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The Vatican in World Politics

ISSUE:  Autumn 1940

No person who values the well-being of mankind can fail to look with sympathy upon any effort to lead a fighting and embittered world out of its chaos of bloodshed and suffering to happier days. Seekers of true peace will be heartened to read in the Osservatore Romano that His Holiness, Pope Pius XII, is mustering all the means in his power to build “a new world, a new peace from the catastrophe.” It is suggested that the Pope himself should be regarded as the “supreme arbiter of peace.” Added force is given to these worthy aspirations when one learns that the Church and the Pope have a definite attitude toward the peace of the world of tomorrow.

In his Christmas address to the cardinals Pope Pius outlined a five-point program: (1) independence of all nations; (2) disarmament; (3) a reconstructed and improved League of Nations; (4) an equitable distribution of world resources; (5) the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount as a policy for rulers. This seems a happier statement of ideals toward which to aspire than the terms which were put forth by Benedict XV during the first World War, and which were instantly rejected by the democracies, including our own, as too favorable to Germany. These principles seem like a restatement of the principles of England and her non-belligerent well-wisher, America, in the present war. Still, they are not concrete terms. And it will be necessary to have clear understandings as to their meaning.

At the outset the Pope labors under a severe disadvantage. Some nations may wish to point out how the Catholic Church herself has some responsibility for the destruction of the old League, first by sustaining Fascist Italy in its lawless Abyssinian enterprise at the very moment that the League was trying to curb its violations of international law, and also by other aids which it gave to the enemies of the League, particularly in the matter of Spain. When these enemies triumphed in Spain the League received its final death blow. Many nations may therefore be so obstinate as to ask by what warrant the Pope, who so efficaciously helped in the destruction of the old League, now proposes a new one.

There are also many unhappy countries which might feel that if the Pope had not aided the Fascists bent on destroying them, they would still be enjoying their peaceful democracies today. Czecho-Slovakia will not be able to forget how the Pope favored the Munich partition and gave his placet to the politician-priest Hlinka, who was organizing his storm troops and his Fascism in Slovakia. Bohemia, the land of John Huss, will remember that the Pope showed no such sympathy for her as he showed for Catholic Poland. Cal-vinist Holland, Lutheran Denmark, Norway, and other small democracies may also feel that papal policy had a hand in destroying their freedom.

These countries may feel that their position receives additional emphasis from the fact that Pope Pius XII, as the secretary of state to his predecessor, was the author of papal policy toward Germany, Italy, and Spain; that it was he who, as has been said, “led the Church to retreat and submission under the Fascist threat,” and that his policy stands ratified by his election as Pope.

The question of political realism as the basis of peace likewise interposes itself.

The various nations, anxious that the peace of tomorrow shall be enduring, and therefore based on the realities of history past and unfolding, may wish to be assured that His Holiness is sufficiently convinced of those realities to work them into his peace fabric. It is true that the Vatican takes pride in its facilities for contacting world realities through its excellent intelligence service. In a letter to The New York Times on May 12th last, Bishop James II. Ryan of Omaha explained how the Vatican had been called “the listening post of Europe,” and how, from its “far-flung outposts,” some “thousands of well trained official and unofficial diplomats are constantly reporting on even the slightest changes in public opinion in their respective territories.” And so, even though the bishops and priests who, in addition to their spiritual functions, provide an intelligence service for the Papacy, may offer accurate reports, there is always the danger that the Papacy may fall into the same errors committed by some other distinguished governments which happen to have a world policy: the error of selecting and interpreting those facts, not in the light of their true significance, but in the particular light of their own policies and plans for establishing peace. In the preceding World War the Papacy committed this error notwithstanding its excellent advices. It believed the German military machine could not be beaten and it shaped its policy accordingly. Certain other facts regarding the Vatican’s attitude on Abyssinia, on Munich, and on Spain will likewise suggest that the Vatican’s judgment was wide of the mark on the issues of today. When, for instance, at the opening of the Catholic Press Exhibition in Rome, Pius XI expressed joy over the Italian conquest of Ethiopia, hailing it as “a prelude to the true peace of the world,” he assumed a prophetic role that in the light of subsequent events has not proved fortunate.

The nations will not find their anxiety diminished as they read from the encyclical, “Divini Redemptoris,” of Pius XI, words like these on the subject of Republican Spain, in that year of 1937 still fighting for its life:

Not only was this or that monastery sacked but so far as possible every church and every monastery was destroyed. Every vestige of the Christian religion was eradicated even though intimately linked with the rarest monuments of arts and science.

These and other statements made by His Holiness regarding Republican Spain were so out of consonance with reality that one must conclude that his intelligence service utterly failed. Far from eradicating every vestige of Christianity, the Republican government gave protection to bishops and thousands of priests and nuns; indeed, many of them, their lives rescued by that government from the mob rule which resulted from the Spanish Church’s criminal participation in the Spanish revolt, were then at Rome. The Vatican itself maintained a vicar general in Barcelona, with whom the authorities collaborated in reestablishing religious worship. An eminent Jesuit astronomer, Padre Luis Rodes, carried on at his observatory under the protection of, and in contact with, the government. In October 1938, a London Catholic journal, The Tablet, reported the presence in Barcelona of 3,000 priests and told of the regular celebration of masses under government protection. Priests were given a privileged status in the Republican army. Sir Frederick Kenyon, director of the British Museum, after a tour of Republican territory, told of the government’s preservation of churches, cathedrals, and monasteries, with their ecclesiastical archives and manuscripts, and described monks working in the celebrated monastery of Montserrat, which, like numerous others, remained intact. (I also from first-hand observation knew the truth of these things.) The words of His Holiness on the subject of Spain, so mistaken in their facts, were addressed to all the Catholic world and constituted a powerful factor in turning the scales against Republican Spain, and so helped to open for Fascism the road to power. No doubt had the Pope been better informed, or better able to appreciate the significance of the facts that were presented to him by Spanish Republican Catholics, among others, he would not have fallen into such a mistake of judgment. All nations well disposed toward the Papacy understand this perfectly. But the disastrous consequences of such imperfect judgments may cause nations to hesitate and to take every precaution to ensure their making no mistake in submitting to the papal leadership.

Rome may be asked, also, when in history the Papacy itself has applied the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount in exercising its temporal dominion. Meekness, mercy, long-suffering have not always been the highway along which the Church has trod in its mission of peace. The promulgation of interdicts, excommunications, anathemas, the deposing of rulers, and the absolving of subjects from their oaths of obedience—such are the violent methods which history reveals as having been pursued by the Papacy.

As long ago as 1215, one finds, the English Magna Charta was condemned by Innocent III as “the work of the devil,” wherefore he enjoined: “Under pain of anathema we forbid the king to observe it or the barons to demand its execution.” The Treaty of Westphalia, 1648, whereby Catholic and Protestant princes entered into a pact of religious toleration, was immediately condemned by Pope Innocent X as “null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane and altogether lacking in force”; the princes and their subjects were forbidden to observe it. Through the centuries one finds parallel censures giving sanction to the claim of authority for the Papacy. In 1857 Mexico adopted a liberal constitution which Pius IX declared null and void, at the same time pronouncing excommunications on those responsible for it. In 1859, when Austria decided to forsake her traditional role of being “the broad shield of the Church” and adopted liberal reforms which included freedom of worship, speech, and the press, the free right of establishing schools, freedom in the contracting of marriage, and permission to Protestants to obtain Christian burial in consecrated ground, these reforms were condemned by Pius IX as “odious and damnable,” as “contrary to the doctrines, rights, and authority of the Catholic religion,” and he warned: “Let it be understood that the Roman Catholic Church declares such laws, wherever they may be enacted, as null and void.” And in 1920 Mexico had an almost identical experience with that of 1857.

Those familiar with American history may recall the record of 130 years during which the Papacy has opposed the Republican systems established in all Latin America, especially in Mexico, and how those attempts have rebounded against our own system. The declaration of the Monroe Doctrine was challenged by a Pope who urged the restoration of those lands to Spain, while a half century later another Pope collaborated with the French Emperor in an ef- , fort to place the Austrian Maximilian on a throne in Mexico. This attitude of challenge to our Monroe Doctrine has never been abated. In the 18(i0’s the Mexican Republic was saved from the consequences of papal enmity by the friendship of President Lincoln. Its Constitution, which the Pope had condemned, was declared by Secretary of State Seward to be “the most perfect instrument of its kind in existence.” During the Civil War Pope Pius IX intervened actively to disrupt the American Union and spoke contemptuously of Mr. Lincoln and his emissaries abroad as “Lincoln & Co.”

There are still other questions to be answered. In an editorial published in Osscrvatorc llommw in June of this year, it is stated: All the world knows the Holy Father’s opinions which, inspired by divine teachings, transcend all human calculations, are based on the absolute and not on the relative, on necessity and not on superfluity, and aim at the common good without injuring particular interests. [The Pope is] the defender of civilization [who] as vicar of Christ can teach moderation to the victors, patience and fortitude to the vanquished and point to both the ways of good will as well as means of reconstruction. [Italics mine,]

How can we, in the light of this statement, interpret the Pope’s five principles of peace? That which the Papacy, with its claims to supreme temporal power, might consider “the independence of all nations” might not be considered as such by the nations involved. Recently Bishop Ryan spoke of the temporal authority of the Papacy:

Though conscious of the religious power of the Pope, head of the Catholic Church, we have chosen to remain blind to the political power of the Pope who is King. But is it the part of wisdom not to recognize the Papacy for what it is, despite any religious feelings to the contrary?

This question may seem very pertinent to those interested in the making of the new peace, and they may wonder how the independence of nations is to be reconciled to the temporal claims of the Pope who is King.

The papal program, of necessity, relates everything to “the common good.” These words sum up the doctrine of the Church for the reconstruction of human society. They embody the moral and political philosophy of the Church as applied to human affairs. They are repeatedly used in the encyclicals, particularly in those of Leo XIII and Pius XI, and they run like a leitmotiv through Catholic speeches and writings. They signify that the peace of the Papacy must be based on the philosophical teachings of the Church, which it calls “the true philosophy.”

But liberalism and democracy have their own philosophies —which have been condemned by the Church. They have visions of “the common good” which contradict the vision held by the Church. These divergencies between the philosophy of liberal democracy and “the true philosophy” of the Church, and the resulting divergencies in their respective concepts of things for which the same expressions are used, reveal the wide gulf that separates liberal democracy from Catholicism, or even from Catholic democracy—which means the equality of men before God and has no reference to the more common theory of political democracy. So unbridgeable appears the gulf that it is difficult to see how either party is to cross it in order that both may work in the interests of peace.


What is this “true philosophy” of the Church regarding the reconstruction of human society? A distinguished American Catholic authority, Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen, informs us:

The church refuses to defend any social order which understands by liberty the right to do or think or say whatever you please without regard to the common good. . . . All political liberties are socially conditioned. . . . It was precisely at this point that liberalism was wrong in the eyes of the church—it ignored the necessary limitations of liberty, namely, the common good.

We may coordinate this with the language of Pius XI’s encyclical, “Quadragesimo Anno”: “It is true indeed that a just freedom of action should be left to individual citizens and families, but this principle is only valid so long as the common good is secure and no injustice is entailed.” There is no point of contact in these utterances with liberal democracy, but a very strong contact, it would seem, with certain basic principles of Fascism. Although the Church and Fascism are to a certain point fellow travelers, Fascism fundamentally parts company with the Church on the related questions of state supremacy and papal sovereignty. Another distinguished authority, the Rt. Rev. Mons.

Edward G. Murray, explains that political liberty has reference to political philosophy which “deals with men”; furthermore,

it derives its sanctions from the natural truths which deal with the canons of right conduct and good order among men, a body of truth comprising the branch of philosophy, “ethics”. . . . Beyond ethics we find that this science is radicated in certain truths of religion which set forth man’s place in this universe of ours and therefore provide the premises for investigating the moral canons of his conduct. . . . Because there is no good thing that cannot be used for evil purpose the common sense of men . . . has always recognized that liberty or freedom of speech (and its corollary, freedom of the press) can be granted only within proper bounds.

But the decorous speech of these two Catholic scholars is not always emulated. A Jesuit educator at a communion breakfast in Boston, in the discharge of his spiritual mission, said:

It is pathetic to hear our liberals screaming about the totalitarians’ disregard for personal rights, and sounding off in loud but uncertain terms about our wonderful mode of life, and how thankful we should be for our liberties. . . . Everything that liberalism has touched has withered and rotted. . . . Of course liberalism and Catholicism cannot live under the same roof.

The Jesuit press has said that the American system is “pseudo-democracy . . . Protestant, rationalist, and definitely anti-Christian. . . .” And further:

This business of teaching every child indiscriminately to read and write results in nothing more than mass illiteracy. One heresy breeds another. [Our] indiscriminate education . . . is the result of the heresy of the equality of man. . . . Every American Christian must be a conscientious objector in a world war where the United States is an ally of atheistic Russia. It can be said that he must refuse to be conscripted even though he be executed for obeying God rather than Caesar.

Since the Vatican Council„ the Jesuit organ at Rome, Civilta Cattolica, whose editors are appointed or approved by the Pope, has led the vanguard of “counter-revolutionary Catholicism.” At the beginning of the movement it denounced “the criminal principles of liberty of worship, of the press and of meeting,” and this view has set the tone of that crusade against liberalism in which the Jesuit publicists are always found raising their voices somewhat higher than the rest.

Looking to the Catholic episcopacy, one finds the same denunciations of liberalism. Bishop John Mark Gannon, chairman of the National Catholic Welfare Council’s press department, recently declared that “America is no exception to this plague of liberalism. Our prostration, our confusion, our wicked immorality, are due to the system of thought that governs us. . . . Like looking into a mirror nations poisoned by liberalism can see their weak, pallid, feeble condition—no moral fibre, no resolute will.”

Except for the religious emphasis, these denunciations of democracy sound much like the tirades of the Nazi prophets.

If liberalism, for Americans, means the placing on a plane of reason and of an impassioned devotion for the well-being of their fellows that system of principles and beliefs which is the basis of American democracy; if further, and more concretely, it means separation of church and state, freedom of conscience and worship, freedom of education, of academic judgment and teaching, of speech, of press, and of assembly, the freedom of the individual to pursue his happiness in the way he shall choose for himself, and the guarantee of all those fundamental human rights which the American system of liberal democracy envisages, then obviously the “true philosophy” of Catholicism is at war with American liberalism and cannot live with it under the same roof.

It is clear that the demolition of liberalism is the first task of the Church. Beyond that one may forecast a possible struggle between the Church and the totalitarian states. As a more immediate prospect there is a glimpse of the possible restoration of the Holy Roman Empire. The corporative state is to supplant liberal democracy and thus, in the internal regimes of the state, provision shall have been made for “the common good.” The encyclical “Quadragesimo Anno” speaks freely of it: “When we speak of the reform of the social order it is chiefly the state we have in mind.” The statement of the American Bishops’ Committee on “The Church and Social Order” develops the corporative theme, advocating a return to the guilds of other days. A National Catholic Welfare Council pamphlet, “Organized Social Justice,” says, “Industrialism, liberalism, and free competition are bankrupt in American life,” and it demands an amendment to the American Constitution so that the Pope’s plan may be put into effect. Already attempts have been made to establish a corporative state in Quebec. In short, the Catholic world of tomorrow must evidently be adjusted to the eightieth and final article of the Syllabus of Errors, which warns Catholics against the error of believing that “The Roman Pontiff can and ought to reconcile himself to and agree with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.”


Those peace aims which give the Church a definite stake in the war are primarily concerned with the future of the Church. They are not identical with the aims of any of the belligerents but have certain coincidences with the aims of some of them. The Vatican is not neutral, but the most outstanding of the “non-belligerents.”

To the extent that the Church aims at reconstructing society she has something in common with Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Soviet Russia, but beyond that point she parts company with Russia. Germany, Italy, Russia, and the Church have the identical task of demolishing that liberal world in which none of them can live as they desire to live.

But with none of the liberal democracies does the Church have any common purpose in this conflict.

The Fascist countries will, in so far as they succeed in destroying liberal democracy, have fought the first battle of the Church and have won the first victory for it. The alliance of the Church with the totalitarian powers is a fact even though the Church may object to some of their roughshod ways with itself. Bishop Gannon, for instance, has stated that “Italy and Portugal actually support by public tax the Church in all its fields of endeavor. Germany likewise supports the Church, but due to a secular tendency in recent years, there is a definite but, we hope, temporary form of persecution of Christian leaders.” From this informed source we learn that there is nothing fundamental in the differences between the Church and Nazi Germany: nothing that cannot be patched up. The importance of such a statement cannot be overestimated. It helps explain the exhortation of the German bishops to German soldiers “to do their duty in obedience to the Fuhrer and to be ready to sacrifice their whole individuality,” and to the faithful “to join in ardent prayers that divine Providence may lead this war to blessed success.” There actually exists a concordat which establishes an alliance between the Church and the German state and is one of the most advantageous instruments of that kind. The papal nuncio keeps his place as dean of the diplomatic corps at Berlin to testify to the fact that, notwithstanding some “temporary persecutions,” this concordat is a living reality. The Church likewise has a concordat with Italy which makes it an even closer partner with the Italian state. This is of supreme importance to the Church because it recognizes and guarantees the temporal sovereignty of the Pope. By both concordats the Church obtains a recognition of its juridical personality. This establishes a de jure alliance between Church and state, which is the first aim of every concordat.

The Church’s partnership with the Italian state has caused it to support Signor Mussolini in all his enterprises of conquest. His “volunteers” sent to Spain were blessed by the Church. The conquest of Abyssinia was pictured by the Italian cardinals and bishops as “a war for civilization . . . for the conversion of the Abyssinians to the true faith.” The Italian clergy violently supports Italy in the present war. Thirty bishops have urged Mussolini “to crown the unfailing victory of our army by seizing Palestine and raising the banner of Italy over the Holy Places.” Thus the Italian Church preaches another crusade in aid of Fascism. A sincere Catholic commentator, Ruth O’Keefe, in her “News Letter to Catholics Interested in Social Progress,” wrote that there has been “an infiltration of Fascism into the government of the Church itself. . . . The papal government is overwhelmingly in the hands of the Italian priesthood and no bishop, or even parish priest, has been appointed in Italy since 1929 without the consultation of the civil authorities.” From this reservoir is drawn the majority of the college of cardinals who govern the Catholic world.

Before the Lateran treaty the Church, bereft of its temporal sovereignty, was free. But today, one fears, it is “St. Peter in Chains”—chained to the pillar of Fascism. This has serious implications for the Church in America and in the rest of the world. The Church, collaborating with the Fascist elements, Italian, German, or otherwise, gave power and strength to the Fascist bloc of Europe. By its refusal to compromise with the liberalism of Republican Spain it threw Spain into the arms of the Fascists. The existence of the Fascist bloc as it stood before the war was the cause of the war. The fact that on July 25 the press reported that an emissary representing both the Pope and Spain was sent to urge the German “peace” on England is highly significant.

The first aid, then, which the Fascist powers can give the Church is to help her destroy liberalism. The final aid is to help her establish “the common good.” While the Church tends toward the harmonizing of its policy with the policies of the Fascist powers, those powers might conclude that, having crushed democracy, they have no further need of the Church. This raises interesting possibilities, although I hardly think the issue will be quite so sharp as a life-and-death struggle between the Church and Fascism. It has been stated that many Italians think it is their destiny to rule the world “through the combined forces of Roman Emperor and Roman Pontiff,” This was the formula of pagan Rome and of the pagan Emperor Constantine, who captured and adopted the Christian Church for the purposes of the pagan state. Pagan Italian Fascism may yet do the same.

In the meantime, these questions arise: How far are the invaded and conquered nations disposed to turn to the Pope as “supreme arbiter of peace” for comfort, advice, and leadership? And how far will the Fascist nations, should they conquer, be disposed to work with the Papacy to the end of bringing back to the world “that which it lost four centuries ago”—the spiritual and political hegemony of “the Pope who is King” presiding over a revised version of the Holy Roman Empire?


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