Review of John Pollard, The Papacy in the Age of Totalitarianism, 1914-1958

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 21, Number 4 (December 2015)

Review of John Pollard, The Papacy in the Age of Totalitarianism, 1914-1958 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 560 Pp., ISBN: 9780199208562.

By Lauren Faulkner Rossi

The papacy during the first fifty years of the twentieth century is no easy subject for a historian to cover, and not merely because one of the popes is the ever-controversial Pius XII. Between 1914 and the early 1950s, the supreme leader of the global Roman Catholic Church was forced to contend with two world wars, genocide, and economic depression. Ideologies bent on achieving total control over the societies they governed, including Nazism in Germany, fascism in Italy, and communism in the Soviet Union and China, contributed to vast political and social upheaval. As John Pollard reminds us on the opening page of his book on the papacy of this era, the popes “faced challenges far greater than anything that had arisen since the Reformation of the sixteenth century or the French Revolution” two centuries later (1). This fact, coupled with the strict closure of most of the Vatican’s archival materials on the papacy of Pius XII, means that the scholarship covering the Vatican in this period is riven with division and debate, particularly during the Second World War. Pollard wades ably through this historiographical quagmire and uses sources adroitly for his own analysis. What he produces is a more balanced account of the three men who sat on the papal throne than much of what has come before.

Pollard-PapacyPollard has an imposing pedigree, which one might demand of a scholar willing to tackle such a contentious subject: he is no amateur in examining modern popes in times of conflict. He has devoted much of his professional career to the Vatican and Catholicism in Fascist Italy, and his biography of Benedict XV is one of the most significant of any language. His introduction includes several crucial definitions and a brief sketch of the papacy up to Benedict’s election in September 1914. His conclusion speaks cogently of the legacy of the period as a whole, which he refers to simply as the age of totalitarianism, and addresses its greatest legacy: bringing the divisions between Church conservatives and liberals to the fore, leading to the most radical changes in Church history at the Second Vatican Council (478).

The book proceeds in chronological fashion, beginning with the accession of Benedict XV and ending with the death of Pius XII. Each pope is fully realized as his own person, though Pollard cannot help but acknowledge the heavy threads of continuity running through Vatican politics in this era. Though Benedict is given the shortest space (only two chapters), Pollard minces no words about his significance: Benedict committed the Church to a peace-making, humanitarian role in a time of total war, and one hundred years later this remains the foundation of contemporary papal diplomacy. Whatever else might be said of Benedict – that his papal “moral neutrality” during the war was at once tenuous and dubious; his tendency towards paranoia; his unhelpful obstinacy; his lassitude in developing doctrine and liturgy – this is no small contribution to the modern papacy.

His successor was Pius XI, whose temperament was “authoritarian” (128) and who, refusing to bow to Roman custom, brought his own housekeeper with him into the papal apartment. Until nine years ago, Pius XI’s reign tended to be overshadowed by the man who worked as his secretary of state from 1930, and who himself became pope in 1939; however, the opening of the archives relating to his papacy in 2006 has allowed scholarship on “Papa Ratti” to grow. The interwar pope did not have to cope with the challenge of bloodshed in Europe, but between the advent of Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany, the worldwide economic depression, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, continual upheaval and persecution of the Church in Mexico and China, among other places, Pius XI also instituted Radio Vatican, beatified nearly five hundred people, and canonized another thirty-four (189).

Pius XI continued what Benedict had commenced with a reliance on “concordatory politics,” signing a series of important treaties in the interwar period with numerous countries that were aimed at protecting the religious rights of their Catholic citizens, notably including Italy and Germany. His papacy also heavily emphasized teaching, which is borne out by the number of public pronouncements and encyclicals he issued on subjects from Christian marriage (Casti connubii, 1930) to Soviet communism (Divini redemptoris, 1937) to the plight of the Catholic Church in Germany (Mit brennender Sorge, also 1937). His most significant challenges lay in dealing with the two totalitarian ideologies that entrenched themselves in the Soviet Union and Germany, and Pollard understandably delivers some of his sharpest criticism – of both Pius XI as well as the scholarship about him – here. He points to the obvious missed opportunity of the Vatican to have representation at the 1938 Evian Conference, when countries from across the globe met to discuss the plight of Europe’s Jews fleeing Nazism, but does not speculate about why. He acknowledges the collaborative nature of many of Pius’s encyclicals, especially the later ones, though fails to emphasize just how much of the German-language encyclical, Mit brennender Sorge, was the work of Pacelli and a handful of German bishops. (See Emma Fattorini’s excellent discussion of this encyclical in Hitler, Mussolini and the Vatican: Pope Pius XI and the Speech that was Never Made (Cambridge: Polity, 2011). Ultimately, Pollard insists, despite occasional vacillation, Pius left the papacy stronger than it had been when he began as pope, though on a basic level he remains a mysterious, somewhat elusive figure with regard to certain key issues, particularly the “modernist crisis” (289-290).

Like all scholars dealing with Pius XII, Pollard has to admit that the lack of access to key documents about his pontificate is problematic: until these archives are opened (and when this will happen has been the big question for many years now), scholars will have a difficult time contributing anything genuinely new to the debates. Pollard, though, does the historiography a clear service by summarizing the material that is available for study and by plumbing the controversies about Pius XII to provide fresh insights, especially with regards to his continuity with Pius XI. He underscores the stability within the Vatican hierarchy during the second Pius’s reign, largely due to the connections between the two Piuses – Pius XII had worked under his predecessor as secretary of state from 1930 to 1939. In fact, one argument about the papacy that Pollard makes unassailably is the importance and clout of the man in the position of secretary of state up to the outbreak of World War II. (The power of this position disintegrated somewhat when Pacelli became pope in 1939, though Pollard does not clarify specifically if this was due to the way that Pacelli ruled as pope or the personalities he chose to serve under him in that dicastery – or a combination of both.)

Pollard does not sidestep the controversy surrounding Pius XII. He states explicitly that Pius never mentioned specifically the plight of the Jews in Nazi-dominated Europe, despite the Allies urging him to do so. This was not due to lack of awareness; he estimates that the Vatican knew reasonably well about the mass murder of Jews in Eastern Europe by early 1942 at the latest (332). Rather, Pius believed he was doing as much as he could within the limits imposed on him by external circumstances. Above all – and here is where continuity shows strongly – he was committed to the policies of his predecessors, especially Benedict XV: in time of war, the Vatican had to remain neutral so as to avoid alienating segments of the Catholic population spread across the zone of conflict. To condemn the atrocities perpetrated by one side or another risked this alienation – and condemning Germany’s atrocities in particular risked isolating the sizable Catholic minority in Germany, a country dear to Pacelli’s heart (he had served as nuncio there from 1920 until he became secretary of state).

Pollard demonstrates historical sympathy in detailing the conundrum Pius XII found himself in vis-à-vis wartime atrocities, including the genocide of Europe’s Jews. Such a show of sympathy is not tantamount to an absolution, though his refusal to be more strident in his criticism will not please those ever ready to condemn the Vatican for its muteness in the face of the Holocaust. Pollard’s heaviest criticism for Pius XII – his “ugliest silence” (346-347), as he calls it – falls on the pope’s lack of reaction to the murderous campaigns of the fascist Ustasha regime in Croatia. Although the Vatican had not formally recognized an independent Croatian state when it was instituted in 1941, it declined to protest the forced conversions and ethnic cleansing that the Croats unleashed, apart from any German initiative in the area, even though Church officials had a full awareness of what was unfolding.

Moreover, of the three popes that Pollard assesses, Pius XII is not presented as the most unsympathetic towards Jews; Pius XI is. “It is impossible,” he cautions, “to understand the papacy’s relationship with the Jews of Europe in this period except within the broader context of Christian antisemitism” (472), and here he excuses none of the popes. But he singles out Pius XI as the most ambivalent towards Jews. He was continuously conflicted, showing sympathy for their plight in some circumstances but missing several opportunities to endorse a clear renunciation of antisemitism, whether found in Church liturgy or in Nazi ideology. It would take another two decades, and two more popes, before the Church finally took responsibility for its role in perpetuating antisemitism in the issuance of Nostra Aetate. Pollard categorizes this move as the papacy’s “final [divestment] of the last trace of antisemitism” (474), though one might disagree about how final it really was.

Pollard’s contribution to the subject of the popes during the age of totalitarianism has not definitively resolved any outstanding controversies and debates, but he has provided a judicious, nuanced, and well-informed examination of Benedict XV, Pius XI, and Pius XII. Expertly using a truly impressive array of materials in multiple languages, including the most recent scholarship, he grounds these popes in the contexts of both great political crisis and upheaval in Europe as well as the Church’s institutional development and growth as a political and diplomatic player. Without drawing attention away from the experience of the victims of Nazism, he quietly reminds the reader in his conclusion of the impact of communism across the world, from Asia to Europe to North America (Mexico), on Catholics and the Church: “This period of the persecution and martyrdom of Catholics must be ranked alongside those under the Roman emperors, during the Reformation and wars of religion of the sixteenth century, and in the years following the French Revolution of 1789” (460). All three popes under scrutiny made mistakes, some grievous, but their terror of widespread communist victory, which was consistently at the forefront of their thinking and behavior, perhaps makes their actions more human, and more understandable. It is to Pollard’s credit, as historian and writer, that he has made this perspective available to his readers.