Pope Pius XI and the Jewish Question

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Richard L. Rubenstein is President Emeritus and Distinguished Professor of Religion at the University of Bridgeport and Lawton Distinguished Professor of Religion Emeritus at Florida State University. He is the author of After Auschwitz and The Cunning of History, and, with John K. Roth, of Approaches to Auschwitz. He has written extensively on Jewish- Christian-Muslim relations.

Until recently, Achille Ratti, Pope Pius XI (1857--1939), has had fewer critics than his successor, Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII, whose role during the Holocaust has been the subject of heated controversy for almost four decades. Many scholars have argued that, as he came to understand the true nature of National Socialism, Pius XI became more deeply concerned with the potential dangers of anti-Semitism than did Pius XII. As a result, Pius XI came to be depicted as the "good pope," firmly opposed to anti-Semitism, in contrast to Pius XII.

Recently, a book by David I. Kertzer, The Popes Against the Jews, has depicted Pius XI as more hostile to the Jews than had been previously assumed. Kertzer, the Paul Dupee Jr. University Professor of Social Science at Brown University, argues that the single-minded focus by scholars on the question of what Pius XII did during World War II obscures the real issue, namely, "the role his predecessors played over the previous decades in dehumanizing the Jews, in encouraging large numbers of Europeans to view them as evil and dangerous."1 I believe that Kertzer is on target. There is greater continuity than discontinuity in the policies they pursued. Both popes were fully conscious of their historic role as guardians of the church, the most important religious institution in the Western world, in an era of maximum danger.

Nevertheless, if we pay more attention to the career of Pope Pius XI than has previously been the case, we are more likely to understand the Vatican's role in World War II. Achille Ratti served as pope from 1922 to 1939. As pope, he witnessed the consolidation of the Bolshevik Revolution, the rise of Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler, the Great Depression, the Spanish Civil War, and the events immediately preceding World War II. Moreover, his successor, Eugenio Pacelli, enjoyed the pope's full confidence and support, serving him as papal nuncio to Germany and later as cardinal secretary of state.

Both Pius XI and Pius XII firmly believed that theirs was the only true religion. Hence, they agreed with the claim asserted by their predecessor Pope Boniface VIII, in his papal bull Unam Sanctam, promulgated in 1302, that outside the church "there is neither salvation nor remission of sins." As we shall see, this ancient claim goes a long way toward explaining the Vatican's Jewish policy before and during the Holocaust.

Boniface's claim was to remain the official position of the church until the Vatican Ecumenical Council of 1962--65. In the spirit of that council, in 1964 Pope Paul VI proclaimed the conciliar decree Lumen Gentium: On the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church. It allowed for the possibility that non-Catholics might "attain eternal salvation" while affirming the church's unique place in the divine plan for salvation: "For they who without their own fault do not know of the Gospel of Christ and His Church, but yet seek God with sincere heart, and try, under the influence of grace, to carry out His will in practice, known to them through the dictate of conscience, can attain eternal salvation."

The church's new attitude of inclusiveness has made a powerful and welcome difference in its relations with other Christian churches and other religions, but that attitude came only after the pontificates of Pius XI and Pius XII.2

A MONOPOLY ON SALVATION

Before we turn specifically to Pope Pius XI, let us consider what was at stake for the church in insisting on its claim to be the only true mediator between humanity and the Creator. …