Can a sober assessment of history rehabilitate the WWII pontiff?
Late-nineteenth century Europe was an age of power, of scientific progress, industrial expansion, and above all the ascendance of the nation state. Politics and culture were deeply affected by a surge of materialism and secularism. We can think of new challenges to the Catholic faith, including Darwinism and Marxism, and papal responses ranging from the Syllabus of Errors, to Rerum Novarum, to the condemnation of Modernism — all of these are historically and theologically crucial. Perhaps the most significant change that shaped Pacelli’s adult attitudes was the inexorable growth of the modern state, with increasingly widespread powers and claims to individual obedience and loyalty that inevitably encroached on the prerogatives of the Church.
Let us look at three key national examples right before the future Pius XII was born.
First Italian unification was achieved through a series of wars that established a Kingdom of Italy under the rule of the House of Savoy. This Risorgiomento culminated in the conquest of Rome and absorption of the Papal States in 1870; the temporal power of the papacy abruptly ended. Pope Pius IX now called himself the “prisoner of the Vatican.” Second, we have the creation of a powerful German Empire. After achieving military triumph in 1870, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck practiced “negative integration,” using a campaign against a domestic enemy to mobilize support for Kaiser Wilhelm’s rule.
His Kulturkampf marginalized the Catholic minority in the new German Reich. Subsequently, Catholics would need to prove their loyalty to the Prussian-led state. The French Third Republic also took root after 1870. In order to build a pluralistic democracy, its politicians crafted a series of anti-clerical laws in the late-1800s. By the first decade of twentieth century, religious orders would be expelled, Catholic schools closed, and the government unilaterally ended the Concordat that had regulated church-state relations since 1801.
Papal diplomacy was becoming more important — protecting the international mission of the Catholic Church by negotiating with states and securing agreements that delineated political and religious spheres of influence. This included an eventual agreement with the Italian government on the sovereign status of Vatican City.
Amidst this turbulent religious and political atmosphere, Eugenio Pacelli was ordained in 1899, and continued his education in canon law and the art of diplomacy. As an up and coming official in the Vatican secretariat of state, he helped negotiate an agreement that protected the practice of the Catholic faith in Serbia right before World War I broke out. He then served as papal nuncio in Germany between 1917 and 1929, a tumultuous time of brutal war, bitter defeat, the threat of Communist revolution, and the beginning of Hitler’s political career.
Named a cardinal in 1929, Pacelli became Vatican Secretary of State in 1930. He served Pope Pius XI (Achille Ratti) until the latter’s death in February 1939. His first major achievement was negotiating a Concordat with the new Nazi German regime in 1933 that protected the rights of the Catholic Church in that country. The price was Catholic abstention in politics.
Hitler’s government never kept its side of the agreement, and in 1937 Secretary Pacelli helped Pius XI draft the encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge (“With Burning Concern”) that denounced Nazi racism and neo-paganism. Pius XI also ordered the drafting of an encyclical against antisemitism but this was put on hold when he died. Against Nazi objections, Cardinal Pacelli was elected Pope Pius XII in March 1939. Less than six months later, Hitler invaded Poland.
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