Pope Pius XI

gigatos | November 24, 2021


Pope Pius XI (Desio, May 31, 1857 – Vatican City, February 10, 1939) was the 259th bishop of Rome and pope of the Catholic Church from 1922 until his death. From June 7, 1929 he was the 1st sovereign of the new Vatican City State.


Achille Ratti was born on May 31, 1857, in Desio, in the house that now houses the Museo Casa Natale Pio XI and the “Pio XI International Center for Studies and Documentation” (at number 4 Via Pio XI, then Via Lampugnani). The fourth of five children, he was baptized the day after his birth, in the provostry of Saints Siro and Materno, with the name Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti (the name Ambrogio in honor of his paternal grandfather, his godfather at his baptism). His father Francesco was active – with little success as evidenced by his continuous transfers – as a director in various silk factories, while his mother Teresa Galli, originally from Saronno, was the daughter of a hotelier.Initiated to an ecclesiastical career by the example of his uncle Don Damiano Ratti, Achille studied from 1867 in the seminary of Seveso, then in the seminary of Monza, currently the seat of the Liceo Ginnasio Bartolomeo Zucchi. He prepared for high school at the Collegio San Carlo and passed his exams at the Liceo Parini. Since 1874 he was part of the Franciscan tertiary order. In 1875 he began his theological studies; the first three years in the Major Seminary of Milan and the last in the Seminary of Seveso. In 1879 he was in Rome at the Collegio Lombardo. He was ordained a priest on December 20, 1879 in Rome by Cardinal Raffaele Monaco La Valletta.


He assiduously frequented libraries and archives in Italy and abroad. He was a Doctor of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana and, on March 8, 1907, he became Prefect of the same library.

He undertook extensive studies: the Acta Ecclesiae Mediolanensis, the complete collection of the acts of the archdiocese of Milan, of which he published volumes II, III and IV in 1890, 1892 and 1897 respectively, and the Liber diurnus Romanorum Pontificum, a collection of formulas used in ecclesiastical documents. He also discovered the earliest biography of St. Agnes of Bohemia and for study sojourned in Prague, and in Savona, by chance, he discovered the acts of a Milanese provincial council of 1311, of which memory had been lost.

Ratti was a man of vast erudition, in fact he obtained three degrees during his years of study in Rome: in philosophy at the Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, in canon law at the Gregorian University and theology at La Sapienza University. He also had a strong passion both for literary studies, where he preferred Dante and Manzoni, and for scientific studies, so much so that he had been in doubt whether to undertake the study of mathematics; in this regard he was a great friend and, for a certain period, collaborator of Don Giuseppe Mercalli, a well-known geologist and creator of the homonymous scale of earthquakes, whom he had known as a teacher in the seminary of Milan.


Ratti was also a valuable educator, not only in the school environment. From 1878 he was professor of mathematics at the minor seminary.

Monsignor Ratti, who had studied Hebrew at the Archbishop”s Seminary and had deepened his studies with the Chief Rabbi of Milan, Alessandro Da Fano, became professor of Hebrew in the seminary in 1907 and held the position for three years. As a lecturer he took his students to the synagogue in Milan so that they could become familiar with oral Hebrew, a bold initiative that was unusual in seminaries.

As chaplain of the Cenacolo of Milan, a religious community dedicated to the education of girls (a position he held from 1892 to 1914), he was able to exercise a very effective pastoral and educational activity, coming into contact with girls and young women of every state and condition, but especially with the good society of Milan: the Gonzaga, Castiglione, Borromeo, Della Somaglia, Belgioioso, Greppi, Thaon di Revel, Jacini, Osio, Gallarati Scotti.

This environment was crossed by different opinions: some families were closer to the monarchy and liberal Catholicism, others were intransigent, in line with the Catholic Observer of Don Davide Albertario. Although he did not show explicit sympathy for either of the two currents, the young don Ratti had a very close relationship with the Gallarati Scotti family, who were intransigent; he was catechist and tutor (on the advice of his grandfather of the same name) of the young Tommaso Gallarati Scotti, son of Gian Carlo, prince of Molfetta, and Maria Luisa Melzi d”Eril, who would later become a well-known diplomat and writer.

The tensions between liberal and intransigent Catholics were common in the Catholic environment of the time, just remember that Achille Ratti had received the tonsure and diaconate from Archbishop Luigi Nazari of Calabiana, the protagonist of the crisis that bears his name. Among his educators he had Don Francesco Sala, who taught a course of dogmatic theology based on a rigorous Thomism, and Don Ernesto Fontana, who taught moral theology with anti-Rosminian positions. In this environment Fr Ratti developed an anti-liberal tendency, which he expressed for example in 1891 during an informal conversation with Cardinal Gruscha, Archbishop of Vienna: “Your country has the good fortune not to be dominated by an anti-clerical liberalism, nor by a State that tries to bind the Church with iron chains”.

After 1904, Tommaso Gallarati Scotti became a representative of modernism, the doctrine according to which it would be necessary to “adapt the Gospel to the changing condition of humanity” and in 1907 he founded the magazine Il Rinnovamento. While Pope Pius X published the encyclical Pascendi condemning modernism, Msgr. Ratti tried to warn his friend, acting as a mediator and running the risk of attracting the suspicions of intransigent anti-modernists. Tommaso Gallarati Scotti had already decided to resign from the magazine, when he was hit by excommunication. The Holy See investigated the responsibility of Archbishop Andrea Carlo Ferrari regarding the spread of modernist ideas in his archdiocese and Msgr. Ratti had to defend him before the Pope and Cardinal Gaetano De Lai.


Ratti was also a passionate mountaineer: he climbed several peaks of the Alps and was the first – on July 31, 1889 – to reach the top of Mount Rosa from the eastern wall; he conquered, although burdened by the weight of a boy he carried on his shoulders, the Gran Paradiso; on August 7, 1889 he climbed Mount Cervino, and at the end of July 1890 he climbed Mount Bianco, opening the route later called “Via Ratti – Grasselli”. Pope Ratti was an assiduous and passionate frequenter of the Grigne group and for many years, between the two centuries, he was guest of the parish of Esino Lario, logistic base of his excursions. The last climbs of the future Pope date back to 1913. For the whole period Ratti was a member, collaborator and editor of articles for the Italian Alpine Club. Ratti himself said that mountaineering “was not something to be done by daredevils, but on the contrary it was all and only a matter of prudence, and a bit of courage, strength and perseverance, a feeling for nature and its deepest beauties”. As soon as he was elected pope, the Alpine Club of London co-opted Pius XI as its member, justifying this invitation with the three ascents to the highest Alpine peaks (the invitation was declined, although with the pope”s thanks).

Ratti, in 1899, had an interview with the famous explorer Luigi d”Aosta Duca degli Abruzzi to participate in the expedition to the North Pole that the Duke was organizing. Ratti was not taken, it is said, because a priest, although an excellent mountaineer, would have intimidated the other travel companions, rough men of sea and mountains.

In 1935, failing the strict protocol of the Vatican State, during the inauguration ceremony of the Central Military School of Mountaineering in Aosta, he sent a telegram of congratulations.

Ecclesiastical career

His profound competence in studies brought Ratti to the attention of Pope Leo XIII. In June 1891 and in 1893 he was invited to participate in some diplomatic missions with Monsignor Giacomo Radini-Tedeschi in Austria and France. This happened on the recommendation of the same Radini-Tedeschi, who had studied with Ratti at the Pontifical Lombard Seminary in Rome.

In August 1882 he was appointed substitute parish priest of Barni, where a plaque in his honor is still affixed in the parish church dedicated to the Annunciation.

In 1888 he joined the College of Doctors of the Ambrosian Library, becoming its prefect in 1907. On March 6, 1907, he was appointed prelate of His Holiness with the title of monsignor.

Meanwhile, in 1894 he had joined the Oblates of Saints Ambrose and Charles, an institute of secular priests deeply rooted in the spirituality of St. Charles Borromeo and St. Ignatius of Loyola. Don Ratti will always be linked to the Ignatian spiritual exercises, for example he will meditate the exercises of 1908, 1910 and 1911 at the Jesuits of Feldkirch, in Austria.

Called by Pius X to Rome, he was a member of the Circolo San Pietro, and on November 8, 1911 he was appointed vice-prefect with right of succession and, on September 27, 1914, when Benedict XV reigned, prefect of the Vatican Library.

Mission to Poland

In 1918 Pope Benedict XV appointed him apostolic visitor for Poland and Lithuania and later, in 1919, apostolic nuncio (i.e., diplomatic representative to Poland) and at the age of 62 he was elevated to the rank of archbishop with the title of Lepanto. He chose as his secretary Don Ermenegildo Pellegrinetti, a doctor of theology and canon law and above all a polyglot, who kept a diary of Mons. Ratti”s mission in Poland.

His mission led him to face the difficult situation that occurred with the Soviet invasion in August 1920 due to the problems created by the formulation of the new borders after World War I. Ratti asked Rome to stay in Warsaw close to the siege, but Benedict XV, fearing for his life, ordered him to join the Polish government in exile, which he did after all other diplomatic posts were withdrawn. He was later appointed ecclesiastical High Commissioner for the plebiscite in Upper Silesia, a plebiscite that had to be held among the population to choose between joining Poland or Germany. In the region there was a strong presence of German clergy (supported by the Archbishop of Wroclaw Cardinal Bertram), who pushed for reunification with Germany. The Polish government, then, asked the Pope to appoint an ecclesiastical representative who was above the parties, able to ensure impartiality during the plebiscite.

Ratti”s specific task, in fact, was to call the German and Polish clergy to concord and, through them, the entire population. It happened, however, that Archbishop Bertram forbade the foreign priests of his archdiocese (in practice the Poles) to take part in the debate on the plebiscite. Moreover, Bertram let it be known that he had the support of the Holy See: the Secretary of State, Cardinal Gasparri, had given support to Bertram and the German clergy, but without informing Ratti. Not only Ratti had to suffer this discourtesy, but he saw the Polish press unleash itself against him, accusing him, unjustly, of being pro-German. He was therefore recalled to Rome and on June 4, 1921 Ratti left Poland.

One of his successes was to obtain the release of Eduard von der Ropp, archbishop of Mahilëŭ, arrested by the Soviet authorities in April 1919 on charges of counterrevolutionary activity and released in October of that year.In the early months of 1920 he made a long diplomatic trip to Lithuania, going on pilgrimage to the places dearest to Lithuanian Catholics, and to Latvia. In Latvia he laid the foundations of the future concordat, which would be the first concordat concluded by him after his accession to the papacy. He also took care of the diocese of Riga, recently re-established, which was suffering from a great shortage of clergy and the absence of religious orders; the elevation to archdiocese was also planned.

However, in October 1921, once he became Archbishop of Milan, he received an honorary degree in theology from the University of Warsaw. In this period Cardinal Ratti probably formed the conviction that the main danger from which the Catholic Church had to defend itself was Bolshevism. Hence the figure that explains his later work: his social policy aimed at challenging the masses to communism and nationalism.

Archbishop of Milan and Cardinal

In the consistory of 13 June 1921 Achille Ratti was appointed archbishop of Milan and on the same day was created cardinal of the title of Santi Silvestro e Martino ai Monti.

He took possession of the archdiocese on September 8. In his brief episcopate, he decreed that the Catechism of Pius X should be the only one used in the archdiocese, inaugurated the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, and began the diocesan phase of the cause for canonization of Father Giorgio Maria Martinelli, the founder of the Oblates of Rho.

Election as Roman Pontiff

Achille Ratti was elected pope on February 6, 1922 at the fourteenth vote of a contested conclave. The voters were in fact divided into two factions: on the one hand, the “conservatives”, who were counting on Cardinal Merry del Val (former Secretary of State under Pope Pius X), and on the other hand, the “liberals”, who preferred the outgoing Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri. The convergence on the name of the Lombard Cardinal was therefore the result of a compromise.

Once the election had been accepted and the pontifical name chosen, Pius XI, dressed in his choral habit, asked to be allowed to look out from the external loggia of the Vatican Basilica (instead of the internal one used by his last three predecessors): The opportunity was granted and, once he had retrieved a banner to adorn the balcony (specifically that of Pius IX, the most recent of those available), the new pontiff was able to present himself to the crowd gathered in St. Peter”s Square, to whom he gave a simple Urbi et Orbi blessing, without however uttering any words.

The decision to appear with his gaze turned towards the city of Rome and not within the Vatican walls indicated his desire to resolve the Roman question, with its unresolved conflict between its roles as capital of Italy and seat of the pope”s temporal power. Significantly, the bystanders gathered in front of the Petrine basilica shouted Viva Pio XI! Long live Italy!


His first encyclical, Ubi arcano Dei consilio, of December 23, 1922, manifested the program of his pontificate, which was well summarized in his motto “pax Christi in regno Christi,” the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of Christ. In other words, in the face of the tendency to reduce the faith to a private matter, Pope Pius XI thought instead that Catholics should work to create a totally Christian society, in which Christ reigned over every aspect of life. He intended to build a new Christianity that would renounce the institutional forms of the Ancien Régime and strive to move within contemporary society. A new Christianity that only the Catholic Church, constituted by God and interpreter of revealed truths, was capable of promoting.

This program was completed by the encyclicals Quas primas (December 11, 1925), with which the feast of Christ the King was also instituted, and Miserentissimus Redemptor (May 8, 1928), on the cult of the Sacred Heart.

In the moral field, his most important encyclicals are remembered as the “four columns”. In Divini Illius Magistri of 31 December 1929 he sanctions the right of the family to educate children, as an original right and prior to that of the State. In Casti Connubii of 31 December 1930 he reaffirmed the traditional doctrine of the sacrament of marriage: the first duties of the spouses must be mutual fidelity, mutual and charitable love and the correct and Christian education of the offspring. He declared morally illicit the interruption of pregnancy through abortion and, within marital relations, any remedy to avoid procreation. In the social field, he intervened with the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, which celebrated the fortieth anniversary of Pope Leo XIII”s Rerum Novarum, teaching that “in order to avoid the extremes of individualism on the one hand, and of socialism on the other, regard must be had above all to the dual nature, individual and social, proper both to capital or property and to work. These three themes, Christian education, marriage and social doctrine, are summarized in the encyclical Ad Catholici Sacerdotii of December 20, 1935 on the Catholic priesthood: “The priest is, by vocation and divine mandate, the chief apostle and the untiring promoter of the Christian education of youth; the priest in the name of God blesses Christian marriage and defends its sanctity and indissolubility against the attacks and deviations suggested by greed and sensuality; the priest brings the most valid contribution to the solution or at least to the mitigation of social conflicts, preaching Christian brotherhood, reminding everyone of the mutual duties of justice and evangelical charity, pacifying souls embittered by moral and economic unease, pointing out to the rich and the poor the only goods to which all can and must aspire”.

He dealt with the nature of the Church in the encyclical Mortalium Animos of January 6, 1928, reiterating the unity of the Church under the leadership of the Roman Pontiff:

Expounding that the unity of the Church cannot come at the expense of the faith, he advocates the return of separated Christians to the Catholic Church. Instead, he forbids the participation of Catholics in attempts to establish a pan-Christian Church, so as not to give “authority to a false Christian religion, far removed from the one Church of Christ.”

According to Roger Aubert, with his encyclicals Pius XI had elaborated a “theology for life”, dealing with the great problems of a moral and social order.

Pius XI instituted an ordinary jubilee in 1925 and an extraordinary one on the nineteenth centenary of the Redemption (April 2, 1933-April 2, 1934).

Pope Pius XI proceeded to numerous beatifications and canonizations, for a total of 496 blesseds and 33 saints, including Bernadette Soubirous, John Bosco, Thérèse of Lisieux, John Mary Vianney and Anthony Mary Gianelli. He also appointed four new Doctors of the Church: Peter Canisius, John of the Cross, Robert Bellarmine and Albert the Great. In particular he proceeded to the beatification of 191 martyrs, victims of the French Revolution, which he described as “a universal disturbance during which the rights of man were affirmed with such arrogance”.

Pius XI normalized relations with the Italian State thanks to the Lateran Pacts (Treaty and Concordat) of 11 February 1929, which put an end to the so-called “Roman Question” and made relations between Italy and the Holy See regular again. On June 7, at noon, the new State of Vatican City was born, of which the Supreme Pontiff was absolute sovereign. In the same period, several Concordats were created with various European nations.

Not prejudicially hostile to Benito Mussolini, Pope Ratti strongly limited the action of the Popular Party, favoring its dissolution, and repudiated any attempt by Sturzo to reconstitute the party. However, he had to face controversies and clashes with Fascism because of the regime”s attempts to hegemonize the education of youth and because of the regime”s interference in the life of the Church. He issued the encyclical Quas Primas in which the feast of Christ the King was established as a reminder of the right of religion to pervade all fields of daily life: from the State to the economy and art. To call the laity to a greater religious involvement, in 1923 Catholic Action was reorganized (of which he said “this is the apple of my eye”).

In the missionary field, he fought for integration with local cultures rather than the imposition of a Western culture. Pius XI was also extremely critical of the passive role played in the social field by capitalism. In his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno of 1931, he recalled the urgency of the social reforms already indicated forty years earlier by Pope Leo XIII, and reiterated his condemnation of liberalism and all forms of socialism.

Pius XI returned several times in the encyclical to the link between money, economy and power. In the encyclical Quadragesimus annus he stated:

In the encyclical Divini Redemptoris Pius XI develops quite usual reflections on the need for forbearance and patience on the part of the poor, who must esteem spiritual goods more than earthly goods and enjoyments. And on the rich as God”s stewards, who must give to the poor what they have left over:

Unlike his immediate predecessors Leo XIII, Pius X and Benedict XV, the new pontiff decided to appear at the external loggia of the Vatican Basilica, in St. Peter”s Square, without saying a word, but simply blessing the crowd, while the faithful of Rome responded with applause and shouts of joy. This “due” gesture, which occurred after the events of September 20, 1870, was to be considered of historical significance; it happened because Pius XI was convinced that the end of temporal power, even if in a “violent” manner, was, for the Church”s mission in the world, the liberation from the chains of human passions.

The Roman Question met not only the concerns and hopes of Catholics in Italy, but also of all Catholics in the world, so much so that zealous priests, moreover missionaries, such as Don Luigi Orione, took personal initiatives and wrote several times to the head of the Fascist government, Benito Mussolini; other priests intervened with their own studies at the Vatican Secretariat of State, in the person of the Pope”s delegate, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri.

On February 11, 1929, the pope was the architect of the signing of the Lateran Pacts between Cardinal Pietro Gasparri and the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini, which came at the end of a long negotiation process to close the thorniest dossier between Italy and the Holy See. On February 13, 1929 he delivered a speech to the students and faculty of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, which went down in history for a definition, according to which Mussolini would be “a man that Providence has made us meet”:

In spite of this, in his encyclical Non Abbiamo Bisogno two years later, Pius XI defined Fascism, whose founder was famously Mussolini, as “pagan statolatry”. The Holy See, by signing a concordat with a State, does not necessarily approve of its policies, as confirmed, for example, by Pius XII in his allocution in the consistory of June 2, 1945 (AAS 37 p. 152) regarding Nazism.

Already in 1922, before his election as Pope in February of the same year, during an interview granted to the French journalist Luc Valti (published in full in 1937 in L”illustration), Cardinal Achille Ratti had said about Mussolini:

In August 1923 Ratti confided to the Belgian ambassador that Mussolini “is certainly not Napoleon, and perhaps not even Cavour. But he alone has understood what his country needs to get out of the anarchy in which an impotent parliamentarianism and three years of war have thrown it. You see how he has dragged the nation with him. May he be allowed to lead Italy to its rebirth”.

On October 31, 1926 the teenager Anteo Zamboni had shot at Mussolini, in Bologna, missing the target. Pope Ratti intervened condemning “such a criminal attack, the mere thought of which saddens us and makes us give thanks to God for its failure”. The following year Pius XI exalted Mussolini as the man “who governs the destiny of the country with such energy that he rightly considers the country itself in danger whenever his person is in danger. The prompt and almost visible intervention of Divine Providence meant that that first storm was immediately overtaken by a real hurricane of jubilation, rejoicing, and thanksgiving for the escape of danger and the perfect and, it can be said, portentous safety of the victim”, expressing also “indignation and horror” for the attack.

With the Lateran Pacts, stipulated in the palace of San Giovanni in Laterano and consisting of two separate acts (Treaty and Concordat), the coldness and hostility between the two powers, which had lasted for fifty-nine years, was put to an end. With the historic treaty, the Holy See was given sovereignty over the Vatican City State, recognizing it as a subject of international law, in exchange for the Holy See abandoning its territorial claims on the previous Papal State; while the Holy See recognized the Kingdom of Italy with its capital in Rome. To compensate for the territorial losses and as a support in the transitional period, the government guaranteed (Financial Convention, attached to the Treaty) a transfer of money consisting of 750 million lire in cash and one billion in government bonds at 5 percent which, invested by Bernardino Nogara both in real estate and in productive activities, laid the foundations for the current economic structure of the Vatican.

The treaty also recalled Article 1 of the Statuto Albertino, reaffirming the Catholic religion as the sole religion of the State. The Lateran Pacts required bishops to swear allegiance to the Italian State, but established some privileges for the Catholic Church: religious marriages were recognized as having civil effects and the causes of nullity fell under the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts; the teaching of Catholic doctrine, defined as “foundation and crowning of public education”, became compulsory in primary and secondary schools; priests expelled or affected by ecclesiastical censure could not obtain or retain any public employment in the Italian State. For the Fascist regime, the Lateran Pacts constituted a valuable legitimation.

As a sign of reconciliation, the following July, the pope went out in solemn Eucharistic procession in St. Peter”s Square. Such an event had not happened since the time of Porta Pia. The first exit from the territory of Vatican City took place on 21 December of the same year when, very early in the morning, the pontiff went, escorted by Italian policemen on bicycles, to the basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, to officially take possession of his cathedral. In 1930 – one year after the signing of the Lateran Pacts – the elderly Cardinal Pietro Gasparri resigned, being replaced by Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII.

Another thorn for Pope Ratti was represented by the strongly anticlerical policy of the Mexican government. Already in 1914 real persecution of the clergy began and all religious worship was banned (consequently Catholic schools were also closed). The situation worsened in 1917 under the presidency of Venustiano Carranza. In 1922 the apostolic nuncio was expelled from Mexico. The persecution of Christians led to the revolt of the “cristeros” on July 31, 1926 in Oaxaca. In 1928 an agreement was sanctioned that readmitted the Catholic cult, but since the terms of the agreement were not respected Pius XI condemned these measures in 1933 with the encyclical Acerba Animi. He renewed the condemnation in 1937 with the encyclical Firmissimam Constantiam.

Passionate about science since his youth and a keen observer of technological development, he founded Vatican Radio with the collaboration of Guglielmo Marconi, modernized the Vatican Library and reconstituted with the collaboration of Father Agostino Gemelli in 1936 the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, admitting non-Catholics and even non-believers.

He was interested in the new means of communication: he had a new telephone exchange installed in the Vatican and although he personally made little use of the telephone, he was one of the first users of telecopy, an invention of the French Édouard Belin that allowed the transmission of photographs at a distance through the telephone or telegraph network. In 1931, in response to a written message and a photograph sent to him from Paris by Cardinal Verdier, he sent a newly taken photograph of himself.

His use of the radio was more frequent, although not many people could understand his radio messages, usually delivered in Latin.

Death and missing speech

In February 1939 Pius XI summoned the entire Italian episcopate to Rome on the occasion of the first ten years of the “conciliation” with the Italian State, the 17th year of his pontificate and the 60th year of his priesthood. On February 11 and 12 he would deliver an important speech, prepared for months, which would be his spiritual testament and where, probably, he would denounce the violation of the Lateran Pacts by the fascist government and racial persecution in Germany. This speech remained secret until the pontificate of Pope John XXIII when in 1959 some parts were published. In fact, he died of a heart attack after a long illness on the night of February 10, 1939. It is now well established that the text of the speech was destroyed by order of Pacelli, at the time Cardinal Secretary of State and responsible for managing the Vatican while waiting for the appointment of a new pope.

In September 2008, a conference organized in Rome by the Pave The Way Foundation on Pius XII”s actions towards the Jews brought the issue of relations between the Vatican and totalitarian dictatorships back into the media spotlight. A former leader of the Italian Catholic University Federation, Bianca Penco (vice-president of the federation between 1939 and 1942 and national president along with Giulio Andreotti and Ivo Murgia between 1942 and 1947), gave an interview to Secolo XIX in which she discusses the issue. According to Penco”s account, Pius XI received some prominent members of the federation in February 1939, announcing to them that he had prepared a speech that he intended to give on February 11, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Concordat: this speech would have been critical of Nazism and Fascism, and would also have contained references to the persecution of Christians that took place in Germany in those years.

The pope, according to the interview, was also supposed to announce an encyclical against anti-Semitism, entitled Humani generis unitas. But Achille Ratti died the night before, on February 10, and Pacelli, at the time Cardinal Secretary of State and after a little less than a month elected to the papacy as Pope Pius XII, would have decided not to disclose the contents of these documents. Penco also states that after the death of Pope Ratti, upon requests from FUCI representatives for information about the fate of the speech they had been able to preview, the very existence of it would be denied.. In fact, the so-called “hidden encyclical” had already been commissioned by Pius XI to the Jesuit LaFarge and two other writers. The outline of the encyclical, due to the delay with which it reached Pius XI, did not find Pope Ratti in the right health conditions to read and promulgate it. In fact, he died a few days after the outline arrived on his table.

Pius XII, his successor, did not consider promulgating it not because of any sympathy towards Fascism and Nazism, but because that outline of the encyclical contained, along with a clear and sharp condemnation of all forms of racism and in particular of anti-Semitic racism, also a reconfirmation of traditional theological anti-Judaism that, although it had nothing to do, as the Jewish scholar Anna Foa believes, with modern anti-Semitism, whose origins are instead Darwinian, positivist and theosophical, could have been easily exploited by the Nazi regime. If Pope Pacelli had published that encyclical in its entirety, he would have been accused of having lent theological arguments to Hitler”s racism. Instead, Pius XII, as a further demonstration of his firm opposition to Nazism and to all forms of racism, took up the anti-racist part of that “hidden encyclical” and included it in his first encyclical, the one containing the program of his newly begun pontificate, the Summi Pontificatus of 1939.

On the basis of an alleged memoir by Cardinal Eugène Tisserant found in 1972, the legend took shape that Pius XI had been poisoned by order of Benito Mussolini, who, having heard of the possibility of being condemned and perhaps excommunicated, instructed the doctor Francesco Petacci, father of Clara Petacci, to poison the Pope. This theory was flatly denied by Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri, personal secretary of Pius XI. This theory was also excluded by the scholar Emma Fattorini, considering the thesis as an excess of imagination that does not find the slightest confirmation in the current documentation.

Relations with the Italian Popular Party

On October 2, 1922, shortly before the rise of Fascism following the March on Rome, Pope Ratti sent a document in which he invited all churchmen not to collaborate with any political party, not even those of Catholic origin. In particular, a letter was found in the archives in which Don Luigi Sturzo was invited to resign from his position as secretary of the Italian Popular Party, a resignation actually given on July 10, 1923. After Sturzo”s resignation, Mussolini was able to affirm that he was the wrong man in a party of “Catholics who instead desire the good of the State”. The Italian Popular Party entered into a deep crisis that weakened its positions in Parliament and in the country. In 1926 the party was then officially declared dissolved. The Pope had always had little faith in political parties of any orientation and considered it more just to maintain relations directly with sovereign states, especially in Italy, where the National Fascist Party could show a certain ideological affinity in some respects (ensuring respect for the values dear to the Catholic Church through the restoration of order and authority) and also proved ready to collaborate.

In October 1938, a dispute arose in Bergamo between the local federal government and Catholic Action: Achille Starace intervened by removing the federal government, but in return he obtained the removal of some leaders of Catholic Action already members of the Italian Popular Party. The Pontiff himself was amazed that these people had been called to the local leadership of the association.

Relations with the fascist regime

Achille Ratti becomes pope in February 1922. The Roman Question was still unresolved, and as the first act of his pontificate, the Pope decided to impart the Apostolic Blessing from the central loggia of St. Peter”s Basilica, which had been closed in protest since the Porta Pia breach. Nine months after Pius XI”s election, Benito Mussolini came to power. On August 6, Pius XI had already written to the Italian bishops on the occasion of the tumultuous strikes and Fascist violence, condemning the “partisan passions” and exasperations that lead “now on one side, now on the other, to bloody offences”. This neutral attitude was reaffirmed on October 30, the day after the March on Rome, when L”Osservatore Romano wrote that the Pope “keeps himself above the parties, but remains the spiritual guide who always presides over the destinies of nations”.

These were the years in which both sides, the Italian and the Vatican, tried to reach a peace, a peace that actually took place with the signing of the Lateran Pacts in 1929. After 1929, however, relations between the Holy See and the Italian government were not without tensions, even very serious ones; in fact, relations between the Vatican and Fascism during the pontificate of Pius XI were marked by ups and downs. From 1922 to 1927 Pius XI tried to maintain an attitude of collaboration with the Italian authorities, while disapproving of the authoritarian involution of the State:

In the consistory of December 14, 1925, Pius XI took stock of his relations with the Fascist regime:

In 1926 some incidents opposed Catholics to fascist militants: for example there were clashes during the procession of the octave of Corpus Domini in Livorno and in August other serious incidents with a death in Mantua and Macerata. The bishop of Macerata wrote to Pius XI to denounce the inertia of the authorities in repressing the clashes: he replied by cancelling in protest the international congress of Catholic gymnasts, which should have been held in Rome. According to historian Yves Chiron, “Pius XI always reacted when fascist militants or the Italian government itself attacked the interests of the Church or the social and religious life of Catholics. But he also had the desire, like Mussolini, to resolve the Roman question.”

In the aftermath of the signing of the Lateran Pacts, Pius XI pointed to Mussolini as a “man whom Providence has made us meet,” later interpreted as “The Man of Providence”; the exact words were:

According to Vittorio Messori, with these words Pius XI intended to affirm that Mussolini did not have the prejudices that had led all previous negotiators to reject any agreement that provided for territorial sovereignty for the Holy See.

According to the anti-fascists, the agreement was a great moral victory of fascism that gave political legitimacy to the regime and allowed it to expand its consensus. According to liberal intellectuals, namely Benedetto Croce and Luigi Albertini, the Fascist Senator Professor Vittorio Scialoja (who opposed its approval in the Senate) with the Lateran Pacts the State renounced the principle of equality of all citizens before the law. According to the Christian Democrats and small Catholic groups, the Pacts represented a strong moment of crisis, as these political exponents considered inconceivable the alliance between the Catholic Church and a regime incompatible with Christian principles.

Even before 1929, the Fascist regime did not fail to interfere heavily in matters of primary importance for Catholic doctrine, first and foremost the education of young people.

With the birth in 1923 of the ONB (Opera Nazionale Balilla) all the organizations with a military character or framework had been dissolved. Some prefects applied this classification also to the scout groups, despite the fact that often the ecclesiastical authorities intervened in their defense, and many black shirts started to commit acts of violence against scout groups, including the murder in Argenta of Don Giovanni Minzoni, founder of the local scout group. In order to curb fascist behaviors, in 1924 the Italian Catholic Scouting Association (ASCI) merged, also thanks to Pius XI, into the Italian Catholic Action (Azione Cattolica Italiana), remaining however totally autonomous. On April 3, 1926 were approved the so-called fascist laws that provided, among other things, the dissolution of the scout departments in towns with less than 20,000 inhabitants. This law, because of the fragile relationship with the Church, was applied only from January 1927. It was a hard blow for scouting that saw the number of its groups drastically reduced. From this point on, the life of the scouts became more and more difficult, until two years later the ASCI was officially closed.

Thus, no more than two years after the signing of the Lateran Pacts, Pius XI found himself on a collision course with the Duce, first and foremost because of the Church”s role in the education of young people, which the regime wanted to reduce more and more. In 1931, when the government closed the offices of Catholic Action – often the object of violence and devastation by fascist groups – the Pope responded harshly with the encyclical (written in Italian and not Latin) Non Abbiamo Bisogno (We Have No Need), in which, stigmatizing the growing statolatry, he highlighted the contrast between fidelity to the Gospel of Christ and fascist ideology. The pope expresses himself thus in a passage of the encyclical:

The conflict was then healed with renunciations on both sides: on the one hand, the pope reorganized Catholic Action by eliminating the leaders in the odor of anti-fascism, submitting it to the direct control of the bishops and prohibiting its union action; on the other hand, Mussolini fired Giovanni Giuriati (as he was most exposed with the action of force) and accepted the idea that Catholic Action – once resized to the exclusively religious field – could continue to exist, on the condition, however, of the renunciation of the education of citizens and their political formation.

When Mussolini attacked the sovereign state of Ethiopia without a formal declaration of war (October 3, 1935), Pius XI, while disapproving of the Italian initiative and fearing a rapprochement between Italy and Germany, refrained from publicly condemning the war. The pope”s only condemnation (August 27, 1935) was followed by calls and intimidations from the Italian government, during which Mussolini himself intervened: the pope should not talk about the war if he wanted to maintain good relations with Italy. Pius XI”s official position of silence on the conflict gave rise to the image of the Vatican”s alignment with the regime”s policy of conquest: if the pope remained silent and allowed Catholic bishops, cardinals and intellectuals to publicly bless Italy”s heroic mission of faith and civilization in Africa, it meant that, in essence, he approved of the war and allowed the high clergy to say what they could not say directly because of the supranational nature of the Holy See.

The gradual approach of Fascist Italy to Nazi Germany, copying racist doctrines and policies, again cooled relations between the Holy See and the regime. Following the promulgation of the racial laws, the Vatican trusted in a rethink of the regime. The Holy See”s obstinate desire to reach an agreement with the Fascist regime stemmed from a concern not to jeopardize the fate of Catholic Action, not to worsen diplomatic relations with Italy in critical circumstances, and finally from a creeping – when not openly declared – sympathy for the discrimination introduced by the racial laws on the part of some Catholic circles. The dispute, while focusing mainly on the recognition of mixed marriages, which were very few, had as its object the whole issue of racism, clearly in contrast to the concept of universal brotherhood of Christianity. The decree law prevented Aryan citizens from marrying people of other races and therefore religious marriages could not be transcribed in the civil registers. On July 15, 1938, the day after the publication of the Manifesto of the Racist Scientists, Pius XI, in an audience with the nuns of Notre-Dame du Cénacle, condemned racism as a true apostasy. That address inaugurated a series of very severe interventions by Pius XI against racism.

After the promulgation of the Racial Laws in Italy, Pius XI expressed himself as follows in a private audience with Jesuit Father Tacchi Venturi:

And on September 6, 1938, in an audience granted to the collaborators of the Belgian Catholic Radio, he pronounced the famous words:

This issue occupied an important place in the thinking of the late Pius XI, so much so that he planned an encyclical against racism, Humani generis unitas, which, however, was never published due to the pontiff”s death.

Pius XI died on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the Conciliation, when he was to deliver an important speech to the assembly of Italian bishops gathered for the occasion. This speech, the text of which we know because it was made public by John XXIII, although severe on Fascism, was an attempt to give “a brake”, as in 1931, to Fascist violence.

Relations with National Socialist Germany

A few days later, during an address to the cardinals in consistory, Pius XI returned to praise the Führer as a defender of Christian civilization; So much so that Cardinal Faulhaber was able to testify to the bishops of his region that “the Holy Father has publicly praised the Chancellor of the Empire, Adolf Hitler, for his stance against Communism.” At the Fulda Conference in March 1933, with a public declaration drafted by Cardinal Adolf Bertram and approved by Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber, the German bishops retracted the prohibitions and reservations previously formulated against Nazism: members of the National Socialist movement and party could be admitted to the sacraments; “uniformed party members may be admitted to divine services and the sacraments even if they appear in large groups.” Special services for political organizations in general were to be avoided, but this did not refer to patriotic occasions in general: on such occasions arranged by the state, church bells could be rung with the permission of diocesan authorities.

At a meeting of the Bavarian Council of Ministers on April 24, the prime minister was able to report that Cardinal Faulhaber had instructed the clergy to support the new regime, which enjoyed the confidence of the cardinal himself. On July 20, 1933, a few months after Adolf Hitler”s rise to power, a concordat with Germany was ratified after years of negotiations – overseen first and foremost by Cardinal Secretary of State Pacelli, who had been for years the apostolic nuncio to Germany – but in the years that followed the Nazis did not respect in the least the clauses of the concordat. In order to correctly evaluate the importance of the stipulation of the Concordat between the Holy See and Nazi Germany, it is necessary to remember that the Reichskonkordat was the first important treaty of international law of Hitler”s government and a not inconsiderable success of his foreign policy: if the Holy See, as an undoubted power in the moral sphere, did not disdain to stipulate treaties with the National Socialists, then also for secular states there would no longer be any obstacles to entertain relations with Hitler”s government. However, it should be remembered that before the Concordat was signed, the Nazi regime had signed agreements of “collaboration and solidarity” with France, England and Italy, while on May 5, 1933 it had renewed a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union and its government had been accredited to the League of Nations.

In this regard, Cardinal von Faulhaber admitted that “Pope Pius XI was the first foreign ruler to conclude a solemn concordat with the new Reich government, guided by the desire to strengthen and promote the existing cordial relations between the Holy See and the German Reich”; Faulhaber continued that “In fact, Pope Pius XI was the best friend, at first even the only friend of the new Reich. Millions of people abroad initially had an attitude of expectation and mistrust towards the new Reich and only thanks to the stipulation of the concordat did they gain confidence in the new German government”. Adolf Hitler also jubilantly expressed his satisfaction with the conclusion of the Concordat in the Council of Ministers on July 14: even on the day of his seizure of power he judged it impossible to achieve such a result so quickly; he saw in the Concordat an unqualified recognition of the National Socialist regime by the Vatican.

Hitler sought in it an undoubtedly prestigious international recognition, the appearance of an endorsement of his regime, which would avoid any diplomatic isolation of Germany; he also pursued a further strengthening of his power, thanks to the broadening of the consensus of Catholics that would follow, and the elimination of the Center as an organized party, supported by the hierarchy and animated by a large presence of the clergy. With the Reichskonkordat, Hitler asserted, “an opportunity is offered to Germany and an atmosphere of trust of particular importance is created in the decisive struggle against international Jewry.” Responding to the misgivings of those who would have wished for a more precise identification and separation of the respective spheres of competence of the State and the Church, he reiterated the concept that “this is such an exceptional success, in respect of which all critical objections must cease to exist” and repeatedly said that even a short time before he would have considered it impossible.

According to Cardinal Pacelli, the signing of the Concordat did not imply a recognition of National Socialist ideology, as such, by the Curia. Instead, it was the tradition of the Holy See to deal with all possible partners – that is, even with totalitarian systems – in order to protect the Church and guarantee spiritual assistance. Immediately after the ratification of the Concordat, the first skirmishes between the Catholic Church and the National Socialist regime began, in the form of protests that were often decisive and categorical, but always undertaken with the caution, on the part of the high hierarchies of the Catholic clergy, to avoid a head-on clash and an open break with the regime. The ideological elements most frequently targeted were first of all the violations of the Concordat, followed by the neo-pagan drifts of some bangs of the regime and the attempt to create a national Christian church, unified and detached from Rome. But the recognition granted to the regime in the preceding months – of which the Concordat represents a decisive act – had conditioned these first protests, which ended up being diluted in a series of declarations, silences, acts, and outbursts of protest alternating with reticence and attempts at rapprochement.

On January 24, 1934 Hitler delegated to Alfred Rosenberg the training and education of young Nazis and all cultural activities of the party, appointing him DBFU. A few days later, on February 9, Pius XI put on the Index his main work The Myth of the Twentieth Century, a best seller of the time (however, the Holy See never put Hitler”s writings on the Index and until the end of his government the Führer remained a member of the Church, that is, he was never excommunicated (although Hitler did not consider himself a Christian, much less a Catholic). In the book Rosenberg hoped that Germany would return to paganism and attacked the Jewish race and consequently Christianity, heir of Judaism. The work was studied in Nazi schools and youth organizations. The condemnation, moreover, was exceptionally accompanied by a motivation that made explicit its meaning.

Rosenberg responded with a new book, To the Obscurantists of Our Time. A Response to the Attacks on “The Myth of the Twentieth Century.” This book was also put on the index by Pius XI on July 17, 1935. Shortly before, the Congress of the Nazi Party was held in Münster. Clemens August von Galen, bishop of the city, had unsuccessfully opposed the presence in the city of Rosenberg with a letter addressed to local political authorities. Rosenberg took the opportunity to attack von Galen and the occasional episodes of opposition to some aspects of National Socialism. But already in January 1936, a joint pastoral letter went so far as to clarify that, even if the Church forbade the faithful to read certain books, periodicals and newspapers, it did not want to violate the prerogatives of the State or the Party. And Bishop von Galen himself had declared in 1935 to the deans of the diocese of Münster: “It is not our task to judge the political organization and form of government of the German people, the measures and procedures adopted by the State; it is not our task to regret past forms of government and to criticize the current policy of the State”.

In 1936 the Pope intervened three times, on May 12, June 15 and September 14, to denounce the “war on the Church” conducted by the National Socialist regime. Also in May, on the recommendation of the Holy See, Catholics were forbidden to join the Dutch Nazi party, the Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging. In the last years of his life, Pius XI looked at Nazism with increasing hostility, going so far as to compare it to Communism: “National Socialism, in its aims and methods, is nothing but Bolshevism,” he declared in an audience held on January 23, 1937 to the bishops of Berlin and Münster. In 1937, as a result of the continuous interference of Nazism in the lives of Catholics and the increasingly evident neo-pagan character of Nazi ideology, the Pope issued the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (“with deep concern”), written under pressure from the German episcopate and written exceptionally in German and not in Latin, with which he firmly condemned some aspects of Nazi ideology, followed shortly after by Divini Redemptoris, with a similar condemnation of communist ideology. The protests of the German government were very harsh, such as the one sent by the German ambassador von Bergen on April 12, to which Pacelli replied. The crisis between the Holy See and Germany developed essentially on a spiritual and not on a political level.

The act of accusation against Hitler”s Germany was that of following a policy that could weaken the anti-Bolshevik front. At the same time, Pacelli worked to ensure that the text of the encyclical was disseminated as widely as possible. In Germany, the government proceeded to close down printing houses and diocesan archives, taking a lot of material from them. The Holy See responded by giving orders to burn all confidential documents. Relations between the German government and the Vatican reached their most acute phase when, on May 18, 1937, the Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago, George Mundelein, during a public speech, defined Hitler as “an Austrian painter, and an inept one at that”; following the vibrant German protests, the Holy See responded about the inappropriateness of the tones used by the American cardinal, but was careful not to contradict him.

In May 1938, when Hitler visited Rome, the Pontiff went to Castel Gandolfo after having the Vatican Museums closed and the Vatican lights turned off. On that occasion, L”Osservatore Romano made no mention of Hitler”s visit to the capital, and wrote: “The Pope left for Castel Gandolfo. The air of the Castelli Romani is very good for his health.” The closure of the museums and access to the Basilica was decided by the pontiff to manifest his own polemical absence from the city. Scholar Emma Fattorini reports that, although “on Hitler”s part there was not the slightest interest in a meeting,” the pope would have been open to a meeting if this had a conciliatory spirit. Pius XI later said: “This is one of the sad things: to put up in Rome, on the day of the Holy Cross, the sign of another cross that is not the cross of Christ”, referring to the numerous swastikas (or hooked crosses) that Mussolini had displayed in Rome as a tribute to Hitler.

He had also planned to issue another encyclical – Humani generis unitas (“the unity of the human race”), which condemned in an even more direct way the Nazi ideology of the superior race. The Pope had commissioned for the drafting of the encyclical the American Jesuit John LaFarge, who had already dealt with racial issues related to the situation in the United States of America. LaFarge, feeling that the task was beyond his abilities, asked for help from his direct superior, the General of the Society of Jesus, Father Włodzimierz Ledóchowski, who assisted him with the German Jesuit Gustav Gundlach and the Jesuit Gustave Desbuquois. This encyclical was completed but never signed by Pope Ratti due to his death. However, some concepts of the encyclical were taken up by his successor Pius XII in the encyclical Summi Pontificatus.

Relations with Communism

Pius XI”s evaluations of communism could only be negative, in this reflecting the consistency of the Catholic Church that has always evaluated communist ideology as antithetical to the Christian message. In 1937, also following the victory of the Left in France led by the socialist Léon Blum, but concerned above all for Russia, after having been informed by the apostolic administrator of Moscow, Monsignor Neveu, of the Stalinist purges, and for Mexico, the pope issued the encyclical Divini Redemptoris.

The papal condemnation concerns the “truly diabolical” propaganda, the economic system considered bankrupt, but above all concludes that communism is “intrinsically perverse” because it proposes a message of atheistic millenarianism that hides a “false redemption” of the humble. Previously, the pope had already expressed concern about the advances that communist ideology was making in society and particularly among Catholics.

Unlike the text Mit brennender Sorge published a few days earlier, there is ample documentation that allows us to know the different drafts. In all likelihood, as the notes of Monsignor Valentini and Pizzardo attest, the inspirer of the encyclical was a letter from the General of the Jesuits, Count Włodzimierz Ledóchowski, who, in any case, constantly followed its drafting. The encyclical, already completed on January 31, 1937, was officially published on March 19. It immediately aroused the enthusiastic appreciation of the various European right-wing movements, including Charles Maurras” Action Française, which at that time was excommunicated.

Spanish Civil War

In Spain the Popular Front of Marxist-Leninist inspiration had openly involved its forces also against the Catholic Church. Pius XI, however, could not, until an advanced stage of the Spanish conflict, recognize the Francoists and their government, despite the fact that the government of the Popular Front had promoted a violent persecution of the Catholic Church with devastation of churches, killing and torture of religious, and even looting the tombs of clergymen. This recognition was also hindered by the fact that the Popular Front was still the only one officially recognized at the international level. Moreover, by its own rule, the Holy See never withdraws its apostolic nuncio from any state unless it is forced to do so.

Being a party to the conflict as it was attacked by the Popular Front, the Catholic Church could not condemn the violence committed by the faction opposed to the Republicans, namely the Franco side (the bombing of Guernica in primis). After the abolition of the anticlerical legislation of the republicans by Francisco Franco at the beginning of 1938, the relations nevertheless improved and his successor Pius XII would receive in special audience the Falangist fighters.

It should be pointed out that in the Vatican documents concerning the relations between Pius XI and Franco”s Spain, a decidedly negative attitude towards the heavy communist violence of the Popular Front against the Church is clearly outlined, even though the Pope”s hostility towards Franco clearly emerges. The Spanish historian Vicente Cárcel Ortí has studied and brought to light unpublished documents from the Vatican Secret Archives, demonstrating not only that the Catholic Church clearly manifested hostility towards Francisco Franco, but also managed – in the persons of Pope Pius XI and some Spanish Bishops – to convince him to spare the lives of thousands of republicans condemned to death. The Pope was concerned about and disagreed with the position of Basque Catholics who at that time, by claiming autonomy, had in fact allied themselves with the Spanish Republicans.

On May 16, 1938 the official recognition of Franco”s government took place through the sending of the apostolic nuncio to Madrid in the person of Monsignor Gaetano Cicognani.

Relations with the Jews

Achille Ratti had studied Hebrew with the chief rabbi of Milan, Alessandro Da Fano, and when he became a Hebrew teacher in the seminary, he took the initiative to take his students to the synagogue, so that they could hear the Hebrew pronunciation.

As nuncio to Poland, in the period immediately following the First World War, Achille Ratti expressed considerations of the traditional theological anti-Judaism of the Doctrine of the Church that Jewish circles in later decades regarded as hostile. Achille Ratti arrived in Poland at a time when the growing resentment of Polish Catholics towards the Jews was leading to an increasingly bitter opposition that was eventually to result in open clashes. In the report that Ratti sent to the Holy See, following the pogroms, he pointed out the excessive influence that the Jews had in Poland: “Their economic, political and social importance is great and maximum”. In a subsequent report Ratti identified the Jews as the greatest enemies of Christianity and of the Polish people: “One of the most harmful and strongest influences that can be felt here, perhaps the strongest and most harmful, is that which is exercised by the Jews”. In other notes sent to the Vatican Monsignor Ratti informed that: “The Jews in Poland, contrary to those who live elsewhere in the civilized world, are unproductive elements. They are a race of shopkeepers par excellence,” and added: “The vast majority of the Jewish population is immersed in the blackest poverty. Apart from a relatively small number of artisans, the Jewish race “consists of small traders, businessmen and usurers – or to be more precise, all three at the same time – who live off the exploitation of the Christian population”.

Starting in the second half of the 1920s, in a climate in which ancient prejudices coexisted with the drive for change, we witnessed the emergence of the first serious religious and political fracture within the Church. In 1928, the condemnation of Action Française was followed by the first important formal condemnation of anti-Semitism, which took place at the behest of Pius XI (where the term anti-Semitism was used explicitly, something that would not happen in Mit Brennender Sorge, nor during the entire pontificate of Pius XII). These condemnations were followed by the suppression of the Opus sacerdotale Amici Israël (the Priestly Work Friends of Israel). Founded in February 1926, in antithesis to the anti-Semitic spirit of Charles Maurras (founder of Action Française), the association had a program for priests, contained in several pamphlets written in Latin, which sought to promote a new, loving attitude towards Israel and the Jews, for whom any accusation of deicide should be avoided.

In order to make a reconciliation with the Jews, the association sought to overturn the old positions taken by the Church: Friends Israël required the abandonment of all talk about deicide, the existence of a curse on Jews and ritual murder. A new sentiment that had to involve the heart of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and in fact, at the end of 1927, the association could already boast the membership of nineteen cardinals, two hundred and seventy-eight bishops and archbishops and three thousand priests. On March 25, 1928, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a decree ordering the suppression of this association following its proposal to reformulate the Good Friday prayer (Oremus et pro perfidis Judaeis) and the accusations of “blinding” contained therein, as well as the proposed rejection of the charge of deicide. The papal decree of suppression stated that the association”s program did not recognize “the perduring blindness of this people,” and that the way of acting and thinking of the Friends of Israel was “contrary to the sense and spirit of the Church, to the thought of the holy fathers and to the liturgy.” In an article that appeared immediately after the suppression, in the Nouvelle Revue Théologique, Father Jean Levie S.J. first recalled the “essential part” of the program of the Priestly Work, pointing out that this program was “clearly praiseworthy” and that it “showed nothing that was not absolutely in conformity with the Catholic ideal.”

An important leader of Catholic anti-Semitism was the French priest Ernest Jouin (1844-1932) who had founded in 1912 the anti-Semitic and anti-Masonic publication Revue Internationale des Sociétés secrètes. Jouin took care to make known to the French public the Protocols of the Elder Saviors of Zion as proof of the alleged Jewish plot aimed at world domination, stating in the preface: “From the threefold point of view of race, nationality and religion, the Jew has become the enemy of humanity” and reiterating his warning about the two goals that the Jews set themselves: “The universal domination of the world and the destruction of Catholicism”. Pius XI, having received Jouin in a private audience, encouraged him in his constant denunciation of alleged plots hatched by secret societies, saying: “Continue with your Revue, despite the financial difficulties, because you are fighting our mortal enemy. And he invested him with the honorary office of prothonotary apostolic.

The French historian and sociologist Émile Poulat wrote in a commentary on Jouin – a priest endowed with a strong and unanimously respected personality – that his works and activities had been praised and encouraged by Benedict XV and Pius XI who appointed him, the one a domestic prelate and the other an apostolic protonotary.

On February 11, 1932, on the occasion of Mussolini”s visit to the Vatican for the anniversary of the Conciliation, Pius XI presented again the image of a Church subjected to the concentric attacks of Protestants, Communists and Jews. In addition to the danger posed by Protestant propaganda, the Pope pointed out to the Duce the existence of a “painful triangle” that was a source of serious concern for the Church and that was represented by Mexico with regard to Freemasonry, Spain where Bolshevism and Freemasonry operated together, and Russia with regard to Judaeo-Bolshevism. It was in this last regard that the Pope expressed the opinion that, behind the anti-Christian persecution taking place in Russia, there was “also the anti-Christian aversion of Judaism”. And he added a memory: “when I was in Warsaw I saw that in all Bolshevik regiments the commissar or commissary were Jews. In Italy, however, the Jews were an exception.”.

In the extremely difficult situation of the enactment of the Italian anti-Jewish laws, Pius XI had the courage to declare, several times and in an official and solemn manner, his and the Church”s opposition to the racial laws. Pius XI made two public speeches, one on July 15th and the other on July 28th, immediately after the proclamation of the infamous Fascist laws in defence of race. He spoke out clearly against the Manifesto of Racist Scientists (July 15th) and complained that Italy was “unfortunately” imitating Nazi Germany on racism (July 28th). The foreign minister Galeazzo Ciano, commenting on these speeches, reported in his diaries the reaction of Mussolini who tried to put pressure on the Pope to avoid blatant protests: “It seems that the Pope has made yesterday a new unpleasant speech on exaggerated nationalism and racism. The Duce, who summoned Father Tacchi Venturi for this evening. Contrary to popular belief, he said, I am a patient man. It is necessary, however, that this patience should not be made me lose it, otherwise I act by making a desert. If the Pope continues to speak, I will scratch the scab off the Italians and in no time at all I will make them go back to being anti-clerical.” The clearest words of condemnation were proclaimed by the Pope on September 6, 1938, when he gave an emotional speech – to the point of tears – in reaction to the Fascist measures that excluded Jews from schools and universities, in a private audience with the president, vice-president and secretary of the Belgian Catholic radio, in which he reiterated the indissoluble bond between Christianity and Judaism:

Monsignor Louis Picard, president of the Belgian radio, transcribed the pope”s speech and published it in La libre Belgique. La Croix and La Documentation catholique picked it up by publishing it in France and the pope”s words spread.

Later on, the pope himself took care of hiring university professors expelled from Italian institutes in the Vatican and helping them to relocate to universities abroad, an action that was continued by his successor Pius XII. Among the best known cases were those of the two illustrious Jewish mathematicians dismissed by the Italian Ministry under the racial laws, Vito Volterra and Tullio Levi-Civita, and appointed members of the prestigious Pontifical Academy of Sciences led by Father Agostino Gemelli. The ecclesiastical historian Hubert Wolf, in a television interview, recalls how the pope was not only concerned about the expelled teachers but also about Jewish students, prevented by the law from attending the Italian university system: “When in 1938 Jewish students from Germany, Austria and Italy were expelled from universities because they were Jews, Pius XI begged the cardinals of the United States and Canada, in a letter written in his own hand, to make every effort so that students of all faculties could finish their studies in the United States and Canada. He added that the Church has a special responsibility towards them since they belong to the race to which the Redeemer, Jesus Christ, also belongs in his human nature.” Mussolini himself, in his Trieste speech in September 1938, accused the Pope of defending the Jews (the famous passage “from too many Chairs they are defended”) and threatened more severe measures against them if the Catholics insisted.

Nevertheless, in those days almost all Italian bishops gave homilies against the regime and racism. However, it was Antonio Santin, bishop of Trieste and Capodistria, who stopped Mussolini at the doors of the cathedral of San Giusto and threatened the Duce not to let him enter the church if he did not retract the accusations against the Pope. Moreover, Santin was the only Italian bishop who had the courage to go and personally protest to Mussolini at Palazzo Venezia, reminding him of the injustice of the racial laws and that, contrary to legend, there were also very poor Jews. Only later did the bishop inform Pius XI of what he had done and obtained his approval.

Pius XI then protested officially and in writing to the king and the head of government about the violation of the Concordat produced by the racial decrees. The magazine La difesa della razza and its contents praising biological racism were officially condemned by the Holy Office.

In April 1938 Pius XI sent a condemnation of racial theses to all Catholic universities. This document, called the Anti-Racist Syllabus, originated from a draft condemnation of racism, ultra-nationalism, totalitarianism and communism prepared by the Holy Office in 1936. The document condemned eight propositions, six of which were racist. Pius XI asked university professors to argue against the condemned propositions. This was followed by articles in major international theological journals, and studies appeared on the subject. The declaration dated April 13, 1938 was made public on May 3, the day of Hitler”s visit to Rome, Pius XI wishing to “oppose head-on what he considered the very heart of the doctrine of National Socialism.

Finally, when he re-established the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he called the Jewish mathematicians Tullio Levi Civita and Vito Volterra, expelled from Italian universities following the racial laws, to join as its first members.

When Benito Mussolini”s fascist regime published the Racial Laws, which excluded all Italians of Jewish origin from public life, the reaction of the Vatican and Pope Pius XI was not long in coming. Among the various initiatives in which the racist policy of the regime was rejected in public speeches, documents and homilies, there was the so-called Syllabus antirazzista (in recall of the “Syllabus” or the “Syllabus complectens praecipuos nostrae aetatis errores” in Italian “List containing the main errors of our time, which Pope Pius IX published together with the encyclical Quanta cura on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1864, and which was a list of eighty propositions containing the main errors of that time according to the Catholic Church). In April 1938, Pius XI invited all Catholic universities to draw up a document condemning the racial theses, a sort of “counter-manifesto” of the Catholic intelligentsia in response to the Manifesto of Racist Scientists produced by the professors of state universities in deference to the regime. The Pope had thought of a refutation, in the name of truth and “against the raging of those errors,” of the racial ideas that were being advocated to justify the introduction of racial laws.

The document, renamed “Syllabus anti-racist”, condemned eight propositions, six of which were racist, counterarguing from a scientific point of view the propositions exposed by the fascists on race. The ideas on which the racial theses of the time were based were deconstructed, many of which were inspired by social Darwinism. This elaboration was followed by several articles published in the major international theological journals and studies appeared on the subject.

The declaration of denial of the racial theories wanted by the regime, developed by Catholic scholars and organized in the “Anti-Racist Syllabus”, dated April 13, was made public on May 3, a day not chosen at random by Pope Ratti. That was in fact the day of Hitler”s official visit to Rome, and the pope wanted to “oppose frontally what he considered the very heart of the doctrine of National Socialism”. This was a clear gesture of defiance and disapproval, underlined also by the fact that the Holy Father decided to move to Castel Gandolfo that day after having ordered the closure of the Vatican Museums, St. Peter”s Basilica, turned off all the lights and forbidden the nuncio and the bishops to participate in any official ceremony in honor of the Führer. He then instructed L”Osservatore Romano not to make any mention of the meeting of the two heads of state (in fact, in those days, Hitler”s name did not even appear in it. The previous day the announcement had already appeared, again on the front page with a picture: “The Holy Father in Castelgandolfo”. The Holy Father left Rome on Saturday, April 30 at 5:00 p.m. because the air of Rome “made him sick. As a “welcome”, Pius XI had an article published on the front page on the false doctrines of racist ideology that presented the “Anti-Racist Syllabus”.

Pope Pius XI created 76 cardinals during his pontificate in 17 separate consistories.

Honors of the Holy See

The pope is sovereign of the pontifical orders of the Holy See while the Grand Magisterium of individual honors may be maintained directly by the pontiff or granted to a trusted person, usually a cardinal.

Foreign honors


  1. Papa Pio XI
  2. Pope Pius XI
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