ENCYCLICAL MIGHT HAVE CHANGED THINGS
BOOK RECALLS ATTEMPT TO DECRY '30s RACISM
By MICHAEL J. FARRELL [NCR senior editor]
The allegation that the Catholic church stayed silent in the face of Hitler's World War II Holocaust refuses to go away. Its most lethal expression, Rolf Hochhuth's play, The Deputy, concentrated its accusations on Pope Pius XII.
Novelist Albert Camus also complained: "For a long time I waited for a voice to be raised in Rome. It appears that this voice was raised, but I swear to God that millions of men, myself included, did not hear it." The Vatican's many defenders respond that the church did all it could under the circumstances, and that what it did was considerable.
A new book published in France in 1993 recalls a tantalizing chapter of that murky history � the encyclical that never happened.
In June 1938, as Hitler tightened the screws on Europe, the old and ailing Pope Pius XI asked an American Jesuit, Fr. John LaFarge, to write an encyclical condemning racism and anti-Semitism.
LaFarge, an editor at America, had long been an outspoken opponent of racism in the United States. His several books included Interracial Justice and The Catholic Viewpoint on Race Relations. In a private audience in Rome, the pope encouraged LaFarge: "Say simply what you would say if you yourself were pope." The pope also bound LaFarge to secrecy.
LaFarge, 38 at the time, a direct descendant of Founding Father Ben Franklin on his mother's side, enrolled the help of two other Jesuits from Europe, Frs. Gustave Gundlach and Gustave Desbuquois. They produced an encyclical in two months in the summer of 1938. While the other two wrote the background material, LaFarge concentrated for the most part on the crucial areas of racism and anti-Semitism. The encyclical-to-be was titled Humani Generis Unitas ["The Unity of the Human Race"].
In late September 1938, LaFarge submitted the text to his Jesuit superior general, Fr. Wlodimir Ledochowski. The latter is reported to have said the document was "too strong and provoking." Ledochowski, a Polish count with, some said, anti-Semitic inclinations of his own, withheld the encyclical from the pope. Instead, he asked a Rome scholar, Fr. Eurico Rosa, to tone it down. Rosa, however, was ill, and was dead within three months.
Crucial time was passing. A turning point was Kristallnacht, Nov. 9-10, a night of pogroms when Jewish shops were widely and brutally vandalized and Jews were beaten and killed. Some Holocaust students claim that the silence � particularly on the part of the churches � that followed this outrage was all the hint Hitler needed that he could scapegoat the Jews with impunity.
LaFarge's papers indicate that Ledochowski held on to the encyclical draft for several months. Finally, LaFarge wrote directly to the pope, who then ordered Ledochowski to produce the document without delay.
The encyclical reached Pius XI Jan. 21, 1939. It remains unclear whether the pope read it before his death Feb. 10, 1939. Sources say his successor, Pius XII, did read the draft. It was never published, but it is said the pope borrowed from it for his own first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus, although he steered clear of LaFarges's stronger sections on antiSemitism.
The central thrust of LaFarge's document was an attack on racism: "Not a few decisive documents of Catholic faith and morals are ignored by racists, such as the doctrine of the human person, of free will, of the union of man's body and soul and, finally, of divine grace not only as to its efficacy but also as to the mode of its operation."
While some commentators claim the encyclical, if published, might have slowed if not stopped Hitler's rampage, others say it would have set him on a collision course with the Vatican and endangered in particular the lives of Germany's Catholic bishops.
Meanwhile, as the war and its atrocities took their course, LaFarge kept his secret as did his collaborators. There were many references, for the most part oblique, to the project among LaFarge's papers. LaFarge died in 1963 at age 83. His papers were moved to Woodstock College in New York in 1970 and remained undisturbed until a Jesuit seminarian, Thomas Breslin, while researching LaFarge's life, found them.
In 1972, Breslin, who had resigned from the Jesuits, read that Rome's Cardinal Eugene Tisserant had charged that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had arranged the assassination of Pius XI to prevent him from denouncing fascism. The Vatican denied not only that Pius XI had been murdered but that there had ever been a LaFarge encyclical.
This denial caused Breslin to contact the National Catholic Reporter and insist on the existence of the encyclical. In a recent telephone conversation, Breslin told how, during morning meditation, he first solved the mystery of the missing encyclical. References to Fisher Senior, he figured, applied to Pope Pius XI; references to Fisher Junior to Pius XII.
Supplied with LaFarge's documents, NCR ran the story, Unpublished encyclical attacked anti-Semitism, Dec. 15, 1972. Word of the encyclical was immediately picked up by other media worldwide.
Then, just as quickly the story died � until 1993, when France's Editions La D'ecouverte published L'Encyclique Cachee de Pie XI: Une Occasion Manquee de l'Eglise face a l'Antisemitisme [Pius XI's Hidden Encyclical. A Lost Opportunity for the Church Vis-a-vis Anti-Semitism]. Written by two Belgian scholars, Benedictine Fr. Georges Passelecq and Jewish historian Bernard Suchecky, with scholarly annotations by Breslin, it tells the history of the illfated encyclical.
An English translation by Harcourt Brace /Harvest Books is planned for publication in late 1997.
Pius XII, on becoming pope, moved quickly, by Rome standards, to promulgate an encyclical of his own to condemn fascism. Summi Pontificatus, described by The New York Times as "a powerful attack on totalitarianism and the evils [the pope] considers it has brought on the world'" was published Oct. 28, 1939.
The Times report continues: "It is Germany that stands condemned above any country or any movement in this encyclical � the Germany of Hitler and national socialism."
Breslin, a historian who now teaches at Florida International University, believes adamantly that the encyclical should have been published. It would especially "have braced the Italians," he told NCR. To the suggestion that publication would merely have provoked Hitler, he replied: "How much are you [the church] prepared to let other people pay so that your operation will continue to be OK? ...... I am more confident today that a strong stand by the church would have confused and confounded the Nazis rather than the opposite."
Instead, said Breslin, "the church came to the conflagration with a bucket of water."