Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Hidden Encyclical of Pius XI against Racism and Anti-Semitism Uncovered-Once Again!

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

The Hidden Encyclical of Pius XI against Racism and Anti-Semitism Uncovered-Once Again!

Article excerpt





Recently two volumes appeared which shed considerable light on the "encyclical" Humani Generis Unitas (On the Unity of the Human Race), which Pope Pius XI commissioned against racism and antiSemitism in 1938. Unfortunately, Pius XI died early in February,1939, before it could be issued. His Secretary of State and chief collaborator, Eugenio Pacelli, who succeeded as Pius XII early in March, 1939, decided to shelve this "encyclical," which was not released during the course of the war, during the Holocaust, or even in the postwar period. One can only surmise what its impact might have been, if published.1 Its private publication in the 1900's has reopened the debate on the position of the Catholic Church toward racism and the Holocaust.2

As early as 1972 Gordon Zahn regretted the failure of this strong papal indictment of anti-Semitism to appear, deeming it a missed opportunity.3 The two current volumes which explore this "lost opportunity," are respectively by Georges Passelecq and Bernard Suchecky: L'Encyclique Cachee de Pie XI: Une occasion manquee de l'eglise face a l'antisemitisme, with a preface by Emile Poulat (Paris: Editions La Decouverte,1995), and Robert A. Hecht, An Unordinary Man: A Life of Father John LaFarge, SJ. (Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, 1996). The first was written by Georges Passelecq, a Belgian Benedictine monk and vice-president of the Belgian National Commission for Relations with the Jewish World, and the Belgian Jewish historian Bernard Suchecky. The second is the contribution of Robert A. Hecht, professor of history at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York. More recently, the Passelecq and Suchecky volume, translated into English from the French by Steven Rendall, has been published under the title The Hidden Encyclical of Pius XI (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1997). However, it does not include Poulat's preface, which has been replaced by Gary Wills's "Introduction: Fumbling toward Justice."4

Although the appearance of these volumes has once more brought the "encyclical" to public attention, with various publications commenting on it,5 its existence has been long known. In the summer of 1938 Pius XI publicly made reference to it.6 Father John LaFarge, SJ., who was assigned the task of writing the encyclical by Pius XI under the seal of secrecy, made reference to it, though not his role in drafting it, in his article on "Racism" for the New Catholic Encyclopedia. He noted therein:

It is well known that Pius XI planned in 1939 to issue an encyclical dealing directly with the racist issue, notably from the standpoint of its obvious and un-Christian anti-Semitism, but also dealing with the question of the color bar as well. He referred to this proposed document as an Inediturn in a public audience later in the summer of 1939 [1938]. His subsequent illness and death prevented the fulfillment of his plan.7

In that same 1967 article, LaFarge indicated that Pius XII had borrowed from this unedited text in his first encyclical, the Summi Pontificatus of October 20, 1939.8 His Jesuit collaborators in drafting the encyclical, Gustav Gundlach of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, who wrote the 1930 article on anti-Semitism for the Lexikon fur Theologie und Kirche,9 and Gustave Desbuquois of Action Populaire, a social action center in Paris, recognized their work in Pius XII's first encyclical. This was no revelation, having been reported in The New York Times, on the basis of well-placed though unnamed Vatican sources.10

During the chaos of World War II, the existence of this projected encyclical was forgotten, or, as some have suggested, suppressed. LaFarge continued to preserve the secrecy invoked by Pius XI long after his death and after the war. …

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