Bethesda, Md. — Did Pope Pius XII, the leader of the Catholic Church during World War II and the subsequent decade, suppress a landmark Vatican document that his predecessor, Pius XI, had commissioned, a document that would have unambiguously criticized racism and anti-Semitism? And did that document — an encyclical, in Vatican parlance — actually exist?
Historians and theologians have been asking these questions for decades.
The so-called hidden encyclical has played a role — contrasting the attitudes and personalities of the two popes —since the end of the war. The document and mystery surrounding it has helped shape the legacy of Pius XII, an austere, cautious man who was praised during the Holocaust for saving many Jews from the Nazis but later came under attack for supposed indifference to the fate of the continent’s endangered Jews.
Peter Eisner, a New Jersey-born author and journalist who lives in this Washington suburb, had not been familiar with the controversy surrounding the hidden encyclical when, a few years ago, a friend told him about it, and about John LaFarge, the American priest who had written most if it.
Eisner, who had earlier written a book with a WWII theme, was hooked.
“This is a natural,” thought Eisner, who proceeded to spend two years working on “The Pope’s Last Crusade: How an American Jesuit Helped Pope Pius XI’s Campaign to Stop Hitler” (William Morrow). “I realized there was an American character in it,” he said. In other words, an entry point for U.S. readers into the labyrinth of the Vatican hierarchy.
Eisner’s book cites new evidence — the recent availability of archives that contain the papers of Pius XI and LaFarge substantiates the existence of the encyclical, and of LaFarge’s part in writing it — about and insights into Humanis Generis Unitas (the unity of the human race, the encyclical’s Latin title). This was the document LaFarge was assigned to write by Pius XI, who died a half-year before the start of WWII.
The hidden encyclical was never issued, because Pius XI, in ill health for several years, died before he could issue it, but it became the stuff of legend. Nearly every discussion of Pius XII, whose action, or inaction, during the Holocaust is a subject of continuing controversy, contains a reference to the hidden encyclical.
A strident document by the leader of Roman Catholicism would have made a powerful statement on the eve of World War II, casting the Church as irrefutably sympathetic to the threatened Jews and hostile to the anti-Jewish, anti-Christian Third Reich.
Pius XII, who was trained as a Vatican diplomat and not as a parish priest, who was Italian but spent several years working in Germany, and then served Pius XI as the Vatican’s secretary of state, took a more nuanced, less combative approach than his predecessor in dealing with political issues and political leaders. He declined to issue the encyclical out of fear of offending Hitler or Mussolini, claim the pope’s critics. As an autonomous Pontiff, he was under no obligation to publish another man’s encyclical, say experts on Catholic procedures.
Though the 100-page-plus text of the draft was first published in 1995, in France, it remained a matter of speculation for many Catholics. Some defenders of Pius XII continued to claim that the document — sometimes called the missing encyclical — may be nothing more than a fantasy. They said it was an unsubstantiated rumor, a weapon wielded by his critics to back up charges that Pius XII’s Vatican behavior was shaped by pro-German, anti-Jewish feelings. Lacking an actual copy of a draft of the document, no one could prove that it existed, the defenders would say.
Eisner has drawn upon scholarship that proves Pius XI did commission the document, copies of which were prepared in German, French and English.
In a thoroughness honed during 40 years of reporting, Eisner, a former deputy foreign editor at The Washington Post, traces, through the acts and words of LaFarge, the encyclical’s genesis, its writing, and its eventual disappearance.
Relying on Vatican documents, and interviews with people who knew LaFarge (he died in 1963), Eisner paints a picture of strong-willed, high-ranking Church personalities whose positions on the war, the persecution of European Jewry, and the relationship of the Jewish people to the Christian world, were often at odds.
The book, centering on Pius XI and LaFarge, isn’t about Pius XII, Eisner says. At the same time it’s very much about Pius XII, largely to his detriment; a more cautious and more-reserved Pope UNCAP than his predecessor, Pius XII loses the image battle to the outspoken, aggressive Pius XI, who is little known now outside of Catholic circles.
The difference in styles was evident immediately. When Pius XI died in 1938, Eisner says, “The Vatican changed overnight.”
“The Pope’s Last Crusade” describes how LaFarge, a longtime editor at America magazine (a national Jesuit magazine published in Manhattan), wrote a 1936 book, “Interracial Justice,” which called on churches to lead the fight against racism; how the book caught the attention of Pius XI; how the pope summoned the “progressive American priest” to the papal summer residence near Rome in the summer of 1938, and assigned him to write an encyclical that “could be a bulwark against the madness” that was enveloping Europe; how LaFarge, surprised and overwhelmed by the assignment, agreed; how he worked with two German Jesuits to produce a draft; how various Vatican intrigues stalled the encyclical and kept it from being issued; how it is unclear whether Pius XI, in his dying days, ever saw the draft.
Equally ambiguous, according to Eisner’s book and other accounts, is whether Pius XII knew that the document was being written, and why he decided, once he ascended to the papacy, not to issue it.
LaFarge, largely silent for most of his life about his largely unacknowledged role in the unpublished encyclical, shared his story with some fellow Jesuits near the end of his life. The priest’s recollections, which in large part form the basis for reporting on the subject, remained the stuff of unopened archives, academic books and some writers’ footnotes.
Till Eisner heard about LaFarge and the encyclical.
Eisner approaches the story through a series of “moral choices.” LaFarge’s to accept the papal charge, and to leave Europe before demanding to see Pius XI once the draft was completed. The choice of various Vatican functionaries to keep the document from the pope. And Pius XII’s choice role in ensuring that the encyclical did not see the light of day.
“My writing tends to focus on questions of morality,” on specific decisions that can illustrate wider moral quandaries, Eisner says. Topics of his past writings include a fraudulent intelligence letter that buttressed the second Bush administration’s case for going to war against Iraq; men and women who rescued Allied airmen from the Nazis during World War II; and an American diplomat who risked his career to save Jews from the Nazis in occupied France.
Such questions fascinate Eisner.
“I’m not a religious Jew. I’m a Reform Jew,” he says, pointing out that he is a kohein, of priestly lineage. “I come from a long line of people asking questions.”
One fundamental question: Would a turgid document by a religious authority, even one as respected as the pope, have made any difference to a rabid dictator who was determined to eradicate all of Europe’s Jews?
Possibly, Eisner says. Hitler, he says, realized the pope’s influence. “Hitler considered him an enemy.” Hitler relied on his own unchallenged rhetoric to sway the masses. “The Pope was challenging that.”
Eisner’s book speculates about the decisions that the primary actors — among them Pius XII and LaFarge — made, but he intentionally declines to tie up the loose ends; he doesn’t give definitive reasons, for instance, why Pius XII did not make the encyclical public or why LaFarge left Europe rather than return to the Vatican to further the cause of the encyclical.
“I’m a storyteller,” Eisner says. His job, he says, is to present the facts. “I don’t want to direct the answers,” he says. “The readers can make their own decisions.”