Pius XII: Sourcing the Slanders

The release of documents long buried in the various archives of the expired Communist tyrannies that once lay behind the Iron Curtain is still a source of scandal. A Polish archbishop recently resigned upon disclosure of his collaboration with the Commies. It is expected that more disclosures will prompt more resignations in Church and State alike. And lately we have heard from the former Romanian spymaster Ion Mihai Pacepa that Communist machinations were integral to the hate campaign against Pius XII which began a few years after his death”€”and has continued in the Anglo-American press ever since. “€œDead men cannot defend themselves”€ was the watchword, and the method was to associate Pius XII and the Catholic Church with an ideology which was one of the Church’s greatest enemies, National Socialism.

The association of men and ideas, in this context, is a subject that wants more careful reflection. We usually frown on the method of guilt by association. It is held to be an unacceptable or illegitimate method of analyzing the guilt of men. But what of the “€œguilt”€ of ideas? It can hardly be doubted that ideas interact and affect each other, that they shift and blend and influence one another in ways impossible to quantify. This would seem to recommend a method of analysis of ideas that at least contemplates a guilt-by-association approach, or what we might call an intuitive method.

Most thoughtful men understand why the ideas called “€œnationalism”€ and “€œsocialism”€ are under prejudice for their association with National Socialism. And the point can be grasped by seeing that, while it is plainly an injustice to regard any normal nationalist or common socialist as a National Socialist, it is no similar injustice to think so ill of the idea of nationalism or the program of socialism. We do not owe charity to ideas; we have no duty to forebear judgment against them. One wonders, indeed, whether we have given ideas too much deference of late. For it was fundamentally the ideas underlying National Socialism which rendered it so inhuman. 

Now to consider the age of National Socialism is an exercise none can relish. Its darkness may be impenetrable to these eyes of sinful flesh. If it is not the most wicked of all ages of men, it is very nearly so. It is to be doubted whether there will ever be a formidable historical consensus on its origins and foundations.

At the very least we should strive for clarity and honesty. One of the most dishonest responses of historians to National Socialism has been their tendency to focus exclusively on the nationalism, and give socialism an easy pass. Genuine socialists, naturally enough, wished to save their good name from this association. Communists (who called their regimes, every one, “€œsocialist”€) were quick to make treacherous use of it. They were keen to ensure that “€œsocialism”€ retained its positive associations in “€œprogressive”€ Western circles. While true Marxists never believed in nationalism”€”in fact detested it”€”they did not for a moment hesitate to make abundant and exhaustive use of it, when it suited their purposes. When they captured Russia, and turned that proud nation into a factory for their sanguinary ambitions and playground for their inevitable intrigues, their party became, in fact if not in name, National Socialist. Nor did they hesitate to join with their supposed rival in the dismemberment of brave Poland. The Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 was a union of National Socialist parties”€”a kind of infernal ecumenism.

I hope that we have escaped from the myth of socialist innocence. The whole horror of National Socialism is not concentrated in its nationalism, but in the combination of these two sterile and anti-human ideologies. Ironically enough, nationalism (unlike patriotism, of which it is the exaggeration and parody) is never merely national. Indeed, under its spell both the German Nazis and the Russian Soviets became imperialists. A nationalist is never satisfied with the nation as it now exists, nor recognizes its true goodness; it must always be marching “€œprogressively”€ towards “€œreform,”€ expansion, or into conformity with “€œpropositions”€ abstracted from historical context.

Eager as they are to acquit socialism and pretend that they are not even tainted by nationalism, secularists who still cherish the notion of an activist, pagan state attempt to lay the crimes of their forebears on Christian civilization. Well-received books have been written that openly lay collective guilt for the crimes of Hitler upon (respectively) the German people, European Catholics, and Christianity itself. It is hardly surprising that many of these books would ostensibly be attacks on Pope Pius XII, who led the largest Christian denomination from 1939 to 1958; it is a bit of a surprise to learn (as you will if you read, for instance, Prof. Ronald Rychlak) the brazenness of critics who take up bits of old, discredited Communist propaganda against a pope, and cobble these exploded accusations into an indictment of Christendom. Of course, given the complete opposition of every serious Christian church to both the Communists and the Nazis”€”ideologies which in power persecuted the churches with great energy”€”this is rather like blaming the Second World War on the Poles.

Put briefly, historians such as Daniel Goldhagen assert that Nationalism and National Socialism both emerged organically from Christianity, which bears a significant responsibility for the Holocaust. In such a bald summary, it is obvious how flawed and irresponsible such a charge really is. The biblical idea of “€œnation”€ has about as much relation to the modern “€œnation-state”€ as chalk to cheese; Christianity is emphatically universal in its aspirations; the origins of the Christian tension between Church and State (quite unlike, for instance, Islam) lie in the most primitive texts and disputes of the religion. Christianity’s own self-narrative, its story about itself, begins with a long trial of state persecution. It is just not valid historically, much less doctrinally, to lay modern nationalism at the feet of Christianity. Nor is it really defensible to do so with socialism. It is true that mischievous preachers on occasion like to shock with a mention of the “€œChristian communism”€ recorded in the Acts of the Apostles; but this is mere badinage or pedagogy. Before any act of any apostle, there was the grant of creative power from God to Man, and the concomitant edict of Dominion, giving Man authority over the resources of the earth. Private Property has a divine origin, and no Christian sect of any duration or influence has ever completely abandoned it. And even farther alienated from Christian teaching or tradition is the sinister union of these two heresies which is National Socialism. Their unified principle is nothing less than the revocation of a divine statute and the removal of its special fruit, given over to an alien political idol.

It is hardly a surprise, then, to discover that, even in this terrible age of crisis, the papacy was busy denouncing these two heresies, almost before they got started. In 1931, Pope Pius XI “€” whose secretary of state was Eugenio Pacelli, later Pius XII “€” declared flatly that a “€œsincere Catholic”€ cannot also be a “€œtrue socialist.”€ Prof. Rychlak notes that, “€œOf the forty-four public speeches that Nuncio Pacelli made on German soil between 1917 and 1929, at least forty contained attacks on National Socialism or Hitler’s doctrines.”€ And in his first encyclical as pope, Pius XII repeated the ancient Christian teaching of church-state tension, with special attention paid to the heresies then ascendant:
“To consider the State as something ultimate to which everything else should be subordinated and directed, cannot fail to harm the true and lasting prosperity of nations. This can happen either when unrestricted dominion comes to be conferred on the State as having a mandate from the nation, people, or even a social order, or when the State arrogates such dominion to itself as absolute master, despotically, without any mandate whatsoever.”

The Pope could not have expected to win himself great popularity with such reproaches. This was an age when the prestige of the State, along with a kind of heathen mystification of it, waxed high indeed. Everywhere men were falling into heresies which drove them to worship the State, the Leader, or the Party, instead of Christ. Progress and History were, it was said, firmly on the side of projects of augmentation and veneration of the State. Pius thus made himself, in a sense, a reactionary.

Both Nazism and Communism emerged clutching the banner of Progress, and were duly received as such thousands of intellectuals from Jean Paul Sartre to Ezra Pound. The mutual antipathy of these two movements was more a rivalry than an enmity; each one tried to claim that it was the true progressive party, the “€œwave of the future.”€ (It is telling that the Nazi anthem, the Horst Wessel Lied, attacks equally “€œReds”€ and “€œreactionaries,”€ i.e., Christian monarchists.) In their essentials, Nazis and Communists really didn”€™t disagree about all that much. Their common creed included atheism, progress, collectivism, the annihilation of all independent power outside of the State, and a total repudiation of bourgeois morality. On only one point “€” nationalism “€” was there some difference, but only in theory. Stalin yoked Russian nationalism to the Communist cause, and energetically persecuted ethnic minorities (Ukrainians) and annexed small, helpless nations (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) with the same vigor as Hitler. Hitler and Stalin, were, in truth, brothers locked in a struggle for supremacy. And the winner, each believed, would write the history”€”and prove that he had been the real agent of Progress.

This is no surprise. Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14), and few evil creeds are so courteous as to announce themselves as such. Few heresies admit up front that what they seek is a return to pagan cruelty, or barbarian standards of ethics. This is why the buzzword “progress” and its concomitant curseword “reactionary” are so untrustworthy. A man shouted down as a dread reactionary in his own time may very well be rehabilitated by the detachment of history as the only real progressive in a mob of madmen. “€œAbsolute autonomy for the State stands in open opposition to [the] natural way that is inherent in man.”€ This statement of Pius XII, in 1939, got him labeled by both Nazis and Communists as reactionary”€”for in 1939, absolute autonomy for the State was a core dogma of progressive politics in Berlin and Moscow alike”€”and indeed, in Paris and London as well. The genuine partisans of individual freedom in the 20th century were few and far between”€”the likes of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich von Hayek, Walter Lippman, and Wilhelm Röpke faced a lonely struggle, and were dismissed for most of their lives as (like Pius XII) reactionaries.  

National Socialism of the German variety lost its progressive cachet because it lost the war. That gave its surviving victims the chance to expose its inexpressible depravity. While it lost the Cold War, Communism has never quite faced such a reckoning. There was never a Nuremburg Trial held in Moscow. Indeed, while even ordinary nationalism came under the stain of the Nazi crimes, socialism did not lose its cachet until recently. It is ironic that in the almost 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the focus of many American commentators has been fixed not on the crimes of the socialist bloc, but on the supposed “€œsilence”€ of Pius XII. Even as former leaders of Soviet puppet parties move smoothly back into power throughout Eastern Europe, the Catholic Church”€”which under Pius XII successfully rescued some 700,000-800,000 Jews from Hitler, according to Jewish historian Pinchas Lapide”€”is still the target of choice. Writers such as Sartre (and in America, Lillian Hellman) who backed Josef Stalin all through his purges and genocides are still considered respectable, and Marxism is still treated as a legitimate analytical tool in universities”€”even as the last traces of Christian influence are systematically purged from public life. This campaign of forced secularization employs the false charges adduced against that pope, dusting off the old propaganda once disseminated by Radio Moscow in the service of a godless oligarchy, the European Union. 

And yet, as a Christian, I find something comforting in this fact. The Nazis and the Communists knew deep down that the Church was their most implacable foe. Stalin’s famous sneer “€œHow many divisions does the pope have?”€ has been answered. The silent artillery of time will in the end reduce all heresies and expose all falsehoods. The fact that a heroic man like Pius XII, standing almost alone in an age of ruin and cruelty, would still, fifty years after his death, be the source of controversy, abuse and slander, means that this most implacable foe, against which the gates of hell shall not prevail, still stands against the heresies and falsehoods of every age of men. In fact it would be cause for worry if the heretics of our day stopped attacking the Roman Catholic Church. 


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