The Pius Wars, continued

In the war over Pius XII and the Holy See’s policy toward Nazi Germany before and during World War II, there are fanatically anti-Pacelli/Pius XII writers like Daniel Jonah Goldhagen and Sergio Minerbi, whose imperviousness to evidence that challenges their presuppositions raises grave questions about their scholarship. And then there are the serious academic historians. The latter’s critique of Pius XII often begins with the charge that, as cardinal secretary of state to Pius XI, Pacelli engineered the demise of the Catholic Center Party, urged the German bishops to lift their ban on Catholic membership in the Nazi Party, and prompted German Catholics to support the Enabling Act that granted Hitler dictatorial powers: all in exchange for a concordat—a formal treaty—between the Third Reich and the Holy See. This strategy, these historians argue, weakened the Church’s capacity to resist the unfolding Nazi tyranny and gave the new German regime an undeserved degree of international legal credibility.

As Hubert Wolf, professor of Church history at the University of Muenster, demonstrates conclusively in Pope and Devil: The Vatican Archives and the Third Reich (Harvard/Belknap), this charge of a “package deal” between the Vatican and Hitler fails when the documentary evidence is examined seriously. Recently-available archival materials from the pontificate of Pius XI make clear that Pacelli and Pius XI never offered any such trade to the Nazis.

In fact, the Holy See was blindsided by the German bishops’ initiative in lifting the ban on Nazi Party membership, and the Center Party acted on its own in supporting the Enabling Act. Wolf also argues that Pacelli, far from being the Roman manipulator of the Church in Germany, was undercut in his diplomacy by the German bishops’ preemptive concessions to the Nazi regime. As Wolf writes, “If Pacelli had had his way, if he had pulled all the strings, Hitler would have paid a heavy price for the Center’s consent to the Enabling Act and the bishops’ retraction of their condemnation. The cardinal secretary of state would have dictated hard concessions for the conditions that Hitler was so eager to get from the Church.”

The net result was not a happy one: as Pacelli put it to British diplomat Ivone Kirkpatrick, “a pistol had been pointed at his head and he had had no alternative” but to conclude a concordat quickly, in order to provide a minimum of legal protection for Catholic life in a Germany he knew was heading for disaster. As for the concordat itself, Wolf concludes that, while “there is no doubt that this agreement further opened the floodgates for the involvement of German Catholics in the National Socialist state,” it also helped prevent German Catholicism from being completely absorbed (or “coordinated,” as the Nazis put it) by the Third Reich, such that “the Catholic Church in Nazi Germany was the only large-scale social institution Hitler never managed to co-opt.”

Precisely because Wolf’s conclusion is based on documentary evidence rather than presupposition or conjecture, it should definitively resolve this battle in the Pius Wars: “The Reichskonkordat was a pact with the devil—no one had any illusions about that fact in Rome—but it guaranteed pastoral care and the continued existence of the Catholic Church during the Third Reich. [Pacelli] did not make this deal by having the Center Party consent to the Enabling Act or by lifting the condemnation of National Socialism. The German Church bears sole responsibility for these steps.”

 Pope and Devil is not without its problems. Wolf’s critique of Roman “centralism” is belied by his own demonstration that, in the case of Nazi Germany, the Roman centralizers could be far more forceful in defending the “locals” than the locals could themselves. Wolf also posits a false dichotomy between “dogma and diplomacy,” when the real issue in the Pius Wars is the exercise of prudence. Nonetheless, Wolf has done the Pius debate a great service by demonstrating that, in response to the charge that the Holy See undercut the Catholic opposition in Germany in exchange for a concordat, the only responsible verdict is “Not guilty.”


COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.

Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash