By 1937, Pope Pius XI (1857-1939) had seen too many violations of the Concordat and too much Nazi anti-religious propaganda. In a papal encyclical entitled “With Deep Anxiety,” he issued a stark condemnation of the regime. The Pope’s criticism embarrassed the government, which tried to suppress the distribution of the encyclical within Germany. It also retaliated against the Catholic Church in Germany, arresting priests on various pretexts. Pius XI died in early 1939, without having resolved the Vatican’s difficulties with Nazism.
His successor, Pope Pius XII (1876-1958), was a longtime Vatican official who already had a long history of dealings with Germany, having lived in the country from 1917 to 1929. During the war, Pope Pius XII largely left it to German bishops to decide how to respond to the Nazi regime’s murderous policies; most chose to avoid direct challenges (37). In August of 1941, one Catholic bishop, Clemens August von Galen (1878-1946) of Münster, used his sermons to raise both general criticisms of the Nazi regime and specific concerns about its euthanasia policy. His words set off furious but politically measured reactions among Nazi officials, who continued to reflect Hitler’s concerns about upholding morale during the war.
In late night conversations, Hitler frequently expressed his aversion to Christianity but saw little need or opportunity to destroy it immediately. Heinrich Himmler, however, expressed a more pressing interest in reducing or transforming religious loyalties in a speech to SS leaders on June 9, 1942. Himmler’s views help explain why some arrests of priests and seizures of Catholic Church properties continued during the war. For Nazi ideologues, Christianity was essentially un-German.
(37) Pius XII’s attitude toward, and reactions to, the Nazi regime have set off decades of controversy. For a historiographical treatment of the controversy, see: Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust, edited by Carol Rittner and John K. Roth (London: Leicester University Press, 2002); Jose M. Sanchez, Pius and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy (Washington, D. C.: Catholic University Press, 2002); Michael Phayer, The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000).