The story of the race to compose a last top-secret encyclical against Nazi racism before the death of Pope Pius XI. Notwithstanding the spate of current works on the tragic shortcomings of Pius XII during World War II, journalist and producer Eisner (The Freedom Line: The Brave Men and Women Who Rescued Allied Airmen from the Nazis During World War II, 2004, etc.) refocuses the spotlight in this relevant study on his predecessor, who did speak out against anti-Semitism and the threat of Nazism--though he was silenced by an untimely death in 1939. Pius XI, an activist pope since 1922 under whom the Vatican ultimately became an independent city-state achieving political and financial stability, had been deeply moved by an American Jesuit priest's 1937 book Interracial Justice, about his work among poor Maryland blacks, and summoned the author, Rev. John LaFarge, to the Vatican in 1938. In his 80s, Pius XI had a serious heart condition, yet the growing Nazi menace demanded action: The year before, Pius had issued an important encyclical, With Deep Anxiety, slamming the Nazis for racist policies and oppression of Catholics; now, aware he was on death's door, Pius was determined to go further in a new message he urged LaFarge to write swiftly and in secret. Eisner traces LaFarge's work in Paris over the summer of 1938 and his missteps in confiding in the pope's Superior General Ledochowski as a go-between, a shadowy figure who allowed the document to languish while the pope grew more ill. Ledochowski, like the pope's secretary of state Cardinal Pacelli (the future Pius XII), believed that the pope was imbalanced and that communism (and Jews) was the menace, not Nazism. Eisner closes with excerpts from LaFarge's powerful encyclical and the chilling suggestion of what might have been the outcome had it been published. An exciting reminder of how Vatican machinations continue to haunt history.
Much has been written about Pope Pius XII and his actions during World War II, most famously by John Cornwell in his provocatively titled Hitler's Pope. Speculation continues among historians about how differently things might have turned out for Europe had that pope taken a stronger stance against Nazism and Italian fascism. This book focuses on his predecessor, Pius XI. It has now become known that, with the help of American priest John LaFarge, he was ready to take that stronger stance in the days before his death in 1939. Pius XI specifically asked LaFarge, whose writings on American racism the pope had read, to draft a strongly worded encyclical against racism and anti-Semitism. Unfortunately it never saw the light of day. Using LaFarge's journals and recent releases from the Vatican archives, Eisner (The Freedom Line) tells the story of LaFarge's clandestine recruitment for the task and the intrigue surrounding the encyclical's ultimate suppression. VERDICT This engrossing look behind the scenes of the Vatican at a pivotal moment in world history will appeal to history buffs. It would make a great book club read as well, where a lively discussion over one of the great "what ifs" of history could be had. [See Prepub Alert, 9/20/12.]—Brett Rohlwing, Milwaukee P.L.