The Catholic Church and Racial Laws

Author: Sergio Pagano

The Catholic Church and Racial Laws

Sergio Pagano

Pope Pius XI: Tell Mussolini, 'I am ashamed of being Italian'

From a privileged seat of historical observation such as the Vatican Secret Archives — where the documents of the Pontiffs and the Church from the 13th century to this day are kept — it is not unusual to read or hear statements concerning historical events or the people involved in them that find absolutely no corroboration in the documentation in its possession or in the assessments of those same events formulated over time in the official historiographic archive.

Now, it has been said that there were no "particular manifestations of resistence" to the racial laws promulgated by Italy's Fascist Government between September and November 1938 "apart from a few shining exceptions" — not even "on the part of the Catholic Church".

Over and above the intentions, it must be pointed out — as many noted almost immediately — concerning the position of the Catholic Church and the Pontiffs Pius XI and Pius XII with regard to the racial laws of 1938 that the affirmation cited is certainly erroneous.

Indeed, when it is a matter of expressing an opinion on such complex subjects that indisputably require a serious and well-founded historiographic basis, greater prudence and circumspection might be desirable. In fact, regarding the events that concerned the Catholic Church and the Fascist racial laws, the exact opposite to what has just been stated can be (and has been) noted.

This is not the place to examine the different historical panoramas reserved for the relations, at first respectful, later tense, between Pius XI, a robust and determined Pontiff, and Mussolini or his government. Moreover we have historical essays in which, among other aspects, Pope Ratti's and the Catholic Episcopate's strong reaction to the racial laws are clearly visible.

Such laws, moreover — also as a necessary consequence, even if this is not the main aspect, of the harshness of those measures — also affected marriages between the so-called Aryans and people of different races, hence the Concordat itself. Reams of important and documented texts have recently been written on these aspects, subsequent to the opening of all the archives of the documents of the Pontificate of Pope Ratti in 2006: by Emma Fattorini (Pio XI, Hitler e Mussolini. La solitudine di un Papa, Turin 2007), Alessandro Duce (La Santa Sede e la question ebraica, 1993-1945, Rome 2007), Paul O'Shea (Politics and the Jews of Europe: 1917-1943, Kenthurst 2008) and two articles by Giovanni Sale, a Jesuit, that appeared in La Civiltà Cattolica and concern our topic even more closely: Il "Manifesto della razza" del 1938 e i cattolici (5 July 2008); and I primi provvedimenti antiebraici e la dichiarazione del Gran Consiglio del fascismo (20 September 2008).

An attentive reading of these works and of the Vatican and Italian documents on which they are based would alone have sufficed to avoid the error we have mentioned. None of the above-mentioned historians have any doubts about the firm position Pius XI took regarding the racial laws. Then, concerning Pius XII, serious scholars (such as Alessandro Duce) highlight the continuity of his thought with that of his Predecessor.

If, as was certainly the case, Pope Pacelli's diplomatic or "tactical" action in the face of the racial question differed from that of Pius XI, "it is right not to forget the context in which both Pontiffs found themselves working; the former faced the emerging movements that were tending to overwhelm the Church or to relegate her to a marginal spiritual role; the latter was forced to witness the outbreak of the war and see it gradually spreading".

Nor should it be forgotten, in line with Pius that in the Encyclical Summi Pontificatus (20 October 1939) — referring to texts that were moreover not published in Pius XI's Encyclical on the human race which the Pope "revised" until his death — he spoke clear anti-racist words, reaffirming the oneness of the human race and condemning the modern forms of totalitarianism.

However, to return to Pius XI's first reactions to the so-called Manifesto della razza (Demonstration of the race), let us seek to understand the motives of the Pope's action from the Audiences that Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, his faithful and precise Secretary of State, recorded in his Fogli di udienza (record of the Audiences held from 1930 to February 1939), whose publication by the Vatican Secret Archives is imminent.

We shall limit ourselves here to a simple and scrupulous examination of the texts recording the daily Audiences of Pius XI with his Secretary of State and, in his absence, with the vivacious Monsignor Domenico Tardini, and examine the Pope's thoughts on the racial measures the Fascist Government was beginning to enforce in the summer of 1938.

To crown these precious Fogli di udienza that enable us virtually to hear the very words (sometimes harsh and nervous) of Pope Ratti when he learned of what was happening around Mussolini and his Government, in Italy and Europe, with regard to the racial laws. We shall cite other Vatican documents, some of which have been published, others unpublished, from which the reader will easily grasp that there was little, indeed no reason to make the comments we mentioned at the outset.

Let us start with some antecedents. Most people know of the Circular Letter addressed to all the Bishops and Rectors or Superiors of these institutes on 13 April 1938 by the Congregation for Seminaries and Universities against the calumnias atque doctrinas perniciosissimas that were then being spread in Germany (but there were also well-grounded fears for Italy).

The Letter asked that teachers, relying on the force of philosophy, biology, history and apologetics refute such theses among the young students (ut perabsurda quae .sequuntur dogmata valide sciteque refellant); at least five of the eight theses condemned concerned race and Hitler's racial doctrines.

Before studying the Italian scene it would he useful to make a digression to ascertain the personal relations between il Duce and Pius XI which, as we shall see, also had an importance of their own with regard to the racial laws.

Mussolini, especially in the years of the Conciliation, had not omitted to declare himself to be a believer, that is in open opposition to the attitude of his future ally, Hitler, who was publicly a non-believer.

For example, in August 1930 Mussolini declared to Archbishop Borgongini-Duca, Apostolic Nuncio in Italy: "I too am a believer: of course! But men have painted me black" (ASV, AES, Italia, Pos. 739 P.O. fasc. 241, f 76).

Mussolini's openness to the faith was an opportunity, in Pius XI's eyes, for access to his conscience, and by means of which it would also have been possible to use a "fatherly" tone of voice, as compared with the approach to other Heads of State or Government, atheists or sceptics, with whom the Pope would have to rely on the language of diplomacy alone.

In short, Pius XI felt that he could treat Mussolini in a more open and direct manner, establishing a relationship such as Pope Ratti had with a similar figure to that of il Duce, namely, the Polish Marshal Piłsudski.

This sort of confidence that deteriorated in the year's clash with Catholic Action and the war in Ethiopia, proved useful at the height of the conflict between the Holy See and Hitler's regime, that is, when the decision was made to promulgate the Encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (1937). Mussolini's attitude on that occasion was ambiguous, considerate to the Catholic Church yet at the same time ever closer to the stances of his German ally; this ambiguity was obvious on the occasion of Mussolini's visit to Germany September 1937 (cf. ASV, AES, Germania, Pos. 724 P.O. fasc. 592, 339).

Pius XI was increasingly aware of Mussolini's two-faced language, yet he still hoped in the long run to be able to exercise some influence on il Duce and that this would effectively prevent him from following Hitler's course. ("The Nuncio says he has confidentially repeated a sentence of the Pope to Minister Ciano: 'I am sorry that Hitler has called Mussolini his greatest friend because Hitler is an enemy of God! The Holy Father retorted: "That was not what I said!... What I said was great friend not his greatest friend. There is a difference" [ASV, AES, Statiecclesiastici, Pos. 560 P.O. fasc. 592, f. 118]).

Returning to our topic, we will note that in the same months in which the Italian racial laws were approved, Pius XI who was in Castel Gandolfo during a holiday deliberately planned in order to be out of the City while it was welcoming Hitler — in June 1938 charged John La Farge, a Jesuit, to draft an Encyclical Letter on "The Unity of the Human Race" (which was to become Humani generis unitas). The text was absolutely adverse to Fascist and Nazi racism. The Encyclical was never published because of the Pope's premature death but its text is known to us (Georges Passelecq — Bernard Suchecky, L'Encyclique cachée de Pie XI, Paris 1995; Italian translation, Milan 1997; Giovanni Miccoli, L'enciclica mancata di Pio XI sul razzismo e l'antisemitismo, in La Civiltà Cattolica, 2-16 August 2008, pp. 213-226).

On 15 July 1938, receiving in audience the Sisters of Nôtre-Dame du Cénacle (with whom he had been associated since his priestly ministry in Milan), Pius XI told them that on that very day he had learned of "something very grave" which was acquiring the features of a "true apostasy" — the Manifesto degli scienziati razzisti (Manifesto of the Racist Scientists) springs to mind since it bore the previous day's date. It reaffirmed (not of course for the sisters present but for those in Rome ready to comply with Hitler's wishes) that 'catholic means universal' and that to discriminate humanity 'according to nationality and race' is not only another mistaken idea, the whole spirit of the doctrine is contrary to faith in Christ" (Fattorini, p. 176: in La Civiltà Cattolica, 5 July 2008, p. 17). It is clear that here Pope Ratti was referring to the spread of racist texts.

Pius XI, a few days after the publication of the cited Manifesto, on receiving the assistance of Catholic Action on 21 July, well aware of what was happening repeated: "Catholic means universal not racist, nationalist or separatist.... Unfortunately, there is something worse than some formula or other of racism or nationalism; in other words the spirit that motivates them" (L'Osservatore Romano, n. 176, 30 July 1938, p. 1).

On 28 July Pius XI addressed the students at Propaganda Fide with words that were to provoke Mussolini's wrath.

"It has been forgotten that the human race, the entire human race, is a single, large, universal human race. The expression human race denotes, precisely, the human race.... However, it cannot be denied that in this universal race there is no room for special races or for a multitude of different variations or even many nationalities that are even more specialized.... One might well ask why Italy ever needed to go and imitate Germany.... We must call things by their name if we do not wish to incur grave dangers, including the risk of losing the name and even the notion of things" (L'Osservatore Romano, n. 176, 30 July 1938, p. ).

Mussolini who was then at Forlì, was to complain of this blow to Minister Ciano and the Minister reported it in turn to Borgongini-Duca, in terms disrespectful to the Pontiff (ASV, Arch. Num. Italia, b. 9, fasc. 5, ff. 81-96).

On the other hand, Jewish associations, such as the Alliance Israélite universelle, thanked Pius XI for his courageous discourse: "Today Rome has spoken, that is to say the highest moral authority that exists in the civilized world. The Alliance Israelite is glad to offer him its homage, with its hope, for such lofty language" (ASV, AES, Italia, Pos. 1054 P.O., fasc. 730, f. 46).

Again, on 12 August, L'Osservatore Romano gave front page coverage to an article entitled: "A citation from Berlin", which denied the partisan interpretations of the Papal Discourse that had appeared in the German newspaper, National Zeitung, warning Italians and thereby ensuring that they were properly informed of the Papal directives regarding racism, in keeping with the press in England, Switzerland and France.

In the meantime in Milan some people, carrying out certain orders from Mussolini, were involved in censuring the Pope's Address, and Pacelli recorded the Audience with Pius XI on 20 August in these terms: "Fr. Gemelli writes to the Holy Father that the Prefect of Milan (this was Giuseppe Marzano, who was Prefect of Milan from June 1937 to August 1939) summoned the Editor-in-Chief of the publications of the University of the Sacred Heart and forced him to sign a declaration saying that he would not publish the Holy Father's Discourse of 28 July on racism. The affair was all the more important since it involved a university and a Papal speech.

"Unfortunately — this was also done in other cases but these may be represented by the present case when one realizes what the Catholic University is to the Pope. Hence either Fr. Gemelli will provide or the Pope will provide, speaking and writing as he sees fit. The Church deserves this" (ASV, AES, Stati Ecclesiastici, Pos. 430A, fasc. 355, ad diem).

In this context, Pius XI did not cease to make his voice heard. Immediately after the July Discourse, a long article had been prepared for L'Osservatore Romano which was to explain the meaning of his words. The text may not have been published in the Vatican daily for fear of the reactions it might have provoked. Nevertheless Pius XI desired it to he printed abroad and room was found for it in the columns of the Swiss newspaper La Liberté on 6 August (cf. ASV, AES, Italia, Pos. 1054, P.O. fasc. 729, ff. 8-13).

Between September and November 1938, the collection of Fascist Decrees connected with the racial laws came into force and on 5 September the Government published the Provvedimento per la difesa della razza nella scuola fascista whereby Jews and Jewish teachers were not to return to the State and para-State schools at the end of the summer holidays.

On 6 September Pius XI received members of the Catholic Radio of Belgium on pilgrimage and spoke 'off the cuff', giving a speech that has remained famous: "Listen carefully. Abraham is definitely our Patriarch, our forbearer.... Anti-Semitism is a hateful movement; We Christians must have nothing to do with it.... Anti-Semitism is inadmissible. Spiritually we are all Semites" (Miccoli, p. 309; Fattorini, p. 181).

Three days later, in the minutes of the Audience of 9 September with Pope Ratti, Pacelli recorded: "Fr. Tacchi Venturi said to Mussolini: that as an Italian, the Holy Father truly regrets to see a history of Italian common sense open the door or the window to a wave of German anti-Semitism. There is a very exalted and very true treasure of which the Church, in a most sacred and solemn Document tells us: all of us, in the bosom of Abraham, and Abraham is our Patriarch, the Patriarch of us all. Qui filii sunt promissionis aestimantur in semine (Rm 9:8); Patriarchae nostri Abrahamae (Canon Missae)" (ASV, AES, Italia, Pos. 1054 P.O., fasc. 727).

On receiving Monsignor Tardini at the customary daily Audience on 16 October — Cardinal Pacelli was in Switzerland at the time, as was his practice, for his usual hardworking summer holidays — Pius XI said, mentioning "Italian racism": "Italy and the Italians are a flock of sheep! We must certainly show no gratitude to Mussolini for this" (ASV, AES, Stati Ecclesiastici, Pos. 560 P.O., fasc. 592, Appunti di Tardini, p. 15).

At the Audience on 19 October it was once again Tardini who recorded a firm reaction of Pope Ratti which is of interest to us: "I read a report from the Nuncio [Borgongini-Duca] to the Holy Father on an objection from the Italian Government for several anti-racist sentences that had been spoken at a Eucharistic Congress delivered in Chiari, Brescia. On hearing the incriminating sentences, His Holiness commented: Excellent! Quite right! Somebody has to say these things" (ibid., p. 23).

These are the two sentences spoken by Catholics at the Chiari Congress: "Today physical robustness is required, like that of bulls and stable-bred stock, whereas our education ought to aim at the mind". "God will certainly punish the Germans and all who follow them" (conversation of Nuncio Borgongini Duca with Minister Ciano of 6 October 1938, in ASV, Arch. Nunz. Italia, b. 9, fasc. 14, ff. 160-163).

Also with the date of 19 October we find in the minutes of Tardini's Audience: "As for the matter of the marriage of Jews, Your Holiness will order an official memorandum to be drafted soon, for the writings and negotiations of Fr. Tacchi Venturi are rather private matters" (ASV, AES, Stati Ecclesiastici, Pos. 560 P.O., FASC. 592, Appunti di Tardini, p. 22).

Tardini recalls further: "on 20 October I shall once again see H.E. Archbishop Borgongini, who has assumed the responsibility of preparing two memoranda for the Italian Government: one on marriage and the other on the Jewish question. His Holiness, in fact, decided yesterday that an official document. should be drafted immediately, so that it may be a lasting proof that the Holy See has warned the Italian Government of the distressing consequences of the new laws" (ibid., p. 25).

With regard to the Audience that the Pope granted to Fr. Tacchi Venturi on the following 23 October, Monsignor Tardini notes: "Fr. Tacchi Venturi repeats to the Holy Father that the Government intends to penalize all those who — contrary to its laws celebrate a religious marriage. On the racist question, there is absolute intransigence on the part of the Government. I point out here that the Ministry for Popular culture has forbidden all the newspapers, periodicals and journals from reprinting articles against racism published in L'Osservatore Romano and from publishing other articles on their own initiative as well as against German racism.

The Holy Father retorted and said to Fr. Tacchi Venturi: "But this is gross!.... I am ashamed... I am ashamed of being Italian. And you, Father, please tell Mussolini! Not as Pope but rather as an Italian, I am ashamed of myself! The Italian people has become a flock of stupid sheep.

"I shall speak out, I will not be afraid. I am impelled by the Concordat, but even more by my conscience. I will not be afraid! I prefer to go and ask for alms. Nor will I ask Mussolini to defend the Vatican. Even if the square is full of people I shall not be frightened! Here they have all turned into so much stubble. I am truly saddened, as Pope and as an Italian" (ibid., pp. 27-38; Fattorini, pp. 183-184).

It is well known how many difficulties Mussolini, furious with Pope Pius XI, created for the Holy See concerning mixed marriages and that in both 1938 and 1939 Cardinal Pacelli was forced to protest officially to Bonifacio Pignatti Morano di Custoza, the Ambassador of Italy to the Holy See (ASV, Arch. Nunz. Italia, b. 9, fasc. 5, ff. 143-189).

The position of staunch rejection of the racial laws was reaffirmed by Pius XI at the daily Audience on 30 October, this time recorded by Cardinal Pacelli who had returned to Rome:

"On the law of marriage concerning race. Instruction to Fr. Tacchi Venturi. Having received no answer to the request to make known to the Holy See the part of the text of the new law that concerns marriage between people of different races, the Holy See finds itself unable to make any deliberation about a text unknown to it.

"In speaking Fr. Tacchi Venturi might say: if you truly desire to publish your law, the Holy See and the Bishops will be required to do what the duty of their ministry demands of them" (ASV, AES, Italia, Pos. 1063, fasc. 755, f. 127).

It was at this point that the personal rupture between Mussolini arid the Pope occurred. The Pope now found that his interlocutor refused to listen and finally described him as "discourteous and faithless". It was to be precisely the question of "mixed" marriages, prohibited with unheard of severity by the Italian laws, that were to become the core of Pius XI's protest, which from nuanced tones was to pass through the diplomatic channels to air the hypothesis of a vulnus perpetrated by those laws to the Concordat and thus culminated in the celebrated consistorial Address that was to be given on 11 February 1939 in which the Pope would protest against the openly hostile atmosphere to the Church that was then prevalent in Italy.

Finally, the answer to the letter from Cardinal Arthur Hinsley, Archbishop of Westminster, should be listed as another public act that expressed the opposition of the Catholic Church to the racial laws — which, it should be understood, was prior to the consistorial Discourse of February 1939.

On 26 November 1938, the Cardinal wrote to Pacelli telling him that "on 9 December there will be a public meeting in London in order to ask for aid and assistance for all who are suffering persecution for reasons of race or religion", and he asked for "an authentic word from the Holy Father declaring the principle that in Christ there is no racial discrimination and that the great human family must be united in peace through respect for the personality of the individual" (ASV, AES, Stati Ecclesiastici, Pos. 575, P.O. fasc. 606 bis, ff. 3-4).

At the Audience granted to Cardinal Pacelli on 3 December, Pius XI decided that: "If the matter were mainly private in character it would be easier. Moreover it is necessary to dispel the appearance of being afraid of what one must not fear. Cardinal Hinsley could be made responsible for speaking and, guaranteeing that he was sure of expressing the Supreme Pontiff's thought, saying that the matter had found the Pope at a moment of great anxiety, not only for his own health but also for the quantity of things.... He, a Cardinal of Holy Roman Church, should say nevertheless that he is expressing her opinion, that he views with a human and Christian eye all assistance to those (who are) unhappy and unjustly suffering" (ibid., f. 8).

On that same 3 December, the Pope's words were telegraphed to Hinsley and he made himself his spokesman at that meeting (ibid., 9).

One might ask, in the face of such clear expressions of reprehension, whether Pius XI was supported by his Curia and by the Catholic Episcopate or whether, as some have written, he was abandoned in his fight against the totalitarian ideologies.

There were of course churchmen who were less courageous and less "prophetic" than Pope Ratti (including, at least for certain periods and in limited aspects, the Nuncio in Italy Borgongini-Duca himself, Fr. Gemelli and the Jesuit, Tacchi Venturi, as well as others who contributed to La Civilta Cattolica).

Although these worthy Prelates and religious were motivated by the intention of softening the tones of what was at times a bitter clash between Pius XI and the Fascist Government and in order to reach the hoped-for modification of the Fascist racial positions, they failed to see — what, on the contrary, Pope Ratti saw — the preliminary dangers and the predictable dire consequences of the Fascist doctrine on race which ended by preparing the ground for the Nazi deportations of the Jews, sorrowfully known.

However other Prelates, at Epiphany 1939, said openly that they were against the discrimination of the Jews because of their race: we should remember Archbishop Giovanni Battista.

Nasalli Rocca of Bologna, Archbishop Ildefonso Schuster of Milan and Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, at that time Apostolic Delegate in Turkey and who spoke out very clearly against racism in the homily he gave at the French Church of the Holy Spirit in Istanbul (Fattorini, p. 203).

These stances do not seem to be due to a mere coincidence of time and issue, but rather to a directive addressed to Prelates through the normal channels reserved for Vatican diplomacy.

Nor were the latter alone, since protests against the racial laws also came from various Pastors, such as Bishop Antonio Santis of Trieste, and Cardinal Maurilio Fossati, Archbishop of Turin (ASV, Arch. Nunz. Italia., b. 9, fasc. 5, ff. 97-106), not to mention others.

Also worthy of mention was the reception the Italian Prelates gave to the circular against the degeneration of the racial doctrine issued by the Congregation for Studies. The circular was republished in Italian in a multitude of diocesan newspapers with comments by the Bishops or clerics themselves who were in complete agreement with Pius XI's directives.

In certain cases it was necessary to combat the censure that Fascism desired to impose even on diocesan news bulletins concerning the topic of race and on Papal Discourses, as was the case in Padua with the protests of Bishop Carlo Agostini, or in Brescia, as Bishop Giacinto Tredici wrote to the Secretary of State on 19 August from Nicosia, with the objections of Bishop Agostino Addeo, and further, from Cremona with the letter of Bishop Giovanni Cazzani from Farinacci on 8 August 1938 ("These words stem from and derive their meaning from the exaggerated, pagan, anti-Christian and anti-Roman culture of racism", the Prelate wrote, "that is professed and put into practice in legislative measures in Hitler's Germany"); even certain Catholic Fascists in Reggio Calabria sent Monsignor Tardini an "Open Letter" for Mussolini, very critical of il Duce's lack of respect for the Pope and also of the racial laws (ASV, AES, Italia, Pos. 1054 P.O., fasc. 730, ff. 10-28).

Communication of consensus on Pope Ratti's anti-racist standpoints reached Rome from various nations worldwide: "In Costa Rica thought on racism is generally against the Italian government and in sympathy with the Holy Father", the Nuncio of Costa Rica sent from San Jose in a telegraph dated 9 August 1938 (ibid., f. 4).

We find the same attitude on the part of Catholics in England, Austria, Belgium, France, the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Hungary and in many other nations. In Poland too, a certain Maurycy Widerszal wrote to Pius XI on 13 August 1938 (translated into Italian by the Secretariat of State): "Your Holiness, the author of this letter is a Jew by birth but by soul, heart and blood, a hundred percent Polish, a lover of his country in which his ancestors died. I thank you, Your Holiness, for having the courage to deign to warn the powerful and for offering words of comfort to the oppressed" (ibid., ff. 59-61).

A group of Jews in Rome offered the Pope their greetings for Christmas in 1938 with these words: "In the imminence of Holy Christmas, Most Blessed Father, may you deign to represent all the hearts that are suffering and all the souls in trepidation, asking everyone — peoples and government leaders alike — with the authoritative words of au Encyclical, to recall the love, charity, Christian brotherhood and spiritual disarmament present in the angelic Christmas greeting: 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!'.

"And may this greeting, this invocation, this prayer, be the best Christmas gift of 1938 for all humanity that entrusts itself to you, Holy Father. Prostrate at your feet, these wishes are offered humbly by your Children of Israel" (cf. ibid., f. 72).

Several months previous, as if he had foreseen such requests, Pope Ratti had given orders for an Encyclical to be written — taken up subsequently by Summi Pontificatus— that would serve to unite rather than to divide races, to reinforce harmony rather than sectarian division, to exalt the Cross of Christ rather than the German swastika for which Mussolini and Fascist Italy had dangerously opted.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
14 January 2009, page 10

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