Could Hitler have been stopped and the Holocaust averted if Pope Pius XI had lived beyond early 1939?
The pope, a vocal opponent of fascism and Nazism, wanted the Catholic Church to stand up to Hitler and Mussolini, even over the objections of some in his inner circle at the Vatican.
Although he was suffering from congestive heart failure, skeptics noted that his death on Feb. 9, 1939, came one day before a meeting he had called of Italian bishops, where it was rumored he would excommunicate Mussolini and condemn fascism and Nazism.
“What would have happened if he had died one day later?” asks Peter Eisner, author of The Pope’s Last Crusade: How an American Jesuit Helped Pope Pius XI’s Campaign to Stop Hitler.
The 2014 book sets out to reveal through previously untapped resources, exclusive interviews, and new archival research, how the pope’s early demise changed history.
“Maybe he would have had the ability to move the masses,” said Eisner, a journalist and Rutgers University graduate, in a program March 30 at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick.
Despite the newly uncovered material, many aspects of the last 10 months of the pope’s life, and his death, remain shrouded in mystery, said Eisner.
The book focuses on the Rev. John LaFarge, an American Jesuit priest, whom Pius XI called on in writing a papal encyclical, the Vatican’s strongest decree, urging church leaders to publicly condemn Hitler’s campaign.
A “blue-blood” New England native, LaFarge had worked among poor African-Americans in rural Maryland during the 1930s and came to believe that the Catholic Church should take a lead on moral grounds in opposing racism in the United States and around the world.
The priest’s talent for writing landed him a job as assistant editor and later associate editor at America, a leading national Jesuit magazine. In 1938, he travelled through Europe to gauge how bad things had become.
LaFarge arrived in Rome the same day in May as Hitler did — to sign his alliance pact with Mussolini — and the same day that Pius XI retreated from the Vatican to the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo, his summer residence.
Eisner said the pope refused to reside in a city flying the “crooked cross,” meaning the swastika.
The pope summoned LaFarge to Castel Gandolfo. “The pope wanted to issue a strong statement condemning Hitler and anti-Semitism and declare under the church voice that Nazism is a menace beyond all others,” said Eisner. Pius XI instructed LaFarge to write the encyclical in the pope’s name.
At a time when the church was still clinging to the debunked belief that the Jews killed Jesus, Eisner said, Pope Pius XI declared, “We are all Semites.”
That move did not sit well with conservative members of the Vatican Council, particularly two of the pope’s top aides, the Very Rev. Wlodimir Ledochowski, known as “the black pope,” and Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who would become Pope Pius XII. They colluded with others to ensure the finished encyclical never reached the ailing pope, according to Eisner.
Pius XII, who succeeded Pius XI, became infamous for his silence during the Holocaust and remains a figure of deep controversy to this day. Eisner said his research has led him to believe that Pius XII, who believed communism was more of a threat to the Church than fascism, was, at heart, a coward.
Although scholars disagree on the potential impact of the thwarted encyclical, Eisner insists that LaFarge hoped it would mobilize opinion against the Nazis. In the end, LaFarge realized he had failed in his mission.
“In the end, this is a story about obedience,” said Eisner. “It is a story about lack of bravery, a story about people failing to acknowledge what was laid before them, and in the end a very human story about individuals taking roles, including roles representing morality.”