The international situation between the world wars was very complicated: Ideologies like fascism and communism were taking hold of countries, governments and political systems.
Although Pope Pius XI (Achille Ratti, whose pontificate covered 1922 to 1939) harshly condemned those anti-Christian ideologies, the Vatican also signed treaties with countries like Italy (Lateran Treaty) and Germany (1933 Concordat) out of concern for Catholics living there. How do we explain this?
Emma Fattorini examines the complexities of that era’s Vatican diplomacy.
Pius XI was uncompromising towards authoritarian regimes; that attitude was not shared by his Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pope Pius XII). Pacelli wanted to avoid unequivocal condemnations of even those fascist regimes that violated human rights.
Take Spain, for example. Pius XI was cool towards Francisco Franco’s Spain, differing from the vast majority of Vatican monsignori who took no pains to hide their sympathies for the generalissimo. Nor did the Vatican lack sympathizers of fascists Mussolini or Franco, who were motivated partially out of a great fear of communism, in part because of those regimes’ policies towards the Church.
Hitler, on the other hand, lacked similar supporters in the Vatican. Even Mussolini treated him with reserve, although he saw his alliance with Berlin as a way of achieving Italian goals.
Pacelli’s policies towards Germany were driven by his great personal admiration for German Catholicism, which he wanted to shield as best as he could from persecution.
Although Pius XI was firm and unswerving, he had a special relationship with Pacelli. Pacelli, in turn, never directly contradicted the Pope, limiting himself to subsequent “clarifications” of papal decisions. In a certain way, each man complemented the other.
Pius XI for his part had a unique relationship with his Secretary of State. The two men differed in many ways: character, emotion, spirituality, political conviction and analysis of a given situation. It was as though the Pope knew he could publicly give vent to his impulses, as Pacelli would smooth things out afterwards. By contrast, Pacelli’s caution and timidity found in Ratti’s resolution an anchor that allowed him his dithering, both because he could hesitate without great worry and because he knew he would never he scolded. Ratti saw in Pacelli everything he was not or was in a different way: lofty, theocratic, noble, expert in languages, a fine preacher, exquisite and courtly.
That quote has a lot to say about Vatican diplomacy at the time. Pacelli, as head of that diplomacy, would never permit the expression of a position that would exclude compromise, while Ratti, who was aware of the weaknesses of the Western democracies (this was the era of appeasement) and the relentlessness of the totalitarians, checked his own authoritarian impulses.
This book has a lot to recommend it. Its historical perspective differs from most books on the period by going back 20 years and focusing on Pius XI rather than his successor. Fattorini had access to Vatican sources that were previously less well known. She uses lots of them — not just about the final decision, but notes and memoirs leading up to them, which gives us a fuller picture of the events and people who shaped them. While thoroughly documented, Fattorini’s references are sometimes overpowering.
The book’s most valuable contribution, however, lies in clarifying what happened to Pius XI’s last address, which he never delivered, which contained tough language towards those regimes that were preparing the way for World War II. We also better understand the fate of Pius XI’s lost encyclical, Humani Generis Unitas (The Unity of the Human Race). I leave that to the reader to discover. It is a fascinating insight into the Vatican’s perspectives on events leading to war.
Father Zygmunt Zielinski is professor emeritus of
Church history at the Catholic University of Lublin, Poland.
HITLER, MUSSOLINI, AND THE VATICAN
Pope Pius XI and the Speech That Was Never Made
By Emma Fattorini
John Wiley and Sons, 2011
220 pages, $25
To order: wiley.com