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THE HIDDEN ENCYCLICAL OF PIUS XI. By Georges Passelecq and Bernard Suchecky . Translated from the French by Steven Rendall . Introduction by Garry Wills . Harcourt Brace: 320 pp., $25

September 07, 1997|EDWARD McGLYNN GAFFNEY JR. | Edward McGlynn Gaffney Jr. served as the dean of the Valparaiso University School of Law (1990-97) and is currently a visiting scholar at the Pepperdine University School of Law

The publication of a document never issued by the leader who commissioned it is normally not very big news in diplomatic history. But it becomes a major publishing event when the text deals with racism and anti-Semitism, when the time of its commission was the late 1930s (when Jim Crow was the law of this land and when Nazi and Fascist racial purity laws turned toward the elimination of the Jews in the Shoah) and when it was the pope who commissioned the text.

For those reasons we should be grateful to Georges Passelecq, a Benedictine monk, and Bernard Suchecky, a Jewish historian. The story they relate in "The Hidden Encyclical of Pius XI" begins in 1937, when an American Jesuit, John LaFarge, wrote "Interracial Justice," a powerful indictment of American-style apartheid. LaFarge deftly analyzed the anthropological structure of American racism and anticipated the arguments used by Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues at the NAACP Education Defense Fund to overturn the "separate but equal" rule in this country.

LaFarge sent Pope Pius XI a copy of his book, not thinking that this gesture of courtesy would involve him in an important project far beyond his volume's scope. For 29 years, Achille Ratti had presided over two great scholarly collections, the Ambrosianum in Milan and the Vatican Library, before he became Pius XI in 1922. A librarian and an avid reader, Pius XI studied LaFarge's important work carefully. LaFarge went to Europe in May 1938 to gain first hand experience of the increasingly tense political situation for the Jesuit-edited journal, America. His travels took him to London and Paris, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, as well as Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy.

While attending a general audience in June at the papal summer villa in Castelgandolfo south of Rome, LaFarge had his plans dramatically altered. Hearing of LaFarge's presence in Rome, Pius XI sent for him and told him in a private audience that his volume on race in America was the "best thing written on the topic" and that he admired LaFarge's "synthesis of Catholic doctrine, the natural law, and pertinent facts, as well as some practical methods for dealing with the question." LaFarge found this high praise indeed but was stunned when the pope then "enjoined upon [him] to write the text of an Encyclical for the universal Church, on the topic which he considered most burning at the present time"--racism and anti-Semitism. Throughout the summer of 1938, LaFarge worked secretly in Paris composing this document with the aid of two fellow Jesuits, Gustav Gundlach and Gustave Desbuquois.

In September, LaFarge personally delivered the original French document and English and German versions to the Father General of the Jesuits, Wladimir Ledochowski. Ledochowski apparently played a crucial role in why the encyclical wasn't published--Passelecq and Suchecky are vague on this and other critical points in their narrative--by delaying its transmission to the pope for several months until Pius XI had become too ill to deal with the issue. It was precisely during this period when Fascist Italy, with the assistance of the Gestapo, began promulgating racial purity laws targeted at Italian Jews. Similar to the infamous Nuremberg Laws, these decrees banned foreign Jews from attending Italian schools at all levels of instruction; exiled Jews from Italian territory; annulled existing "interracial" marriages between Jews and Aryans and forbade them in the future; required Jews to carry an identity card marking them as "belonging to the Jewish race"; excluded Jews from military service and teaching posts; forbade Jewish ownership of real estate and commercial property; and nullified any provision of a will that designated an inheritance to a Jew. As nearly 8,000 Italian Jews were to discover, the road from these decrees led to Auschwitz.

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