As a young man, Benito Mussolini referred to Catholic priests with the utmost disdain, and his family did not want the Church to be as powerful and influential as it was. In 1922, he had been elected as Italy’s Prime Minister after founding and leading the Partito Nazionale Fascista (National Fascist Party). Initially, Mussolini’s violent Black Shirt squads had beat up Catholics in Italy, but in his late 30s, he decided to give in and work alongside the Church. He had his whole family baptized, and began to try and persuade the leaders of the Catholic faith to support fascism by advocating for the traditional Catholic lifestyle and pushing laws against “sinful” behavior, such as cursing, drinking, and divorce. The Vatican city-state was eventually created from 109 acres of land in Rome, and millions of Euros from fascist Italy.
Soon Catholicism was being taught in Italian schools, and the Church had fully aligned itself with Mussolini’s fascist government. Pope Pius XI, to his credit, publicly opposed authoritarian Communism, Nazism, and Italian fascism the year before the outbreak of World War II. That said, the facts clearly indicate that the Church had few reservations about associating with Mussolini’s brutal government in order to expand the Church and build their small country. The succeeding Pope Pius XII was notorious in his failure to support the Jewish people during the Holocaust. To this day, the Vatican restricts public access to a lot of their archives from World War II. Gee, I wonder why that might be?
While Pope Pius XI delivered a series of encyclicals challenging totalitarianism across the world at the end of his life and pontificate, Pius XII concerned himself almost exclusively with the rise of atheistic Communism, and seemed to harbor some sympathy for Hitler’s regime.
Many detractors of the popular sentiment that Pius XII claim that through encouraging Catholics to aid Jews fleeing Germany and other Nazi-occupied lands, he saved the lives of thousands. While this may have a modicum of truth, as it is recorded that he directed the Church to do this, history presents a solid case for the theory that he did this for selfish reasons. Pius XII was only really against ethnic antisemitism. He stood against the racial components of the Nazis’ rhetoric, but unless Jews actually converted to Catholicism, he didn’t care much for them. This is why he wanted the Church to aid the Jews: he hoped he’d get a few new Catholics out of it.
He referred to Jews with an underlying disgust, and according to John Cornwell, British academic and author of Hitler’s Pope, in response to a request from a German rabbi for Pope Benedict XV to assist the Jews in having some palm fronds exported from Italy for their upcoming Festival of Tabernacles, he told fellow diplomat Pietro Gasparri that it wouldn’t be appropriate for the Vatican to assist them in “the exercise of their Jewish cult”. This is just one piece of evidence that Pius XII held antisemetic beliefs, and none of this is to mention the volumes upon volumes upon volumes of evidence that he remained silent when faced with the threat of Nazism. He let the world down.
Many may say that none of this is too worrying, since the Vatican clearly doesn’t display legitimate antisemitism in these times, and they’d be right on the latter front. But until the Vatican willingly makes their entireWorld War II archive public, the Church can not be considered innocent, and they certainly can’t be considered honest. It is only when the wrongs of an institution, nation, or people are made wholly accessible to us all, under the direction of the perpetrator, can any sense of redemption occur.
Ezra Kronfeld is an independent writer, poet, and journalist.