Pope Pius XI, fearless enemy of totalitarian ideologies and defender of Christian truth, died seventy-five years ago today. A champion of humanity before the forces of oppression, he remains largely, unjustly, forgotten.
Few leaders were such scourges of Bolshevism as Pius XI. He first began to detest Communism in 1920, when he was the apostolic nuncio to Poland. That year, the Polish Army miraculously defeated the Soviet Union at the Battle of Warsaw. Most diplomats had fled Warsaw in a cowardly panic, incorrectly predicting a Bolshevik victory. The future pope was an exception. A true pastor, he refused to leave his faithful at a trying time and gave them spiritual support as they fought the Soviets. This forged a strong mutual friendship between Pius XI and Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, pre-war Poland’s leader and military genius.
Pius XI’s fighting spirit against Communism is all the more impressive when contrasted with the Vatican’s myopic 1960s policy of Ostpolitik, which sought to increase the political freedom of Catholics living under the Iron Curtain by abandoning anti-Communist rhetoric and engaging in cordial relations with East Bloc dictators. Despite its good intentions, Ostpolitik actually worsened the situation of Christians under Communist rule and led to embarrassing situations such as the Vatican’s unsuccessful attempt to force Hungary’s Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty into submitting to his Communist oppressors or Pope John XXIII’s refusal to sign a Vatican II document condemning Communism.
Europe during Pius XI’s pontificate was threatened not only by Bolshevism, but also by the far right. Pius was not silent when Germany succumbed to the pagan political religion of Adolf Hitler. In 1937, Pius wrote Mit Brennender Sorge (“With Burning Concern”), an encyclical solely devoted to condemning National Socialism. Written in German, it is the only papal encyclical published in one vernacular language. Pius had copies of the letter smuggled into Germany and read in every parish in the country, increasing Hitler’s persecution of the Catholic Church. This paved the way for such German martyrs as Rupert Mayer, SJ, and Fr. Bernhard Lichtenberg.
Of course, fascism at this time was brewing not only in Germany, but also in the Vatican’s own backyard, in Italy, where the term originated. It is true that Pius XI negotiated the Lateran Treaties with the Italian state in 1929. Yet this did not amount to an embrace of fascism. After all, Pius XI unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a Concordat with the Soviet Union to protect Catholics’ rights there. Rather, it was negotiated to protect the Church from the Italian state’s abuses. Pius XI was as much a thorn in the side of Mussolini as he was an extreme annoyance to the Bolsheviks. In 1931, he published the encyclical Non Abbiamo Bisogno, condemning Mussolini’s worship of the state and the fascists’ cult-like brainwashing of young people in the schools.
In this regard, it is worth mentioning Pius’ milestones in Catholic-Jewish reconciliation. John XXIII (who removed the prayer for the conversion of Jews from the Good Friday liturgy) and John Paul II (the first pope to visit a synagogue, recognize Israeli statehood and forthright condemn anti-Semitism as a sin) are rightly recognized for their ecumenical gestures towards the Jews. Pius XI was also a revolutionary in this respect. When asked about anti-Jewish prejudice towards the end of his life, Pius responded: “Spiritually, we are all Semites.” Pius also invited Bronislaw Gimpela virtuoso Polish violinist of Jewish originto play a concert for him.
This was decades before Vatican II, when many Catholics regarded the Jews as Christ’s killers. Similarly, when Nazi anti-Semitism reached its climax in 1938 during Kristallnacht, Pius XI published an official protest. This is all the more impressive given that Catholic prelates collaborated with Nazi Germany in Slovakia, Croatia and Vichy France. Also in 1938, Pius wanted the Vatican to publish a syllabus condemning racism in Catholic universities and seminaries (although the document was never published). It is unclear why it was never published, but the two most common theories are that by the time it reached Pius’ desk he was too ill and weak to publish it as an encyclical and that the drafters could not agree on the content, with some thinking that the encyclical strayed too far from its anti-racist message and focused too much on anti-Communism.
Finally, Pius XI’s pontificate concluded with some of the worst persecutions of Catholics since Nero, also in the deeply Catholic nation of Mexico, whose rulers violently enforced French-style laicite. In the 1920s and 1930s, Mexican Catholics bravely stood up against the anti-clerical government of Plutarco Ellias Calles and demanded their religious liberties as foreign-born clergy were deported and thousands of priests and religious were shot screaming Viva Cristo Rey! (“Long live Christ the King!”). Meanwhile, priests were banned from wearing cassocks in public. However, Mexico’s Cristeros could count on support from their Holy Father. Pius XI singled out Mexico’s anti-clerical government, condemning its persecutions in two encyclicals, Iniquis Afflictisque (1926) and Acerba Animi (1932). Meanwhile, much of the world was indifferent to Mexican Catholics’ plight, seeing the persecution of the Church as a way of curing Mexico of obscurantism.
In April, millions of pilgrims are expected to descend upon Rome to attend the canonization of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII. The former will be declared a saint just nine years after his death, making his cause for canonization the fastest in modern Church history. They will join Pius X, another 20th-century canonized pope. Meanwhile, Pius XII and Paul VI have both been declared “Venerable” (meaning they are two miracles away from formal sainthood), and the cause for John Paul I, whose pontificate lasted just thirty-three days, is highly advanced according to vaticansta Andrea Tornielli.
By contrast, a canonization cause for Pius XI, born Achille Ratti, has not even been opened, making him the only pope elected in the 20th century along with Benedict XV without one. This is despite the fact that Pius XI’s pontificate lasted 17 years; only John Paul II and Pius XII sat on the Throne of St. Peter longer in the past century. And while most of the remaining 20th century pontiffs are the subjects of countless books and strong popular devotion, few remember Pius XI.
A Christian humanist, Pius XI boldly fought against both left and right wing totalitarianisms at a time when Western civilization rejected the vision of man created in imago Dei for materialistic ideologies. He never abandoned his flock in its fight against evil, whether in Poland, Germany or Mexico. Even if Pius XI is not recognized as a saint of the Church, he ought to be hailed as a hero among men.
Filip Mazurczak is the assistant editor of the quarterly magazine New Eastern Europe. Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.