The anniversary of a Papal condemnation of Nazis

Michael Kelly reflects on Pius XII’s 1939 Summi Pontificatus

In large parts of the public imagination Pope Pius XII will be forever smeared as 'Hitler’s Pope'. John Cornwell’s notorious 1999 book in which he charged the wartime Pope with being complicit with the Nazi slaughter of the Jewish people has been widely criticised by scholars of both the Holocaust and Church history ever since. Nevertheless, this critique has largely failed to unseat the original thesis and the demonisation of Pius XII continues.

This week marks the anniversary of the publication of a landmark encyclical by Pius XII in 1939 Summi Pontificatus. The document incorporates elements of the never published encyclical Humani Generis Unitas against racism and anti-Semitism, prepared by the Jesuits for Pope Pius XI.

Even more than 70 years later, Summi Pontificatus is a remarkable read.

Divine law

Pius XII sees Christianity, because of the universal nature of the Church, as being diametrically opposed to racism and notions of racial supremacy. The divine law of solidarity and charity, he writes, assures that all people are truly brethren, without excluding the rich variety of persons, cultures and societies.

Pius also rubbishes the notion of superior and inferior cultures insisting that differences “are not destined to break the unity of the human race, but rather to enrich and embellish it by the sharing of their own peculiar gifts and by that reciprocal interchange of goods”.

In a thinly-veiled rejection of totalitarianism, Pius wrote strongly against the idea of the state as “something ultimate to which everything else should be subordinated”.


It’s hardly a stretch to see Pius’ denunciation of totalitarianism as prophetic given how the rest of the 20th Century panned out all across Europe. The great totalitarian project of Europe in the last century – whether it be Fascism, Nazism, Communism or Socialism – was to create and even deify an all-powerful state that would be the final arbitrator. States and nations, of course, are not absolute but relative: they come and go. It was the insanity of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin et al which that was at the essence of totalitarianism: absolutising what is not absolute but relative.

Pius warned that people and families are, by nature, superior to the state. “The idea which credits the State with unlimited authority is not simply an error harmful to the internal life of nations, to their prosperity, and to the larger and well-ordered increase in their well-being, but likewise it injures the relations between peoples, for it breaks the unity of supra-national society, robs the law of nations of its foundation and vigour, leads to violation of others’ rights and impedes agreement and peaceful intercourse,” Pius wrote.

The reactions to Summi Pontificatus was immediate. The German ambassador to the Vatican, Diego von Bergen called it a direct attack on the Third Reich. The Gestapo considered the encyclical an attack. The British and French authorities at war with Germany welcomed it and the French had copies printed and dropped by air over Germany.

Paradoxically given the harsh racist laws in place in the United States at the time, the encyclical was widely lauded in the US press.

A lot of worthwhile scholarship has gone into researching the truth behind Pius XII’s wartime role in recent decades: most historians conclude that the charge that he was a Nazi sympathiser or even a fellow-traveller are completely without foundation. There is also ample evidence that Pius worked hard and encouraged others to work hard to shelter the Jews and other minorities from the Nazis during the war. Some prominent Holocaust scholars have even suggested that Pius should be awarded the highest honour reserved for those who helped Jews during the Holocaust: the tile of ‘Righteous Among Nations’.


Could Pius XII have spoken out more during the war? That debate will undoubtedly continue. In truth his decision not to speak more publicly was likely a prudential judgement: he was surely conscious of the dangers of escalating a very difficult situation. The Dutch hierarchy, for example, had a public statement read at all Masses in the country condemning Nazi racism. In a retaliatory response the Nazis ordered the arrest of all Jewish converts, who had previously been spared. Their ultimate fate? The death factory of Auschwitz.