is the case with Italian Catholics with respect to the Fascist Party.
Gasparri added, in what was to become a leitmotiv of caution: "I am of the opinion that Hitler's Party corresponds to nationalist feeling in Germany. Therefore a politico-religious struggle in Germany over Hitlerism ["hitleranismo"] must be avoided at all costs, especially when the Eminent [Cardinal] Pacelli is secretary of state.
As secretaries of state to Pius XI, Pacelli and Gasparri lived in the Fascist Italy which, in 1929, had signed and ratified a concordat with the Holy See. That represented the model for them both. To Gasparri, it seemed worth buying at the price of excluding the clergy from party-political activities in Germany, as had been done in Italy. Pastoral concerns were to have priority, according to the Vatican. Mussolini welcomed this choice because it reinforced his hegemony over the state, and the Duce's admirers among the Nazis thought similarly. When they praised the Italian Concordat, they referred, above all, to its article prohibiting clerical involvement in politics.
That involvement, as Hitler saw it, had been far too direct in the early 1930s, when the German bishops had condemned National Socialism as a "heresy incompatible with Christianity" and forbidden Catholics to become members of the Party. That was what Gasparri, in June 1933, was anxious to prevent from recurring. By then the political situation had changed, and Hitler was effecting a revolution by what appeared to be legal means.
Eighteen days after the elections that had given the Nazis and their coalition partners (the Nationalists) a majority in the Reichstag, on March 23, 1933, the Führer declared, about the Enabling Act that conferred on his government comprehensive powers of legislation, that the Christian religion was to be "the basis of our complete morality." That declaration led the German bishops to withdraw their condemnation. Reconciliation, or at least an armed truce, became the order of the day. As long as Hitler avoided open war, so should the Catholic Church, its former secretary of state counseled his successor.
Gasparri's words exercised a lasting influence on Pacelli. They were recalled by him, in one of his first audiences with the German hierarchy, soon after his election to the papacy in 1939 -- despite Kristallnacht and a series of repressive measures against Catholics in the Third Reich. Although the moral and doctrinal grounds for a condemnation had become more urgent and detailed, Pius XII hesitated to speak out. Not only Gasparri's admonitions contributed to sealing his lips but also experience of the German episcopate's dealings with the Führer and the lessons taught by Pius XI.
Patron and mentor of Pacelli, Pius XI had begun, in March 1933, to take a more positive view of Hitler than previously. Communism -- the worst of threats, in the Vatican's eyes -- was the reason. The Führer was the only figure on the international stage, apart from himself, to stand up to the "world-danger of Bolshevism," and earned the Pope's praise. That praise implied no sympathy for Hitler's other goals or methods. In August of the same year, Pius XI, during a conversation with the British diplomat Ivone Kirkpatrick, criticized the Nazis' treatment of Austria as a "disgrace" and described the "German persecutions of the Jews" as "an offence not only against morality but against civilization." Yet it was with Hitler's government that the Vatican ratified a Concordat one month later.
Only ratification could make it legally possible to move against those who wished to disturb the peace between the Vatican and Berlin, Pacelli was assured by representatives of that government. They then gave the secretary of state a week to make up his mind. Blackmail, combined with pseudo-legal arguments, did not remove his doubts. But this trained jurist who, during the Weimar Republic, had negotiated, with much skill and little success, for terms less fa-vorable than those being offered by Hitler, was at long last offered what he would refer to as a "legal basis" for relations between the Catholic Church and Germany. Faced with the prospect of increasing violence if the Concordat was not ratified, Pacelli embarked on his long and unhappy path down what has been rightly called a "one-way street."
Believing that there was no going back, he negotiated its twists and turns warily. Just one month later, on October 19, 1933, he drafted (in Italian) a memorandum about violations of the Concordat: "Wishing to spare the government of the Reich the unpleasantness of a
public discussion of the situation...the Holy See has preferred, up to now, to follow the course of confidential negotiations rather than have recourse to a public protest."
Menace in moderation, protest softened by diplomacy: Much of Eugenio Pacelli's subsequent strategy is foreshadowed in these phrases. When he wrote them, he was under pressure not only from the government of Nazi Germany but also from its Catholic hier-archy. Its senior member -- the infinitely painstaking, incurably anxious, and utterly unimaginative Cardinal Adolf Bertram of Breslau -- had urged him, on September 2, 1933, to ratify the Concordat as soon as possible on the grounds (among others) that to fail to do so would worsen the position of the German episcopate.
That position was never strong. Having condemned National Socialism as heretical, then withdrawn the condemnation, the bishops were rarely capable of facing the Nazi dilemma with unity or decisiveness. Divided among themselves about resistance or compromise, they were perplexed by Hitler's "revolution achieved by legal means." Patriotism mingled with reverence for his authority, which to them was divinely ordained; and when the Führer or his followers committed outrages, such as advocating the abolition of the "Jewish" Old Testament, the stands they took tended to be selective.
Cardinal Michael Faulhaber of Munich, a friend of Pacelli's and an enthusiast for the Concordat, preached, during the Advent of 1933, four sermons on the delicate subject of "Judaism, Christianity, [and] Germanness." The luster of this noble act was hardly enhanced by Faulhaber's later explanation that his purpose had been to defend the Old Testament, not the Jews. Nor was their persecution condemned by the bishop often hailed as a courageous opponent of the Nazis, the "lion of Münster" Clemens August von Galen, who denounced, in well-publicized sermons, abuses by the Gestapo and the judicial murders of "euthanasia," with no reference to the Holocaust.
The "one-way street" that had led to the Concordat soon lengthened into a maze and, as the German bishops wandered in its recesses, they looked to Rome for guidance. Disoriented by the shakiness of their "legal basis" being undermined by Nazi attacks, few of them realized that, in the place from which they sought answers to the questions which they were incapable of resolving, there was not one Rome but two.
Copyright © 2004 by Peter Godman