VIEWED from the standpoint of the Vatican's religious and ecclesiastical interests the present alignment of the European belligerents is very different from what it was in 1914. Indeed the former situation has been almost reversed.

When the war began in 1914 France had just been the scene of a long religious conflict; she had just adopted the principle of separation between Church and State and had broken off diplomatic relations with the Holy See. England, a Protestant country, was engrossed with the Irish question, involving large Catholic interests and carrying a strong romantic appeal to the Catholic conscience. Tsarist Russia, the ally of England and France, was the champion of Eastern Orthodoxy and the oppressor of Catholic Poland. An Anglo-French victory in Western Europe therefore did not promise any advantage for the Catholic Church; and as for a Russian victory in the East, that would have sealed the fate of Poland and would have closed the Balkans to further Catholic expansion. On the other side stood Germany, a Protestant country to be sure, but with a large Catholic minority. The German Catholics numbered over twenty millions; they formed a solid and strongly organized religious bloc, and the Center Party, largely controlled by Catholics, held the balance of power in the Reichstag. Most important, Germany's ally was the Hapsburg Empire, the bulwark of Catholicism in Central Europe.

By the beginning of the present war all this had changed. There no longer is any conflict between France and the Holy See. Under the régime of separation, modified by an agreement with the Vatican, French Catholicism has made a new start unhindered by state fetters. The old anti-clerical laws have become a dead letter; diplomatic relations with the Vatican have been reëstablished. In England the Catholic Church has been steadily gaining ground and today exercises a political influence which is perhaps underestimated abroad. The main Irish question has been settled and the Catholic hierarchy seems to have no sympathy with the agitations of the extreme Republicans.

On the other hand, the Catholic Church in Nazi Germany has not only been shorn of all political influence but has been discriminated against as a spiritual and moral force and is barred from carrying on any social and educational activities. Austrian Catholicism in particular has suffered: its ecclesiastical wealth has been confiscated, religious orders and organizations have been disbanded, mob violence has been unleashed against the Catholic hierarchy. And Germany's ally Russia -- no longer the Christian Russia of the gilded icons but an atheist and totalitarian collectivism -- holds in its grip a good part of Poland and is ready to spring southward upon the Balkans.

As in 1914, so now, the Catholic clergy in each of the belligerent countries is standing solidly behind the government; even the German bishops, forgetting the Nazi persecutions, have in their pastoral letters urged their flocks to rally around the Führer and to give their lives willingly for the triumph of Germany. The task of safeguarding Catholic unity and hierarchical discipline in the face of bitter national passions was successfully accomplished by Benedict XV. The same task now confronts Pius XII.

The war of 1914-18 put Papal finances under a very severe strain. The belligerent countries -- almost the whole of Europe -- ceased to provide funds for the Vatican treasury, which therefore was obliged to rely largely on the offerings of American Catholics. Even as late as in 1922 Pius XI had to begin his pontificate by borrowing from American bankers. The new war finds the Vatican in a much better financial condition, because it still has at its disposal considerable sums obtained from Italy by the Lateran Agreement of 1929. But since part of these funds (approximately a billion lire) is represented by Italian state bonds, the financial resources of the Holy See to that extent are obviously dependent upon the financial stability of the Fascist régime.

As in 1914, Italy again failed to join her German ally at the outbreak of war. Now, as then, the Vatican is exerting all its influence to keep Italy out of the conflict. But the present relations between the Italian Government and the Vatican are very different from those of 1914, when the Roman Question had not yet been solved and the Holy See, at least in theory, considered the Italian state an illegitimate and hostile Power. The Roman Question is now solved; the Papacy has a miniature but sovereign state of its own; and the relations between it and the Palazzo Venezia are cordial, regardless of possible discrepancies between Fascist ideology and Catholic principles.

Now, as in 1914, the Holy See has declared itself neutral in the conflict. There is this difference, however. In 1914 Cardinal Gasparri and the other Vatican prelates were fully convinced that the German military machine was unbeatable and that the war would end with a German victory. This conviction inevitably affected Papal diplomacy, even the sincere efforts of Benedict XV in behalf of peace. But the opinion of the Vatican about the present war, in so far as it affects the Catholic Church, cannot be the same as those it held in 1914. We might assume that this time the Vatican, while remaining strictly neutral, would look more favorably on our Allied victory than on one by the Nazis. The fact is, however, that the religious and ecclesiastical factors which determine Vatican policy are not simple enough to allow general statements of this kind. Moreover, the determining factors might be so affected by new military or diplomatic developments that the Vatican policy would change.

A brief analysis of the political inheritance which Pius XII received from his predecessor will perhaps enable us to grasp at least some elements in the complex problem now confronting the Vatican, and thus to understand its policy in the present conflict.


The pontificate of Pius XI (February 6, 1922, to February 10, 1939) was of outstanding importance for three effects which it had on the European political situation: (1) Concordats or other agreements were negotiated with many European states, altering the relations between church and state inside those countries. (2) The Roman Question was settled by the creation of the independent state of Vatican City and the establishment of friendly relations with the Fascist régime. (3) All Catholic forces were enlisted for a "crusade" against Communism, in particular as represented by Soviet Russia; and within each country support was given to whatever political forces were inclined to participate in this crusade. The experience gained by Pius XI from these three experiments provided the starting point for the policies of his successor.

The concordats concluded under Pius XI (with Latvia, Bavaria, Poland, Lithuania, Italy, Rumania, Prussia, Baden, the German Reich, Austria and Jugoslavia) and the other lesser agreements (with France, Czechoslovakia and Portugal) form an imposing list.[i] Indeed, it contains the names of all the important European nations except England and Russia. A concordat, being patterned after an international agreement, implies the recognition by the state of the sovereignty of the Holy See and of the supra-national character of the local Catholic Churches as part of a universal institution whose laws, hierarchy and absolute government are entrusted to the Pope.

The concordats of Pius XI secured more rights and privileges for the Catholic Church in the countries in question than it had enjoyed in the previous period. They also brought to full realization the Vatican's long-cherished dream of completely centralizing in the Papal Curia all powers of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, especially in the matter of episcopal appointments and of eliminating the last survivals of legalized secular interference. Further, they secured juridical recognition for all ecclesiastical institutions, religious orders and lay organizations, such as those of the "Catholic Action." They also imposed upon the state the duty to contribute, in whole or part, to the support of the clergy and of the churches. And lastly they guaranteed the right of the Church to supervise the public schools, or at least to give Catholic religious education in them. In effect, then, these agreements constituted a modern revival of the old alliance of church and state.

What have been the practical results of these new concordats during their short period of existence? In particular, what has happened to them in the countries ruled by dictatorial régimes? This latter question is especially interesting, for Roman canonists say frankly that the Holy See dislikes to negotiate concordats with states so organized that the terms of an agreement must be openly discussed and approved by a free parliament. It feels that opportunity is offered for attacks against the Church, and that the durability of concordats so ratified depends upon the changeable will of shifting majorities. The Holy See thus prefers to deal with governments which do not need to conduct negotiations in the open or ask approval of a free elective body.

Concordats almost always have short and troubled lives. Historia concordatorum, historia dolorum is a familiar saying among experts in canon law. Those made by Pius XI were no exception. He lived long enough to witness the shipwreck of most of his concordats; his successor has now seen the collapse of others. Strange to say, none of them has been denounced or legally abrogated by either party. In theory they are all still in effect; but in fact they have been treated with the same contempt that has been the lot of so many other treaties in recent years.

The concordats with the old German states of Bavaria, Baden and Prussia became a dead letter when the new Nazi constitution made them mere provinces in the Reich -- despite the fact that Hitler had promised that the concordats would not be affected by the change. A concordat was hastily concluded with the Reich in July 1933, a few months after Hitler took power, and was ratified the following September. But it was barely given a trial, for within a short time all its provisions were completely ignored by the Führer. Next came the turn of the Austrian concordat negotiated by Dollfuss; it was signed in June 1933 but not ratified till May 1934, when it became the first act of his dictatorial régime after the coup d'état. Four years later came the Anschluss. Not only was the concordat scrapped, but the Catholic Church in Austria, which had always thrived under government protection, was treated more ruthlessly even than in Germany proper.

The Polish concordat of 1925 -- "the best legal status that the Catholic Church has ever obtained in modern Europe" -- died when the Germans and Russians invaded the country and partitioned it last September. The new Soviet régime has already "purged" White Russia and Galicia of their "religious superstitions." In the German-controlled provinces, the concordat has virtually become a dead letter -- as we recently learned when the Vatican City radio denounced the "atrocities" inflicted on the Polish clergy by the Nazis. The modus vivendi with Czecho-Slovakia also depends, of course, on Hitler's interpretation and good will, both in the Sudetenland and in the Protectorate. The situation in nominally independent Slovakia may be conjectured from an incident which occurred recently. When the Slovak President-priest, Dr. Tiso, was reëlected, he sent almost identical messages to the Pope and to Hitler. This so offended Pope Pius that he refused to acknowledge Tiso's act of homage.[ii] As for the concordats with Latvia and Lithuania, now virtually Soviet protectorates, they are not likely to be respected for long.


The Jesuit, Yves de la Brière, wrote that the concordats of Pius XI "organize an open alliance and a close collaboration between the religious and the secular powers." [iii] In other words, they represent a return to the old system which liberal and democratic governments repudiated in the nineteenth century.

The avowed purpose of concordats is to secure peaceful coöperation between church and state and to prevent the subordination of either one to the other. In reality, however, those negotiated by Pius XI produced conflicts in such countries as Lithuania, Rumania, Jugoslavia and even Catholic Poland. And those made with the great dictatorships were even less successful. Yet these were the ones from which the Vatican had expected the most, for it had failed to realize that no concordat could possibly fit into the ideological system of either Fascism or Nazism.

In the case of Italy, the two years of negotiation preceding the Lateran Agreements should have given the Holy See ample opportunity to see the incompatibility between the claims of Fascism and the Church. Still more significant evidence of the underlying radical opposition appeared after the concordat was signed, in the sharp exchanges between the Pope and Mussolini over matters of interpretation. Yet in spite of all this the concordat was ratified. Conflicts flared up again and again. In 1931 the Pope denounced, in his encyclical Non abbiamo bisogno, the pagan principles of the Fascist state, only to yield to what was called a compromise but was in fact surrender under duress to the Fascist claims.

After this experience, why did the Vatican then rush to make a concordat with Hitler? There was no mystery concerning the anti-Christian content of Nazi doctrine and practice. The German bishops had denounced them and had even forbidden Catholics to join the Party. True, at the last moment Hitler tried with suave words to reassure the Church as to his intentions, and the German bishops withdrew their opposition. But anyone who had read "Mein Kampf" and understood Hitler's idea of völkische Weltanschauung or who had glanced at Rosenberg's "Der Mythus des XX Jahrhunderts" and knew what part it was already playing in the transformation of National Socialism into a religion for the Germans, might easily have doubted the sincerity of Hitler's words towards the Church. The Vatican, however, cherished the hope that in spite of all this a practical modus vivendi could be found. Since the lamentable fate of the concordat with Hitler's Reich was told by Pope Pius XI himself in his encyclical of March 14, 1937, we need not retell it here.[iv]

In Italy external appearances at least were respected, except during the short periods when the Vatican tried to offer resistance. Mussolini was willing to "save the face" of the Vatican by apparent "compromises." In fact, however, the Italian régime gained control over the clergy and ecclesiastical institutions. The most effective weapons that the concordat gives the régime are the provisions concerning the financial support of the clergy by the state, the state's right to raise political objections against episcopal and other ecclesiastical appointments, and the obligation imposed upon the clergy to take an oath of allegiance to the state and to refrain from all political activities.

The Church justified its financial support by the state as being compensation for ecclesiastical properties confiscated in the past. But this does not alter the fact that in countries where concordats exist, bishops and curates depend entirely or in part upon the state treasury for their subsistence. However devoted and purehearted they may be, their conduct cannot help being affected by the financial factor. It is perhaps significant that the Fascist régime, though far from prosperous, continues to discharge its financial obligation towards the clergy.

The right to veto any candidate for ecclesiastical preferment eliminates politically undesirable clergymen from all positions of authority. A more efficient device for keeping the clergy in hand is the way the Fascists interpret and apply the provision forbidding them to engage in political activities. Should a priest dare to express disagreement with any act or decision of the Government he at once becomes guilty of meddling in politics.

No wonder, then, that the Italian clergy, especially bishops and prelates, became outspoken supporters of the Fascist régime, and that some of the Italian Cardinals have delivered the most extravagant eulogies of the Duce, even in moments when the Vatican and the Government were engaged in bitter disputes. The extent to which the Italian clergy had imbibed the spirit of Fascism was shown at the time of the Ethiopian War. The moral conscience of mankind, Catholics included, almost universally condemned the Italian adventure, because, in the words of Don Sturzo, from "the formal point of view it was a clear and intentional breach of the Covenant of the League of Nations and from the moral standpoint it was indisputably a war of aggression and conquest."[v] But it was not this to the clergy or the Catholic press in Italy. Their answer to the Catholics of other nations was first, that the government of a country is the sole judge of the justice of its own cause, and second, that the African war is a war for Christian civilization. Cardinal Schuster, Archbishop of Milan, went particularly far in enthusiasm. In an address to the School of the Fascist Mystic at the time the title of Emperor of Ethiopia was bestowed on Victor Emmanuel, he likened Mussolini to Constantine and Augustus, and declared: "After the March on Rome and the Lateran Agreements, God has answered from heaven by crowning through the Duce's work, by crowning, I say, Rome and the King with an ever flourishing imperial laurel."

A circumstance which may explain this ecclesiastical apotheosis of the Fascist régime is the fact that Mussolini's government has aided the Church not only financially but in the spiritual field. Thus, for instance, Protestant propaganda has been completely suppressed in Italy, scholarly books and periodicals treating the history of Christianity from an unorthodox point of view have been removed from circulation or forbidden to appear,[vi] and even certain special points of canon law affecting civil relations have been introduced into the new Italian Civil Code, superseding the old and more liberal juridical traditions. In such concessions the bishops see an extension of their authority; in fact, of course, they are ties which bind the Italian Church more closely to the chariot of the Fascist state.


As a result of the Lateran Agreements of February 1929, Papal sovereignty acquired a tangible body in the shape of the independent territory of Vatican City -- "just enough to contain the soul," as Pius XI remarked, paraphrasing a motto of St. Francis.

The Vatican's original plans for conciliation with the Italian Government included an international guarantee of a reconstituted Papal state. When the League of Nations was formed in 1919, Benedict XV was hopeful that the Holy See might not only participate in its work but receive its guarantee. But seven years later this idea of an international guarantee was abandoned; and after the conclusion of the Lateran Treaty, Pius XI declared that the Holy See had given up the idea willingly, since such guarantees had no value -- as had been demonstrated in 1870 when the Temporal Power was overthrown. The following Article (24) of the Treaty was deemed adequate for the protection of the independence and stability of Vatican City:

With regard to the sovereignty pertaining to it in the field of international relations, the Holy See declares that it wishes to remain and will remain extraneous to all temporal disputes between nations, and to international congresses convoked for the settlement of such disputes, unless the contending parties make a joint appeal to its mission of peace; nevertheless, it reserves the right in every case to exercise its moral and spiritual power. In consequence of this declaration, the State of the Vatican will always and in every case be considered neutral and inviolable territory.

This article clearly indicates that the Holy See promised not to mix uninvited in the temporal quarrels among states, and in return obtained a guarantee of the neutrality and inviolability of Vatican City. The connection between renunciation and inviolability suggests that if the Holy See should cease to be neutral, its territory would no longer be inviolable. In that respect the phraseology of Article 24 seems quite plain. The difficulty begins with the clause in which the Holy See "reserves the right in every case to exercise its moral and spiritual power." A literal interpretation of these words suggests that the Holy See retains complete freedom of action in all cases, even including quarrels among states having a temporal object, any time that it deems such an intervention advisable for moral and spiritual reasons, or more specifically any time that it regards such quarrels as also involving moral and spiritual issues or interests.

Clearly the Holy See asserts its exclusive right to decide whether or not any dispute among states involves a moral or spiritual issue, since the Papal office is by definition vested with direct and supreme authority in such matters, whereas the Fascist régime has no qualifications for passing moral or spiritual judgments. Yet one can scarcely imagine a temporal dispute among states which does not also imply a moral issue, for no matter to what extent conflicting claims may be founded on historical or political or economic arguments, they almost invariably end by being submitted to moral criteria. If this is the sense in which Article 24 is to be taken, then the papal renunciation of interference in international conflicts is a mere verbal quibble.

But from the Fascist point of view, the exclusion of the Holy See from participation in international disputes is the counterpart of the obligation imposed upon the national clergy, by Article 43 of the concordat, to abstain from politics within the nation. Article 24 of the Treaty and Article 43 of the concordat complement each other, for they have the same purpose, that of keeping the Church out of politics. As a matter of fact, if the Vatican for any reason whatever were allowed to take sides against Italy in an international conflict, the Italian clergy would have to choose between following Papal guidance in open violation of Article 43 of the concordat, or rebelling against the Vatican. This controversy is, of course, merely a sham battle, for Mussolini uses Article 24 only to deter the Holy See from expressing any opinion unfavorable to his régime. If at any time, however, he wants the moral support of the Vatican and Catholic opinion, he not only forgets Article 24, but invites the Holy See to violate it by taking sides in an international conflict.[vii]

The first important test of the value of this article came in the Ethiopian War. Even before the War began, all over Italy priests, bishops and even cardinals were presenting it as a crusade for the conversion of the Abyssinians to the true faith. When confronted with the moral indignation of the whole world, in which the Catholic press had joined, Pius XI felt compelled, in an address of August 27, 1935 (a month before Ethiopia was invaded), to remark that if, as was believed abroad, this were to be a war of conquest, it would be truly "an unjust war." But, he added, "we do not believe, we will not believe in an unjust war." With reference to the contradictory Fascist claims that Italy was fighting a defensive war but that she had a right to expand, the Pope declared that "if the need for expansion is a fact, then that must be taken into account; the right of defense has its limits and moderation that must not be overstepped if the defense is not to be culpable." He concluded by admonishing the responsible statesmen not to do anything "that might aggravate the situation and irritate hearts" and not to lose "precious time" in carrying out a "work of pacification."[viii]

Pius XI was very fond of talking impromptu; unlike Leo XIII, who distrusted improvisation and always measured his words most carefully, Pius expressed his thoughts in a somewhat conversational style which was usually clear even when it was not impressive. This time, however, his words were painfully involved and sounded like one of those ancient oracles that could be read both ways. As a matter of fact, conflicting interpretations appeared in Catholic papers: some saw in them an evident rebuke to Italy; others saw a positive affirmation of principles in connection with only a neutral statement concerning the "facts" of the case; still others merely detected a suggestion that "moderation" be used and that a compromise be made in order to avoid a resort to arms. All emphasized the point that the Pope had once more clearly stated the Catholic doctrine which condemns unjust war. Perhaps the most significant comment upon the Pope's words was made by the Archbishop of Westminster, now Cardinal Hinsley, who apologetically but frankly stated that the Pope, "a poor old man," could not "denounce the neighboring power, a power armed with absolute control of everything and thus make war with his dictator-neighbor inevitable, with the result of a fierce anticlerical outbreak. Until the Pope is invited to intervene by both sides he cannot act as a judge . . . and he has not been invited."[ix] A more devastating indictment of Article 24 can hardly be imagined, for we cannot fail to remember that before the Lateran Treaty was signed the papacy was "under a hostile domination" (sub hostili dominatione constitutus) and the Popes not only freely criticized the Italian Government but even deplored its very existence and invoked its downfall.[x]

After the Ethiopian campaign had ended in an Italian victory, addressing the opening ceremony of the Catholic Press exhibition (May 12, 1936), the Pope took occasion to express his joy that the ceremony "coincided with the triumphal joy of a great and good people, for a peace which should be an effective factor and a prelude to the true peace of Europe and of the world."[xi] This was his final benediction of the Ethiopian adventure.[xii]

The truth of Cardinal Hinsley's assumption that Article 24 is embarrassing to the Holy See cannot be denied. It accounts at least for the fact that when the Pope, for moral or religious reasons, feels obliged to raise his voice in regard to a temporal conflict, he has to begin by explaining and apologizing, in fear of being accused of having violated the Lateran Treaty. For example, when Pius XII received the new Minister of Lithuania to the Vatican (October 18, 1939) and called his attention to the dangers for religion in the Soviet expansion in the Baltic regions, he prefaced his remarks with a clear reference to Article 24:

Conscious of the duties proper to our office as supreme pastor, we will not, without its being requested of us, let our action, always directed towards the salvation of souls, become involved in purely temporal controversies or territorial competitions between states. But the very duty of our office does not permit us to close our eyes when the new incommensurable dangers arise precisely for the salvation of souls. . . .

Of course the Pope cannot be expected to bestow absolution or condemnation upon governments every time they are involved in conflicts, particularly when the Papal voice will obviously remain unheard. Yet since, as Father de la Brière tells us, the concordats of today are equivalent to an alliance between church and state, and since such an alliance implies collaboration on religious and moral grounds, the silence of the Holy See in the face of moral issues which have stirred the conscience of believers the world over, would easily lend itself to unpleasant misinterpretations. Still more open to suspicion would be its silence on -- or even worse, its approval of -- an aggression on the part of Italy which had been universally condemned as wrong. Besides the moral question, this would raise the problem of the independence of the Holy See from the Italian state. The shadow of Avignon still hangs over the Catholic conscience.


The crusade against Communism was the keynote of the pontificate of Pius XI. A conservative by training and conviction, Pius had no sympathy for the democratic institutions which (with their "fetish of liberty," as he dubbed the constitutional rights of freedom of thought, of speech and of assembly) had become hotbeds of Socialism and Communism. As long as radicals of the Left were not restrained from carrying on their propaganda and from organizing revolutions subsidized by Moscow, no moral exhortation or religious preaching would be adequate to save the world from ruin. The biographers of Pius XI put much stress on his indignation against Communism as the key to most of his policies.[xiii] According to them, he looked with favor upon the rise of Fascism because it sought to save Italy from Communism. He had no confidence in the Popular Party of Don Sturzo, though it had been organized with the blessing of Benedict XV and though its program was purportedly based on the Papal encyclicals. Pius withdrew the support of the clergy and of the Catholic organizations and left it helpless before the onslaught of the Fascists. True, Mussolini's past had been, religiously speaking, rather dark. True, Fascism in its revolutionary march to power had shown no respect for Church or clergy. True, the Fascists looted and destroyed all the coöperatives and banks, workers' associations and clubs which had been built up by a whole generation of militant Catholics with the encouragement of the Holy See. True, consolidation of the dictatorship during the fateful years 1924-26 was accompanied by scenes of violence and murder. Yet the confidence of the Vatican was not shaken.

It was likewise in the hope of saving Europe from Communism that Pius signed a concordat with the Nazi régime only a few months after Hitler's advent to power. The same policy which had sealed the doom of the Popular Party in Italy was applied to the German Center Party, which since the time of the Kulturkampf had been the stronghold of Catholicism in German politics. Nazi Germany, in the opinion of the Vatican, was the only force that could stop the westward march of Soviet Russia.

If Pius XI, in the face of repeated violations of the concordat by the Fascist régime, staged a brief resistance and then silently acquiesced; if he could bear, though under protest, to see the Church in Germany confronted with the alternative of being either Nazified or persecuted; if he did not stand up like some of his predecessors, unafraid of even personal violence -- he did so only because, after all, without Mussolini and without Hitler, Italy and Germany would have been conquered by the Reds. In the Spanish rebellion the Vatican, which only a few years before had discouraged a Catholic armed revolt in Mexico, now sanctioned the verdict of the Spanish bishops that the Government elected by the people was illegitimate. Was this not because the rebels were "crusaders" against Communism? Spain was thrown into the abyss of a civil war in which the new crusaders, like those of old, "entered Jerusalem wading in the blood of the slain enemies." Both before and after the triumph of Franco and of his "non-interventionist" allies Pius XI and his successor Pius XII gave their blessings to the "heroic crusaders." Was this not because without Franco and without the Italian and German bombs Spain would have fallen prey to Moscow?

Now, what are the results of this policy? To judge from the posture of affairs in Europe today, the confidence of the Holy See in the dictators as providential agents for the restoration of religion and as White Knights ready to slay the dragon of Communism was grossly misplaced. The Vatican had looked with favor upon the rapprochement between Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, perhaps in the hope that under Mussolini's influence Hitler would become more manageable regarding ecclesiastical policies. Unfortunately, it worked the other way around, for it was Mussolini who, by adopting the myth of racial purity and anti-Semitic laws in imitation of Hitler, made another dent in the already much-battered Italian concordat. Even the ungrateful Franco is now picking a quarrel with the Vatican by claiming the right, once exercised by the Catholic kings of Spain, to make and unmake bishops at will.

In spite of his many disappointments, Pius to the very end contrived to believe that the two great dictatorships in Germany and Italy were the only solid blocks which stood in the way of Communism. As such they were a lesser evil. This soothing thought consoled him for the failure of his policies in other directions. But even this last ray of hope has now disappeared: the anti-Comintern front has collapsed and the political apostasy of Hitler has opened the gates of Europe to Soviet Russia. There is still Mussolini, whose Fascist youngsters continue to scream "Down with Russia!" But the Axis also still remains, and nobody knows what the Italian dictator will do, or be allowed to do, in the near future. Yet whatever destiny may have in store for Italy, one thing is certain: the interests of religion and of the Church will have no weight in the decisions of the Fascist régime.


The first encyclical of a new Pope is usually an important document which reveals the spirit and at least some of the aims of his pontificate. Encyclicals, being official documents of normative but no dogmatic value, offer the Pope ample scope for passing judgment on certain theories and practices of contemporary religious, social and political life, and above all for refuting new ideas that deviate from the Christian tradition and for condemning movements considered detrimental to the spiritual and temporal interests of the Church.

The first encyclical of Pius XII (Summi Pontificatus, October 20, 1939) was hailed by the press and the general public as a condemnation of the Fascist and Nazi states. But this was misleading. In reality the encyclical is not at all concerned with forms of government, dictatorial or democratic, but rather with the moral and religious content of political systems in general, irrespective of their forms or names.

The great error which the encyclical condemns is the "Godless State," the error which "divorces civil authority from every kind of dependence upon the Supreme Being." This is the same condemnation of secularism and agnosticism which recurs in so many encyclicals of the last century, when the target was the liberal state. Nazism and Fascism may represent extreme forms of the secular utilitarian conception of the state, but as far as the old agnosticism is concerned, they have replaced it with new faith in the state itself, a deity that has nothing to do with the Christian God. Yet the root of all evils is still the same -- the divorce of the civil authority from the Christian God. As a result of this divorce "the civil authority . . . tends to attribute to itself an absolute autonomy . . . and elevates the State or group into the last end of life, the supreme criterion of the moral and juridical order." This refers particularly to Nazi and Fascist ideologies, but other régimes do not escape censure in so far as they too claim to control activities beyond their proper competence.

In the days of Pius XI the racial policy of the Nazis and Mussolini's anti-Semitic laws (which affected the marriage provisions of the Italian concordat) provoked papal indignation. Many thought that the old pontiff might publish a solemn encyclical De Judaeorum Gente which would clarify once for all the attitude of the Catholic Church toward the Jewish problem, as it exists in the contemporary world and not as it was in the Middle Ages. Such a clarification seems greatly needed, for on this question many discordant voices resound in the Catholic world. In Italy, for instance, the Civiltà Cattolica long carried on a relentless campaign against the "Masonic-Jewish gang" (cricca massonicogiudaica) which it held responsible for the evils of liberalism and anti-clericalism, and later also of Socialism and Communism. In France, where the anti-Semitism of the Catholic press was always violent, a number of the clergy and of the Church hierarchy became so deeply implicated in the Dreyfus affair that they did more harm to French Catholicism than a century of persecution. In Poland, a pastoral letter of the Primate, Cardinal Hlond, published in 1936 at a moment when anti-Jewish riots were taking place in several Polish cities, especially in universities and schools, called the Jews "the vanguard of atheism, Bolshevism and revolution," and invited an economic boycott of them. He concluded with the simple phrase: "But it is inadmissible to assault, hit or injure the Jews." One can imagine the effects of his pronouncement on excited students and on the rabble looting Jewish shops. In the United States, where the Catholic clergy as a whole has joined in denouncing anti-Semitism, we have continued to hear the discordant voice of Father Coughlin.

What has Pius XII had to say about anti-Semitism since he ascended the Papal throne? In his encyclicals he denounces "the forgetfulness of that law of human solidarity and charity which is dictated and imposed by our common origin and by the equality of rational nature in all men, to whatever people they belong, and by the redeeming Sacrifice offered by Jesus Christ . . . on behalf of sinful mankind." But in suggesting a remedy he remains in the theological sphere, merely reiterating the law of charity which unites all races "in the pacifying light of love."

Turning to another passage in the encyclical we find a direct allusion to international politics in the denunciation of unfaithfulness to agreements, and the unilateral breaking of treaties. Yet this question is also a religious one because the papal rebuke is addressed primarily to states which have violated, or discarded outright, their concordats with the Holy See. And lastly in a section seemingly added at the last moment, the Pope warns the belligerent Powers against the temptations of victory "when the heart of the victor is too easily hardened" and settlements are imposed which are "nothing else than injustice under the cloak of justice."

This first encyclical of Pius XII is more than usually homiletical in language and style, as if to stress that his program is to be strictly religious. Even when dealing with political problems he intends that his approach shall be exclusively from the point of view of moral and religious principles, without any political bias or partisan feeling. Even so the Pope knew he would be misunderstood, for he declared that he would not let himself be influenced "by fear of misconceptions and misinterpretations."

Since the agreement between Hitler and the Soviets the Vatican has had little or no reason to withhold a solemn condemnation of Nazi "errors." Fascism, however, still has to be treated gently, though its theories about the state differ only slightly from those of Nazism. Italy, moreover, still persecutes and discriminates against the Jews.[xiv] Yet the Pope's encyclical after greeting "Our dear Italy, fruitful garden of the faith," and expressing the hope that the Italian people "may always be faithful to their glorious Catholic tradition," manifests joy that the Lateran Agreements have inaugurated "brotherly union in religious and civil intercourse" and have secured and sealed "this happy new juridical and spiritual position" of the Papacy and the Church in Italy. Pius XII thus put the Fascist régime in a class by itself. After all, is it not at peace with the Church? The encyclical therefore did not provoke a hostile reaction in the Fascist press. Indeed, a few commentators even declared that they saw no divergence between the principles of Pius XII and Mussolini. Most journals, however, briefly dismissed the document as a doctrinal statement of perhaps some use to theologians but with no bearing on practical political questions.

The general remedy suggested by the encyclical for the world's evils is the return of states and peoples to God, or more specifically, to the Church. The state "needs the help of the Church" and to obtain it must protect the rights of the Church. Otherwise there can be peace neither with the nations nor between them.


At this point certain conclusions concerning the probable future course of Vatican policies suggest themselves. First of all, as soon as circumstances permit, Pius XII will unquestionably initiate negotiations for new concordats or for the revival of old ones. In this respect he clearly intends to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor. It may seem strange that the Vatican should insist upon concordats when history demonstrates that they have failed to secure peaceful collaboration between church and state. The answer is obvious: the alternative to concordats would be the separation of church and state. Time and again the Church has condemned the principle of separation as a heresy. But there is an even more compelling reason for opposing it, a supreme reason affecting the sovereignty of the Holy See itself.

In any country where separation of church and state prevails, the juridical status of the Catholic Church is simply that of a private institution, having a local character and enjoying common liberties under the law. Within this framework the Church can organize itself as it wishes, can have its own regulations binding upon its own members, and can have connections with and be subordinate to religious hierarchical powers outside the state; but as a supranational institution it has no juridical or political standing. This means that a régime of true separation has no room for the official recognition of Papal sovereignty, no room for concordats or other agreements, and no room for diplomatic relations with the Holy See. To be sure, the Holy See is well aware that in modern times the Church has enjoyed more freedom and has gained more ground in countries under the régime of separation than with those with which it had concordats. But in the judgment of the Vatican the prosperity of the Church in such countries as, for instance, the United States is not the result of separation but of special circumstances which have transformed separation, to quote Pius XII himself, into a "benevolent neutrality" of the state towards the Church. Cardinal Gibbons used to say that the Church needed nothing from the state beyond a guarantee of its common liberties, for under these the Church not only retained all its freedom of action but enjoyed greater prosperity. But the Roman prelates think that though this principle, with reservations, might work well in America, it is not adapted to Europe and cannot be accepted as a rule.

No less important as a factor in determining the Vatican's policies is its relations with the Italian state. In a speech delivered only a few months after the signing of the Lateran Treaty, Mussolini distinguished between it and the concordat. He emphasized the perpetual and final character of the former, which "did not resurrect but buried forever the temporal power of the Popes," and belittled the latter as having only a contingent and relative value. Pius XI replied that treaty and concordat were indissolubly bound together and that if one fell the other would fall with it. The implications of this statement are very far-reaching for anyone who knows how short-lived concordats have always been, though we may be sure that the Holy See is the last to desire to have this question brought to a test. Fascism may have sinned grievously against the concordat, but maintenance of the Lateran Agreements is at present of vital importance to the Vatican; and, as things now stand, their fate is bound up with that of the Fascist régime. Since the régime is probably secure from overthrow as long as Mussolini keeps out of war, the Vatican has a clear interest in Italy's remaining a "non-belligerent."

Of late Pius has almost gone out of his way to grasp opportunities for expressing his unbounded confidence in the Italian Government. At the reception of the new Italian Ambassador to the Holy See (December 7, 1939) he spoke glowingly of the Lateran Pacts and of the "valiant, strong, laborious Italian people, the wisdom of whose rulers and whose own inner impulse has thus far happily preserved them from being involved in the war." Two weeks later, the solemn visit of the King and Queen to the Vatican gave him the occasion for more compliments -- "Italy . . . always vigilant and strong under the august and wise hand of her King-Emperor and by the farseeing guidance of her rulers. . . . " Observers noticed that in these addresses the Pope made no direct mention of il Duce.

What really is going on behind the scenes in Italy at the moment this article is written is far from clear. Mussolini significantly declared in September that "the pilot must not be disturbed" while steering the ship of state through heavy weather. Then came the anti-Soviet outburst of Balbo's newspaper on October 8, followed later by the pro-Finnish demonstrations. These manifestations were obviously indirect blows at the Axis. The Pope joined in them by openly denouncing both the Nazis and the Soviets in his speech at the reception of the Italian Ambassador.

But on December 8 the solidity of the Axis was reaffirmed by an official communiqué of the Fascist Grand Council, and again by Ciano's speech before the Chamber on December 16. It was in this speech, however, that Ciano revealed that Italy had entered into the military alliance with Germany (May 22, 1939) on the understanding that there was to be no war for at least three years, because it would take Italy that long to repair her military machine. He also stated that the Nazi-Soviet agreement had been made without consulting the Italian Government.

Then came the Pope's Christmas address to the Cardinals suggesting a five-point peace program: (1) independence of all nations; (2) disarmament; (3) a new and better League of Nations; (4) a just distribution of resources; and (5) the Sermon on the Mount as textbook for statesmen and politicians. It does not seem that Mussolini, "the pilot who did not wish to be disturbed," was much pleased by this initiative. Pius XII understood; and on the occasion of his return visit at the Quirinal, after having said that "the Tiber's waves have overthrown and sunk the unhappy past, so that on the shores of the Tiber olive branches now blossom," the Holy Father made a point of invoking God's blessing also on "the illustrious chief of the Italian government and his ministers." This slight pontifical slip (because technically the ministers are the King's and not the Duce's) underlined the significant papal compliment.

It does not seem, nevertheless, that Mussolini was placated. It was very good for the Pope to say in connection with the first of his five points, that "one nation's will to live must never be tantamount to a death sentence for another," thinking of Poland and perhaps of Czechoslovakia. But had he forgotten Ethiopia and Albania, whose Emperor-King he had so warmly praised a few days before? At any rate, Mussolini's visit to the Vatican, officially announced as imminent, has not taken place. It may or may not be significant that on January 10 a troop of Italian university students received by the Pope staged a noisy and irreverent demonstration in the Vatican. The Fascist battle-cry "Duce! Duce!" was said to have resounded in the halls of the Apostolic Palace for the first time. Was it a delicate warning and reminder of Article 24 of the Lateran Treaty? Has the Vatican been trying to widen the cleavage between Italy and Nazi Germany, and have these manœuvres provoked resentment and counter-manœuvres?

All this does not mean that the Vatican would look with favor upon Italy's participation in the war on the side of the Allies. In case Hitler won a crushing victory he would establish a mighty European empire in which Italy would become a vassal state or a conquered province, depending on whether she fought for or against Germany. On the other hand, a crushing victory by the Allies would mean the disintegration of Germany and perhaps a new Communist danger along the Alps. Last but not least, the downfall of the German dictatorship and the triumph of the democratic Powers might well be fatal to the Fascist régime in Italy. The prospect of this does not appeal to the Vatican. From its view, a much happier solution would be the survival, in a chastened but not defeated Germany, of a dictatorial régime, purified of the more extreme parts of the Nazi ideology; and of a Fascist Italy purged of "racism" and exaggerated nationalism. If in addition the constitutions of democratic countries were changed so as to abolish or restrict the "so-called liberties" which make Socialist and Communist propaganda possible, then peace and order would be truly restored to the world. The alliance of church and state, secured by concordats with the Holy See, would cement the new political structure and call down upon it the blessings of the Church and of God.

The Vatican is well aware, however, that reality never keeps up with the ideal. While hoping for the best, it is ready to deal with new situations by applying the old policy of compromise with the lesser evil. As Pius XI once expressed it, the Holy See is ready "to bargain even with the devil, if this should mean the saving of a single soul."

[i] In 1914 very few concordats were in existence. Leo XIII (1878-1903) had renewed, in a revised form, several of the concordats of Pius IX (1846-1878) with Central and South American Republics, and he had concluded a dozen partial agreements on specific points of little importance with various European states. Under Pius X (1903-1914) the French concordat came to an end. The only concordat concluded during his reign was that with Serbia in June 1914, but the war prevented its ratification. He took steps to revise the old Spanish concordats of 1851 and 1859, but this work did not go beyond the preliminary stage. The World War cleaned the slate of all these Papal conventions and agreements with European states. The task of creating a new concordat structure was therefore undertaken by Benedict XV (1914-1922) and continued by Pius XI.

[ii]New York Times, November 3, 1939.

[iii] "L'Organisation Internationale du Monde Contemporain et la Papauté Souveraine." Vol. II, p. 206.

[iv] Nathaniel Micklem, "National Socialism and the Roman Catholic Church." New York: Oxford University Press, 1939 (Chapter VII, The Concordat).

[v] Luigi Sturzo: "Church and State." New York: Longmans, 1939, p. 503.

[vi] For example, the two reviews Bilychnis and Religio, which dealt with the historical and philosophical aspects of Christianity, often from an unorthodox point of view, were suppressed by the Government after being condemned by the Vatican.

[vii] Thus, the Pope took sides in the Spanish War and praised the Italian "volunteers" (organized units of the Italian Army); this was a useful sanction of Italy's violation of her international engagements in regard to "non-intervention."

[viii] The Pope ignored Italy's various treaties with Ethiopia as well as her obligations as a member of the League.

[ix]The Universe (a Catholic newspaper of London), October 18, 1936.

[x] Most commentators failed to understand fully the rather equivocal utterance of the Pope. Its meaning, however, was made clearer in a series of articles by Father Messineo published in the Jesuit periodical of Rome, Civiltà Cattolica, the editor of which is appointed directly by the Pope; these articles were later reprinted in book form under the title "Giustizia ed Espansione Coloniale " (Rome: La Civiltà Cattolica, 1937). His argument is simple. A nation which is so overpopulated that the soil cannot support all its inhabitants has the right to provide for their needs by occupying, forcibly if necessary, lands and regions which happen to be undeveloped and which are not needed by the nation that owns them. All other means which have been suggested for solving the problem of overpopulation -- birth control, emigration, etc. -- are either immoral or unjust. If "vital expansion" is a right, then the expanding nation has also the right to use force if the exercise of that right is opposed by force. In such a case the one who sins against justice is the owner who resists the needy aggressor.

[xi] Luigi Salvatorelli, "La Politica della Santa Sede dopo la Guerra." Milan: Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale, 1938, p. 224.

[xii] It is perhaps not irrelevant to recall that in 1895-96, when Italy was similarly involved in a war of "vital expansion" with Ethiopia, the Civiltà Cattolica had no words strong enough to condemn the Italian aggression as immoral, unjustifiable and even foolish, because after all Ethiopia was a barren country.

[xiii] The dozen or so biographies of Pius XI by Catholic authors are mostly of the hagiographical type and of little value. The only important study on the pontificate of Pius XI is that of Luigi Salvatorelli, "Pio XI e la sua Eredità Pontificale" (Turin: Einaudi, 1939).

[xiv] Beginning March 1, 1940, Italian Jews are barred from the professions, including medicine, pharmacy, law, engineering, chemistry, architecture, etc.

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  • GEORGE LA PIANA, Morison Professor of Church History at Harvard University; author of a number of historical works
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