The debate around Pope Pius XII's silence during World War II continues to this day. Yet, ultimately, little is known behind the scenes of those troubled times because, like all diplomacy, everything was played out in secrecy and long remained a prisoner of the Vatican archives. The same is true of the foreign policy of the Holy See throughout the twentieth century, as the Church has been more or less linked to fundamental international issues, from the Spanish Civil War to the Cold War. Jean-Michel Meurice's book, The real power of the Vatican, provides valuable insight into these subjects.
A book and a documentary on Arte
The book The real power of the Vatican is to be compared with the documentary broadcast on Arte, of which it would be in a way the written version. This is moreover visible in the very form of the book, since each chapter opens with a presentation of the topic addressed, and continues with an interview with specialists in the history of the Church.
The latter, seventeen in number, are lay people like the historians Hubert Wolf and Philippe Levillain, but also ecclesiastics, including Cardinal Cottier (theologian of John Paul II) or Cardinal Sodano, a close friend of Benedict XVI. . Also included are a journalist (Giancarlo Zola), a political scientist (Francesco Margiotta-Broglio) and the former French Ambassador to the USSR (Jacques Andréani).
A journey to the heart of the 20th century
This survey-book (we will come back to it) therefore plunges us into the secrets of the diplomacy of the Holy See throughout the twentieth century. It begins exactly at the end of the 19th century, when Italy unites, and Pope Pius IX feels "a prisoner in the Vatican".
The creation and functioning of this state are the subject of the first chapter, “A state unlike any other”, in which the complex relations between the Pope, the college of cardinals and the curia, a legacy of the Renaissance, are developed, as well as the importance of the Sovereign Pontiff himself in the orientation of Vatican policy.
The second chapter deals with the relations between the Holy See and Italy (including the question of Rome), often conflicting from the end of the 19th century until the first decades of the 20th century. However, he dwells on Mussolini's rise to power. Then the ambiguities of the Church towards fascism appear, through the declarations of Pius XI (violently anti-communist) about the fascist leader. Then came the Lateran Agreements in 1929. The Vatican had to deal with the new power, to retain a certain influence and safeguard its interests.
The chapter "In the Heart of Darkness" looks back on World War I, and the attitude of the Vatican at that time, with the reluctance of most countries at war to intervene by the Pope. However, the latter proposed a peace plan in 1917; it is a failure, which marks a break in the foreign policy of the Holy See. Indeed, he is now choosing to be content with stating broad principles rather than meddling in diplomacy. Benedict XV also understands the loss of influence of Europe and the need to internationalize the Church, by forming an indigenous clergy.
The next three chapters are perhaps the heart of the book, because they concern the attitude of the Vatican towards the rise of Nazism in Germany and then during the war. First is discussed the way in which the Holy See behaves towards defeated Germany in World War I, with the central role of Nuncio Pacelli, in the context of the rise of Bolshevism; then, the 1930s, when Pacelli was Secretary of State to Pius XI: Hitler, as soon as he came to power, went in the direction of signing the Concordat on which Pacelli had been working since the end of the war, declaring that "Christianity is the moral and ethical foundation [of the German people]", assuring that they desire to maintain good relations with the Holy See. If the concordat was signed (July 20, 1933), tensions between the Nazi regime and the Church increased in the following years, as Hitler violated the terms of this treaty. It is in this context that the Pope writes his famous encyclical of 1937, on the situation of the Church in Germany: a criticism in order of the violations of the Concordat and of the Nazi ideology, which is criticized above all for its pagan character; in any case, there is no mention of anti-Semitism. However, just pope, Pius XII (Pacelli) also publishes an encyclical, among other things condemning racism (October 20, 1939). The last of these three chapters, "The Price of Silence", is curiously one of the shortest; it focuses on the attitude of the new pope vis-à-vis the military aggressions of the Nazis, then on Pius XII's attempt to support the conspirators gathered around General Beck to stop Hitler, and this from the start of the war: it is a failure, it seems because of English opposition and the absolute need to keep the Pope's involvement secret. Regarding deafness on the subject of anti-Semitism, Philippe Levillain prefers to speak of caution, and it seems that Pius XII preferred to let the people of the Church act on the spot, depending on the situation, rather than imposing a line. official; he himself prevents a raid of Jews in Rome in 1943. But according to Father Peter Gumpel, the Pope ends up being convinced that Hitler is possessed by the Devil! He even tried to exorcise her from a distance!
The chapter "Spanish Crusade" is one of the most interesting in the book. He devoted himself to the relations between the Church and Spain from the 19th century until the Spanish Civil War, and the slow shift towards strong support for Franco (without supporting violence ...), above all by rejection of communism, then to react to the massacres of Catholics by the Republicans. During the remainder of Franco's reign, the Vatican generally continued to have good relations with him (except when it wanted to ally itself with Hitler), in particular in the 1953 Concordat, where the Church received many privileges, including a statute. of state religion. In fact, it was not until Paul VI (in 1963) that we first saw a rupture between the Holy See and Francoist Spain, before the skill of the Pope, aided by the decisions of the Second Vatican Council, reached a standardization of reports.
The "New Wind" of chapter VIII first addresses the emergence after the war of political movements around the notion of "Christian democracy", supported very early on by Pius XII. At the same time, the fight continues against Stalinism following the first purges behind the future Iron Curtain, but then we witness a warming of relations between the Vatican and Moscow with the pontificates of John XXIII and Paul VI.
This renewal allows the Church to have her part in the so-called Helsinki process (from 1972), treated in the book with the chapter "The 3e trash '. This is the third group of provisions in the process signed in 1975 concerning human rights. During these negotiations, the Vatican is invited by Brezhnev himself, and the papal diplomats are among those who insist on this 3e basket; the signing of the agreements is therefore also seen as a diplomatic victory for the Holy See, despite Paul VI's initial reluctance to get involved in a strictly European issue. The Vatican then behaves like a real state, mainly (and logically) attached to religious freedom.
The Helsinki Accords are supported by Cardinal Karol Wojtyla who, who became pope in 1978 under the name of John Paul II, continues in the same spirit. As we know, his role is considered essential in the fall of communism, and this is what is dealt with in the chapter "Strong souls".
The last part, "Church Without Borders", is presented rather as a conclusion and an opening on the international role of the Church, favored by the popularity of John Paul II, the "traveling Pope". There is also the problem of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the attitude that the Holy See should have, as this war is waged in the Holy Land of the Church. Finally, how to react to the rise in power of China, where the Church has had a permanent but minor presence since the 17th century? Negotiations still continue today with Benedict XVI ...
The True Power of the Vatican: An Investigative Book
The author, Jean-Michel Meurice, is clear from his foreword: "this is not a historian's work but an investigation". If this is indeed the case, the work is no less serious and remarkably documented (thanks in part to the opening of the archives from before 1939). The form “in interviews” can get in the way for a while, but the fact that many of the speakers have been key players in the subjects discussed, or are indisputable specialists, makes everything fascinating. Sometimes it feels like reading a spy novel.
So, if we regret that some questions may have gone a little quickly, we can nonetheless only recommend this book, in particular to lovers of contemporary history. And we will also recommend viewing the accompanying documentary.
Jean-Michel Meurice, The true power of the Vatican: an investigation into a diplomacy unlike any other, Albin Michel / Arte, 2010, 235 p.