Pius XI and the Totalitarian Menace

A consensus has emerged among historians who have reviewed recently released Vatican archival documents covering the 1920s and 1930s that Pope Pius XI and his closest collaborator, Secretary of State Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli (later Pius XII), did not sit around idly as the forces of totalitarianism grew. This, of course, refutes some longstanding criticism of both figures and the Church.

For instance, in Hitler, Mussolini and the Vatican historian Emma Fattorini states that Pius XI was intolerant of totalitarians and he was convinced that Europe was experiencing a “crisis of civilizations” that “could only be resolved by means of a ‘Catholic solution,’ by a return to the Christian roots of Western Civilization.”  The archives also reveal that the Holy Father strongly and consistently defended the Jews saying they shared with all Christians a common origin. “Spiritually we are all Semites,” the pope famously proclaimed.

Pope Pius XI was born Achille Ratti in the town of Desio at the foot of the Alps in 1857. A brilliant student and avid mountain climber, he was ordained at twenty-two and studied at the Gregorian University earning doctorates in canon law, philosophy, and theology.

For the next forty years, he led a quiet life teaching, researching, and serving as vice-prefect of the Vatican Library. Having written a monograph on Polish history, at sixty-one he was named nuncio to Poland and consecrated a bishop in 1919. He successfully established diocesan boundaries and negotiated a concordat with the newly created Polish state.

During the Russian invasion led by the Communist radical Leon Trotsky, he assisted in relief work in Warsaw. The nuncio stayed in the city throughout the siege, which was repulsed by the Polish Army led by General Pilsudski on August 15, 1920.

Recalled to Rome in June 1921, Ratti was named cardinal and archbishop of Milan. Seven months later, on the fourteenth ballot he was elected pope to succeed Benedict XV. Accepting the name Pius because of his desire “to devote my efforts to the peace of the world,” he was the first pontiff since 1870 to appear on the balcony of St. Peter’s to give the blessing Urbi et Orbi.

In the early years of his papacy, Pius XI carefully watched the rise of materialist totalitarian regimes in Italy, Germany, and Russia. The term itself, totalitario, was coined by “Il Duce,” Benito Mussolini, who declared: “Nothing outside or above the state, nothing against the state, everything within the state, everything for the state.” Fascism rejected the natural law, insisting that rights are granted by the state, not God. The state transcended mere individuals and was “the immanent conscience of the nation.”

Mussolini’s future ally, Adolph Hitler, also rejected the natural law and promoted the “blood and soil” principle of racial superiority. All races were inferior to the Aryan. Hitler’s totalitarian principle held that the state was “the vital expression, the living will of the national conscience.” As Führer, he expressed the people’s will, hence he had absolute power and all decrees he signed were binding on all.

           Pius XI on the cover of TIME, April 3, 1933

In Russia, all law was in the hands of the omnipotent ruling party. The Communist Party justified any act to destroy the old society and to perpetuate the totalitarian, monistic state.

Pius XI was strong-willed and short-tempered. On one occasion, when a European archbishop’s comments angered him, he leaped off his papal throne and yanked the cleric’s beard. Knowing that he could be obstinate and impetuous, he collaborated with Cardinal Pacelli who was named Secretary of State in 1930.

“They were linked,” Fattorini writes, “by a sort of complementarity that rendered each indispensable to the other. It was as though the pope knew that he could publicly give vent to his impulses, as Pacelli would smooth things out afterward.”

Throughout the 1930s, Pius XI championed Catholic liberty and condemned totalitarian states as “anti-Christian” and “inhuman.” In Non Abbiamo Bisogno (1931), he condemned Fascism: “We are happy and proud to wage the good fight for the liberty of conscience.”  In the 1937 encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge, the Nazis received the back of the papal hand:

None but superficial minds could stumble into concepts of a national god, or national religion, or attempt to lock within the frontiers of a single people, within narrow limits of a single race, God, Creator of the universe, King and legislator of all nations, before whose immensity they are drop in a bucket.

Pius warned the faithful not to embrace the claims of Communist ideology in Divini Redemptoris (1937):  “Communism is intrinsically evil, and no one wishing to save Christian civilization can collaborate with it in any conceivable enterprise.”

Pius condemned Mussolini’s Ethiopian invasion (1935-1936) as an “unjust war of conquest.”  He publicly rebuked Vienna’s Cardinal Innitzer for welcoming the Nazi Anschluss in March 1938. The day after Mussolini’s decree expelling Jewish students from public schools was announced, September 6, 1938, the Pope told a group from the Belgian Catholic Radio Station, “Listen well, Abraham is our Patriarch, our ancestor. . . .[Anti-Semitism] is a hateful movement with which we Christians must have no relationship. . . .Through Christ we are the descendants of Abraham. . . . Spiritually we are all Semites.”

During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), he condemned the brutality of the forces of both Franco and the Loyalists. After the Nationalist victory, when Franco and Hitler were negotiating an alignment in 1939, the Holy Father made it clear to the Spanish leader that he was displeased with the cultural accord because it “obviously opens the door to Nazi ideological propaganda filled as it is with a pagan spirit, in a country so profoundly Catholic as Spain.”  Heeding the Pope’s warning, Franco did not pursue the accord.

To his dying day (February 10, 1939), Pius XI fought the totalitarian menace because he knew, Fattorini writes, “it represented the final outcome of that impulse deriving from the French Revolution and according to which man can live without God.”


George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.