A new book captures the dilemmas facing three popes who were confronted by Fascism and Communism in the 20th century

The Papacy in the Age of Totalitarianism
by John Pollard, OUP

A little even-handedness is to be welcomed in discussions of the 20th-century papacy. Some recent assessments of Pius XII provide conspicuous examples of an angry, and far from helpful, discourse. As John Pollard puts it, there has been a “stream of polemical works, sometimes sickeningly hagiographical, sometimes hysterically hostile”. This is the kind of thing Pollard seeks to avoid in his analyses of Pius and his two predecessors, Benedict XV and Pius XI. This does not prevent him from taking some papal actions to task, or from giving credit where he believes it is due; but for the most part he simply reports the facts.

Regarding Benedict, for example, Pollard admires the attempts to bring the First World War to an end, or at least limit its spread, but accepts that the pope’s tactics were sometimes clumsy. Nonetheless, the foundations of 20th-century papal diplomacy were laid and Benedict is credited with “benevolent impartiality”. The efforts at humanitarian relief during the conflict, notably regarding the treatment of prisoners of war, receive particular praise.

On the doctrinal front, Benedict comes off (perhaps a little unfairly) as somewhat wishy-washy. He was, Pollard writes, no Modernist, but he lamented the earlier “fanaticism and spite of the anti-Modernist purges”. He therefore upheld orthodoxy but did not press too many issues or enact any meaningful change: he was content, Pollard opines, to “leave the deposit of the faith as he found it”.

Pius XI was rather more dynamic in this area and “set a record” for stating or restating central Catholic tenets. “High Church ecclesiology runs through his pontificate like a river,” Pollard writes. In the political sphere, Pius had much with which to contend. Pollard appreciates why Pius chose to reach some accommodation with the Italian government. Indeed, this paved the way for the establishment of a sovereign, independent Vatican state in 1929. Still, Pollard also talks of some measure of papal “underwriting” of the regime.

Elsewhere, might the pope have done more in the wake of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933? Well, yes, he might, but Pollard reminds us that the famous 1937 encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge was about more than criticising the persecution of German Catholics; it also contained indictments of central Nazi tenets.

The next pope, Pius XII, is likely to remain a figure of heated debate for a very long time. Pollard is straightforward in his analysis. There was no specific public pronouncement about the treatment of the Jews and this, according to Pollard, largely resulted from Pius placing other priorities above the papacy’s “moral primacy”. There is no pulpit-bashing or character assassination here, however, just a calm adjudication which the reader is at liberty to take or leave.

One strength of Pollard’s book is that it captures the manifold dilemmas faced by this run of popes. Alongside the rise of Fascism, there was the small matter of Soviet Communism’s ascendancy. Communism was often perceived as an even greater threat to Catholicism, especially in the Cold War era. Medical and technological advances, the arrival of electronic media and nuclear weapons all expanded the chaos and, with all this going on, popes still had to find time to pursue their basic tasks: preserving Catholic unity, putting out doctrinal fires, engaging with other faiths and broadening missionary horizons.

No one could suggest that any of the three popes under discussion did a perfect job, but a detailed, largely impartial account of the inner workings of their pontificates can only bring us closer to a nuanced assessment. Pollard has come closer than most to providing such a narrative.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (10/4/15).

Take up our special subscription offer – 12 issues currently available for just £12!