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Catholic Culture Resources

A Book about the Pope I Won’t Read

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 14, 2013

Believe me, I understand two things that are at work right now. First, what people want to read about—including readers of—is Pope Francis. But we are keeping you informed with regular news reports as his pontificate unfolds. What am I going to add to that? It will take months to gauge the new pope’s top priorities, and several years to learn whether he will be able to implement his vision effectively.

Second, every organization on earth wants to benefit from the world’s current focus on the papacy, which is a rapidly closing window of opportunity. We’ll do that as well by emailing a new ebook—containing all of our prior news coverage of Jorge Mario Bergoglio before he became Pope Francis—to each person who makes a donation in any amount between now and the end of March. The new ebook will be available sometime tomorrow, but the offer starts now. Hopefully this will be one way of getting over the usual monthly hump.

This compilation of our past coverage is a relatively brief collection of some thirty news stories over the past seventeen years. Obviously we were not focusing closely on Cardinal Bergoglio during this period. Still, it is something I’ll enjoy reading myself, and nothing has been “doctored” since the election.

But would you believe that the day before Pope Francis was elected I received a different sort of book about two popes, from a publisher which definitely hoped, for very different reasons, to capitalize on the interest in the conclave? I’m referring to Peter Eisner’s book The Pope’s Last Crusade, subtitled “How an American Jesuit Helped Pope Pius XI’s Campaign to Stop Hitler”. It was published by Harper Collins under its William Morrow imprint.

This is one book I simply will not read.

The reason I won’t read it is that the marketing flyers which shipped with the book have put me off for good. The marketers thought it expedient to highlight a single quote in large letters at the top of the sheet, taken from Kirkus Reviews. The quote calls The Pope’s Last Crusade “an exciting reminder of how Vatican machinations continue to haunt history.”

Reading the promotional literature, we find that this book focuses on the rise and fall of Pope Pius XI’s opposition to National Socialism and Adolph Hitler. In 1937, of course, Pius XI issued a condemnation of both the racist policies and the persecution of Catholics in the Third Reich in his 1937 encyclical Mit Brenender Sorge (With Deep Anxiety or On the Church and the German Reich). But according to Eisner, Pius XI wanted to go farther and issue an even more severe condemnation. To achieve this goal, he recruited the American Jesuit John LaFarge to secretly draft a new encyclical. But Pius XI was in his 80s and weakening rapidly from a serious heart condition. This new effort was cut short by his death in 1939.

In this, naturally, Eisner uncovers yet another Vatican conspiracy which has changed history. According to Eisner, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus (called in the enclosed Kirkus review “the Pope’s Superior General”, which already displays a surprising level of confusion) conspired with the Pope’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, to make sure that the encyclical was stalled, because Pacelli “believed the pope was unbalanced and that communism (and Jews) was the menace, not Nazism”. And when Cardinal Pacelli was elected Pope Pius XII, the whole project to resist Nazism was hidden away and dropped. A new era began in which the Jews were sacrificed to expediency and, well, we can all begin to see how “Vatican machinations continue to haunt history.” Well, can’t we?

I believe most readers are aware that Pope Pius XII walked a very fine line, avoiding direct confrontations with the Nazi regime in the hope of reducing the terrible risks of being Catholic in Germany (including a very real risk of imprisonment and death) while at the same time doing everything he could under the radar to assist Jews in their flight to freedom. Most of our readers know that Pius XII was personally thanked after the war by many high-ranking Jews, including the Chief Rabbi in Jerusalem, for all he had done for the Jewish people in such a dark hour. Most readers know that it was not until Rolf Hochhuth’s play, The Deputy, in 1963 that a great propaganda campaign to tarnish the record of Pius XII was begun by those who did not have first-hand knowledge of his sacrifices.

And most readers probably also know that even the officials of the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem have now been convinced by ongoing research that Pius was, in fact, not the villain he has recently been portrayed to be, and they have begun changing their exhibits accordingly (see Israeli Holocaust memorial moderates critical tone in description of Pope Pius XII and Historical evidence prompted Yad Vashem to alter judgment on Pope Pius XII). What will undoubtedly be a slow and painful reappraisal is now well underway.

But apparently The Pope’s Last Crusade is locked in the sensational and gleefully anti-Catholic mid-term fictional theories about Pius XI, theories contradicted by both the reactions of those on the scene and the best later research. Or, I suppose, there may be a slight possibility that this is not the case. Remember, I will never read this book because of the marketing material. It is reasonable to assume the advertising reflects the tenor of the book. But I have not checked.

In any case, we are assured by the marketing material that:

Eisner deftly recounts how, after the death of Pius XI, Cardinal Pacelli, in league with other conservative churchmen, purposely put a stop to LaFarge’s encyclical, and how, willing to appease Hitler, they plotted in the background to block one of the most significant and progressive pronouncements ever commissioned by the Vatican. [emphasis added, just for fun]

Or, as the highly-touted Kirkus review puts it, “Eisner closes with excerpts from LaFarge’s powerful encyclical and the chilling suggestion of what might have been the outcome had it been published.”

There you have it, friends. Simply by publishing LaFarge’s encyclical, Cardinal Pacelli could have stopped Hitler cold in his tracks, but he chose to “plot in the background” instead. Indeed, he must have continued to plot in the background even after Pius XI died, just to keep LaFarge’s encyclical from being published under his own name of Pius XII.

The mind boggles. Still, I hope I have successfully explained why life is too short to ever read this book.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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