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The triple crown and the jackboot

25 September 2015

Robert Nowell finds fresh light shed on a dark era in history


The Papacy in the Age of Totalitarianism 1914-1958
John Pollard
OUP £85
Church Times Bookshop £76.50 (Use code CT475)


THIS is a sober, balanced, comprehensive, and scholarly study of how the papacy coped (or sometimes failed to cope) with the very different Europe and world that it faced during and after the First World War, and after the Second.

But readers should be warned: it clearly has not been proofread. On page 2, a footnote records the First Vatican Council as having decreed precisely the opposite of what it decreed on papal infallibility. On page 7, we encounter Pope Benedict XX — someone who may possibly make his appearance in the 22nd century, if the human race survives that long. On page 17, Cardinal Léon-Adolphe Amette is introduced as Archbishop of Paris, but nine lines down he has become Archbishop of Bordeaux. Best of all, on page 439 we read: "Pius XII was much more of an all-round communicator than either Benedict XV or Pius XII."

This is, after all, a book published by the Oxford University Press, which used to have a well-deserved reputation for scholarship; and £85 is an awful lot of money to pay for a book where you spend your time mentally correcting misprints (at least, those you know enough of the subject-matter to be aware of). There is an impressive 40-page index, but it can occasionally let the reader down when it comes to people mentioned in the text.

Nevertheless, the great strength of this study is that, while it is suitably critical of papal policy, it enables readers to make their own minds up. It sets out the limitations within which the papacy was working: it was not until the 1929 Lateran Pacts that the Vatican became independent of Italy; and, during the First World War, once Italy had in 1915 become one of the belligerents, the papacy found itself in rather a delicate position.

Then there were the limitations imposed by the Roman Catholic Church’s own policy: Benedict XV became pope in the wake of the anti-modernist crusade launched by Pius X, the effects of which were still being felt in the 1960s and Vatican II; and the Church was apt to be more concerned about its own rights and privileges than the rights and privileges belonging to human beings simply as human beings.

Thus, when the Nazis embraced anti-Semitism, the Church could at times give the impression of being more concerned about the fate of Jews who had become Catholics than about the fate of Jews as such, despite Pius XI’s indignant reminder that "spiritually we are all Semites" (even though the Church did more than it is often credited with to save at least some of Europe’s Jews from slaughter).

I have always thought that the 1933 concordat that Pacelli negotiated with Hitler’s newly installed government had the baleful effect of giving the Nazi regime an undeserved legitimacy, thanks to what the outside world might see as the Vatican’s seal of approval; but Pollard helps one to understand that what the Church was concerned about was ensuring that its extensive institutional network would survive to counter some of the worst excesses of Nazi rule, even if, with the benefit of hindsight, this may seem an optimistic interpretation.

And, of course, the Church was able to take the Nazi régime completely by surprise with Pius XI’s encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, smuggled into the country, distributed, and read from the pulpit before the Nazis realized what was happening.

In the post-war world, the Vatican had to cope with the absorption into the Soviet bloc of countries where the RC Church had been predominant, or had been the religion of a significant proportion of the population: Poland and Lithuania above all, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Albania. This was a situation that tested Vatican diplomacy almost to breaking point, and the Church’s survival to some extent reflected past history: in Poland, the Church succeeded in retaining its integrity, whereas in what is now the Czech Republic it was almost forced underground.

At the same time, while trying to cope with these impossible situations, Pius XII was, as Pollard makes clear, paving the way for the changes in the Church’s worship brought about by Vatican II. In 1951, he restored the Easter vigil: until then, the Latin Church had happily been celebrating the resurrection on Holy Saturday morning. Incidentally, Pollard does not mention Pius XII’s other anticipation of future developments: the permission he granted for the ordination to the priesthood in Mainz Cathedral on Christmas Eve 1951 of the former Lutheran pastor Rudolf Goethe, a married man.

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