‘Into the Hands of America’: Pope Pius XII’s Blessing
COMMENTARY: The Pope in 1946 warned of the new post-war enemy that survived Nazism and was seeking revolution and disorder: atheistic communism. And the best response to that ideology was what the U.S. represented.
“Into the hands of America, God has placed the destinies of afflicted humanity.” So said Pope Pius XII in a remarkable statement 75 years ago, published in the Jan. 5, 1946, issue of Collier’s Weekly. An exclusive article written by the leader of the world’s Catholics, it would have a major impact on Catholics and non-Catholics alike, including a future president destined to have a major impact on the post-war world.
“War has struck at the heart of human society,” wrote the Pope, not long after war had ended in Europe and the Pacific. “War has forcibly separated husbands and wives, parents and children. … It has caused the greatest and most tragic migration of peoples in all history. It has created a vast multitude of exiles, deluded, disheartened, desolate. ... In these homeless masses is the yeast for revolution and disorder.”
Pius XII warned of the new post-war enemy that survived Nazism and was seeking revolution and disorder: atheistic communism. And the best response to that ideology was the United States. It was not just the U.S. as a power or territory, but what America represented.
“The Church teaches that a sound democracy is based on the changeless, unchallengeable principles of natural law and revealed truth,” said the Pontiff. “The Church contradicts and condemns various forms of Marxist Socialism and Atheistic Communism as enemies of Christian civilization and world peace. She contradicts and condemns them because it is her right and duty to safeguard men from currents of thought and influences that jeopardize their earthly peace and eternal salvation.” A Marxist world would be one that denied liberty and posed “disastrous” and “catastrophic consequences” to Christian civilization.
And again, it was the United States of America that offered the antidote.
Pius recalled a transatlantic voyage he had made to the U.S. in October 1936, before he assumed the chair of St. Peter (he was then Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli). There, he caught a “glimpse” of “America, so young, so sturdy, so glorious.” He then made a sweeping, beautiful statement about America and its providential place in the world:
“The American people have a genius for splendid and unselfish action, and into the hands of America, God has placed the destinies of afflicted humanity. May the noble flame of brotherly love be kindled in your hearts. Let it not die quenched by an unworthy, timid caution in the face of the needs of your brethren; let it be not overcome by the dust and dirt of the whirlwind of anti-Christian or non-Christian spirit. Keep alive this flame, increase it, carry it wherever there be a groan of suffering, a lament of misery, a cry of pain, and nourish it evermore with the heat of a love drawn from the Heart of the Redeemer.”
Among the many non-Catholics reading this statement was a young actor in California named Ronald Reagan. It touched him deeply; for Reagan, too, sensed that God had ordained America, where it was and what it was, for a special purpose at this special time in history, as a force of splendid action against a disastrous and catastrophic ideology.
Reagan loved that line from Pius XII. He would cite it in speeches throughout the next decades, including while president of the United States. It became the penultimate line of Reagan’s July 6, 1976, televised speech marking the American bicentennial, followed only by his three-word sign off: “God bless America.”
As Reagan noted, the Pope had made the remark after the global devastation of World War II, when the United States stood alone in strength. Reagan stressed that Americans had not deliberately sought this leadership role that Pius XII spoke of; it had been thrust upon them by God. If Americans would seize that role with the right leadership, they could win not only the battle against Nazism but the battle against atheistic Soviet communism.
Someone else who appreciated that sentiment was a cardinal from Poland named Karol Wojtyla. That same bicentennial summer of 1976, Cardinal Wojtyla happened to be in the U.S. — in Philadelphia, of all places. It was in Philadelphia, of course, that America was born in the summer of 1776. Fittingly, the Catholic Church chose the “City of Brotherly Love” for that year’s 41st International Eucharistic Congress.
As for Cardinal Wojtyla, he made a long trip of it. The patriotic and pro-American Pole came to the United States for a six-week stay that summer, beginning his trek around the country in Boston, home of revolutionary patriots like John Adams and Sam Adams.
The Eucharistic Congress ran from Aug. 1-8. On Aug. 3, Cardinal Wojtyla gave a powerful statement at the Congress expressing not only his belief in the goodness of the Body of Christ but also his sense of the forces of evil threatening the world. The cardinal from communist-occupied Poland chose to speak at the Mass dedicated to “The Eucharist and Man’s Hunger for Freedom.”
The future pontiff addressed the matter of that universal yearning for freedom, the “hunger of the human soul, which is no less than the hunger for real freedom.” He quoted from the pastoral constitution of the Second Vatican Council, which affirmed that “authentic freedom” is “an exceptional sign of the divine image within man.”
Hence, said Cardinal Wojtyla, quoting from the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes and presaging words that two decades later would appear in some of his greatest encyclicals, such as Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth) and Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), “man’s dignity demands that he act according to a conscious and free choice.”
Cardinal Wojtyla continued, sharing words that the Protestants who signed the Declaration of Independence in that city 200 years earlier would have appreciated: “Freedom is … a gift of the Creator and an endowment of human nature. For this reason it is also the lawful right of man; man has a right to freedom, to self-determination, to the choice of his life career, to acting according to his own convictions. Freedom has been given to man by his Creator in order to be used, and to be used well.”
God honors humans by honoring their freedom. God is the antithesis of the earthly destroyers of freedom — men like the totalitarians in Moscow and other communist capitals. As Fulton Sheen wrote in Peace of Soul, “God refuses to be a totalitarian dictator in order to abolish evil by destroying human freedom.”
However, cautioned Cardinal Wojtyla, man should never abuse his freedom (here he cited Galatians 4 and 5). Humans should not become slaves to the flesh. Indeed, said the future Holy Father, we know perfectly well that humanity abuses liberty. Man can do wrong precisely because man is free. That is the risk of freedom, a risk that the Creator was apparently willing to accept. At the same time, that is the beauty of freedom.
As Cardinal Wojtyla noted, freedom has been given to man by the Creator not to commit what is evil (Galatians 5:13), but to do good: “Freedom has been given to man in order to love, to love true good.”
This was an understanding of freedom that Pope John Paul II and his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, would underscore again and again. Benedict would regret that the West suffered from a “confused ideology of freedom,” one that had unleashed a “dictatorship of relativism.”
We today live in that dictatorship of relativism. That is what is governing us. How sad it is that the America extolled by Cardinal Wojtyla, by President Reagan and by Pope Pius XII is under assault by those forces who are not only undermining America but trying to redefine it.
Those cultural revolutionaries are hard at work. America is being torn asunder by forces who proclaim that this nation was not founded in 1776, nor by the principles of 1776, but in 1619, when the first slave ships arrived on this territory. This is the “America” of The New York Times insidious “1619 Project,” which seeks to redefine this nation’s roots as not those grounded in the promises of 1776, where the Founders affirmed that all human beings were endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, but a country infested brick by brick with “systemic racism.” The aim of the 1619 Project is “to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national [American] narrative.” To the 1619 Project, slavery and racism are at the core of what America is about, not freedom.
Ronald Reagan said that “America is less a place than an idea.” To Reagan, that idea was “something so God-like and precious.” It was an America based on the premise that all people are made in the image of God (the imago Dei) and thus have intrinsic value and dignity. It was those principles, affirmed in 1776 and for which the nation fought a horrible Civil War from 1861-65, that allowed America to end slavery.
As commentator Thomas Sowell has stated, what is so unique about America is not that this nation had slavery (slavery has existed on every continent since the dawn of humanity), but that it ended slavery, and did so at the cost of the bloodiest battle in its long history.
A more accurate rendering of the American narrative is both more complicated (its past of slavery and other sins included) and more inspiring. It is an America that immigrants and nations and even popes pointed to as a beacon of freedom.
“Keep alive this flame,” exhorted Pope Pius XII. We must indeed. Let’s not let others extinguish it.