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The Pope's Divisions

The collapse of Communism as a world ideological force occasions not only a thorough reassessment of many of the economic and political presuppositions which were fundamental to the post-World War II world, but also a reevaluation of many of the historical interpretations founded on these same presuppositions and widespread during the same period. In fact, one of the major criticisms of the caste of professional historians and political scientists in the United States is their failure as a group, with a few notable exceptions, to take measure of the ideological stakes in both the World War and the ensuing Cold War. Rather, they introduced–or passively allowed to be introduced–Marxist-Leninist interpretations into the contemporary discourse. Moreover, the conditions of conflict made it all the easier to circulate various lies to which was lent a certain credence, both then and later, precisely because they fit into the conventional Communist vision of reality.

One of the victims of this historical process has been the Catholic Church in general, and the Holy See and the person of Pope Pius XII in particular. Scarcely a word is written on the intersection of religion and the world polity without at least an oblique reference to the supposed indifference–if not alleged outright partisan favor–of the late pontiff towards the evils perpetrated by National Socialism. Even neo-liberal law professor Stephen L. Carter of Yale in his otherwise admirable recent treatise on American law and religion, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion, somehow finds it necessary to mouth the cliché that “the stony silence of the Roman Catholic hierarchy during the years of Nazi dominance of Europe could hardly have been taken by the regime as anything but a religious license to continue their slaughter.”

Jesuit Father Robert A. Graham’s essays on this subject, derived from studies published over the years in the Rome-based fortnightly journal of record La Civiltà Cattolica, have now been collected together and reworked into a volume entitled The Vatican and Communism in World War II: What Really Happened? This volume, following on the heels of the same author’s authoritative Vatican Diplomacy, Pope Pius XII, and the Jews, and his monumental multi-volume edition of Acts and Documents of the Holy See Relative to the Second World War, comes from a scholar whose lifetime of research in the secret Vatican archives and in the official archives of Europe and America make him uniquely qualified to treat his chosen subject.

A Historian’s Minefield

Graham’s point of departure is the moral and political dilemma in which Pope Pius XII and the Holy See found themselves in at the advent of the Second World War when the Church faced two opposing ideologies, Communism and National Socialism. Neither operated in a vacuum; rather, they reflected, exploited, and probed many weak aspects of modern society. As Graham notes: “Communism, with Karl Marx, highlighted the social or labor question in capitalist society. National Socialism awakened and pushed to its ultimate the nationalism lurking under the surface throughout Europe. The form it took in Germany proved so venomous because it flourished in a large, industrialized, and well-disciplined base, disoriented by economic distress and the humiliating memory of a lost war… Under these conditions, nationalism slipped easily into racism.”

Both ideologies shared common roots in a materialist, this-world view of the meaning of life, in whose perspective any religion claiming to be supernatural was necessarily an irrelevant, unsocial, inimical stumbling block; witness Stalin’s often-repeated sneer about “How many divisions does the Pope have?” The Catholic Church was thus, by reason of the necessity of her very survival, a major protagonist in this century’s political and moral struggle against these twin ideologies. While World War II offers a convenient starting point for the study of this question, it is also a historian’s minefield of false suppositions and outright lies on the attitude of the Holy See toward either Communism or Nazism.

A typical example is the widespread interpretation that the papacy–incarnate, so it seemed, in the person of Pius XII–was “obsessed” with Communism, an interpretation which is cited compulsively to explain the policies of the period. The Vatican was “soft” on Nazism, goes the conventional wisdom, because of its “panic” over Communism. To many in the self-defined intellectual elite, the long-standing Catholic opposition to Communism–all too well justified by the speedy collapse of the latter in the wake of the events of 1989–was a reactionary attack on progress. Of course, as Graham amply documents, in the era of appeasement which many a historian would prefer to forget, Pope Pius XI’s 1937 encyclical condemning Nazism, Mit brennender Sorge, was decried even in Britain as “narrow-minded clerical interference.”

Graham’s exhaustive studies explode historical myth after historical myth, from international Communism’s supposed constant opposition to Nazism (false) to the Vatican’s alleged support for Hitler’s self-proclaimed “crusade” against Soviet Russia (likewise false). The essays in The Vatican and Communism illustrate, chapter and verse, how these myths are little better than Communist-inspired corruptions of the record.

Of course, the Second World War placed the Church, with its many roots planted in the soils of every belligerent and neutral, in a delicate situation in which it had a very restricted sphere of influence. Moreover, the moral and spiritual issues arising from the conflict were extraordinarily complicated, although few of the belligerents were willing or able to recognize this. In fact, in such a situation one finds a clear illustration of the tragedy in which politics is easily read into the stances and actions of the Holy See while the religious motivations are either obscured or ignored. And perhaps it is in the reminder of this inevitable consequence of the international position of the Holy See that is the particularly relevant contribution of Graham’s book.

Statesmen, in particular, are apt to view the Church’s pris de position solely in the light of their own immediate, purely secular concerns. Amid such confusion, the sources of the diplomatic policy of the Holy See remain obscured, as was the experience of Pius XII. And when his actions could not be criticized, his motives were placed under fire with subjective criteria. Few are willing to accord a pontiff credit for being motivated by purely religious motives when he acts on the world stage. If his actions serve the national cause, they are applauded. If they run counter to national interests, they are denounced.

Added to this confused context, the supranational stance of the Holy See often imposed on the pope certain courses of action (or inaction) which one or the other belligerent was bound to misunderstand or exploit. Every party in a conflict–whether it be ideological warfare or an actual shooting war–is likely to regard the Church as either implicitly friendly or implicitly hostile, according to whether it feels that her actions (or inaction) help or hinder its cause. In his conclusion, in fact, Graham emphasizes that at times when all energies, particularly moral and spiritual energies, are focused on the winning of a conflict, the mission of the Holy See can often risk either being expropriated outright or wholly rejected, as can be verified today in an entirely different context: the wholesale ignorance by certain sectors of the paradigmatic shift in the Church’s social magisterium carried out by the current Holy Father, John Paul II.

Subject to No Earthly Power

In this final regard, it is perhaps quite a propos that Graham’s final essay is a study of the rejection by the Church of Franco Rodano and his Christian Communist movement in Italy in the immediate aftermath of the war. Rodano and his associates thought themselves capable of finding a formula for successfully divorcing Marxist-Leninism from its atheistic and materialistic roots. They were neither the first nor the last to try to bridge the gap between the Christian conception of life and the Communist vision. They accepted, however, the main points of the Communist program, albeit abstracting from some of its ideological presuppositions. In so doing, they isolated the Church’s concern for social reform from the sound principles first articulated by Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum novarum. In their tactics in the ideological war for the future of the West, the Christian communists picked and chose, cafeteria style, from the Church’s social magisterium. In so doing, they ignored truth and thus, the march of history, on which they staked so much, passed them by.

Graham places all these considerations, whether about the Second World War or about the subsequent and continuing ideological conflicts of vision, in perspective when he writes, by way of eloquent conclusion: “The Church was founded with a mission by Jesus Christ and subject to no earthy power. From this point of view the Church is an ‘idea’, an abstraction, intangible, transcending politics. This of course is not understood, much less accepted by the world’s political forces. The Church is in the world but not of it. The implications of this came out forcibly during World War II. The Catholic Church is indebted to Pius XII for having consistently adhered to this fundamental conception, despite the enormous pressures that governments could and did exert on the Papacy. When World War II has receded into distant memory, the precedent of Pius XII will serve his successors in the See of Peter. Triumphalism? The highway of history is strewn with the wreckage of once all-powerful enemies of the Church.”