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Peter Eisner, The Pope's Last Crusade: How an American Jesuit Helped Pope Pius XI's Campaign to Stop Hitler.

Peter Eisner, The Pope's Last Crusade: How an American Jesuit Helped Pope Pius XI's Campaign to Stop Hitler, William Morrow: New York, 2013; 292 pp.: 9780062049148, $27.99

Pius XI is the only 20th century Pope who has not been nominated for beatification. It is curious, because he was a good, holy, and brilliant man with enormous influence in the world. His encyclical Quadragesimo Anno is still an important document in Catholic social teaching. In this work, he criticized both the excesses of capitalism and the evils of atheistic communism. He also initiated the critical principle of subsidiarity: that nothing need be done by a higher agency that can be accomplished by a lower agency, which actually threatens the tendency of the Vatican to centralize all authority. His German encyclical, Mit brennender Sorge (With Burning Anxiety), deeply offended the Nazis and had some unpleasant repercussions for German Catholics. He was disturbed by the plight of the Jews in Germany and Italy and was anxious to publish another encyclical, more widely distributed, condemning racism and anti-Semitism; because of Vatican politics, it never saw the light of day.

Pius XI was impressed with the work Interracial Justice by an American Jesuit, Father John LaFarge and commissioned him, with the assistance of two German Jesuits, Gustav Gundlach and Heinrich Bacht (the latter responsible for the translation of the work into Latin), to put together a draft of an encyclical to be sent to the entire Church. They worked for several months on the project, in secret, but were often frustrated by the conservative inner circle of the Vatican, especially Eugenio Pacelli (Vatican Secretary of State and later Pope Pius XII) and Wlodimir Ledochowski, the Jesuit Superior General who was known to have anti-Semitic leanings. As Jesuits both LaFarge and Gundlach felt bound to obey the Superior General, and ultimately the final version of the document was to be given to LaFarge to be delivered to the Pope who was in poor health and not expected to live much longer. Ledochowski delayed the delivery by several months by having it reviewed further, probably believing that the Pontiff would die before the encyclical could be delivered and issued. In this he was successful and the encyclical was never seen, reposing in the Vatican archives.

The Pope's Last Crusade tells a story of intrigue at a critical time in history when a strong voice was needed to condemn the excesses of fascism and the singling out of the Jews as scapegoats for extermination. Pius XI wished to raise his voice in this but was thwarted by the Vatican Secretary of State and the Superior of the Jesuits, often called the 'Black Pope' because of his power. Both were sympathetic to the Germans and unfriendly to the Jews whom they resented as founders of atheistic communism which they saw as a greater threat to the Church than fascism. Pius XII's silence on the Holocaust has been much discussed and criticized in recent years. His timidity in denouncing it may impede his being named a saint.

Father LaFarge was a passionate crusader for racial and social justice. As editor of America, a weekly journal of opinion published by the Jesuits, he often wrote about injustice in this country and in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, yet he was a humble and unassuming man. I knew him in his later years and, dressing in a rumpled suit or cassock, he was always approachable. At that time none of his secular friends were aware of his work on the aborted encyclical. We did know about his work with the Catholic Interracial Council and his friendship with Martin Luther King. He wore his eminence lightly and with great modesty. It was only at the end of his life that he revealed his role in the encyclical to his fellow Jesuits.

The Pope's Last Crusade throws light on forgotten events in history. The book is well documented and even-handed, and excuses the shortcomings of the Vatican by explaining that Pius XII was concerned that a strong statement from him would endanger Catholics under German rule.

Finally, the book gives excerpts from Father LaFarge's encyclical which, for the first time, are available to the general public. Although the language is measured the message is clear: there is unity in the human race, racism is sinful, and anti-Semitism and religious persecution are wrong and in flagrant denial of human rights. Had Pius XI lived long enough to have issued his document, it is likely that the Church would be in better shape and enjoy higher regard among non-Catholics than it does at the present time.

DOI: 10.1177/0014585813499503


LaFarge J (1937) Interracial Justice. New York: America Press.

Pius XI (1931) Quadrigesimo Anno. Available at: encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_l 9310515_quadragesimo-anno_en.html.

Pius XI (1937) Mit Brennender Sorge. Available at: encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_14031937_mit-brennender-sorge_en.html.

Reviewed by: Aaron W Godfrey, Stony Brook University, USA
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Author:Godfrey, Aaron W.
Publication:Forum Italicum
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2013
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