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Racism, Nazism and the Catholic Church

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Peter Eisner
  • Peter Eisner

Peter Eisner's The Pope's Last Crusade: How an American Jesuit Helped Pope Pius XI's Campaign to Stop Hitler is, like a lot of history, a frustrating read.

You have Pope XI (who reigned from 1922-1939) speaking out bravely about the threats Nazi Germany and racism posed to the world. “Spiritually we are all Semites,” he proclaimed, against an anti-Semitic climate within and without the Vatican.

And we find him reaching out to John LaFarge, a similarly forward-looking Jesuit journalist who called on the Church to fight against racial disparities in America.

So when the Pope asks LaFarge, a Vatican outsider, to write an encyclical (an influential Papal “position paper”) on the subject of “racism as myth,” we start to hope for a moment for a counter-historical ending. Alas.

Eisner's exciting, race-against-the-clock study should help an ordinary reader (like this one) learn the difference between Pope XI and XII (the latter, who reigned 1939-1958, was the one who publicly appeased the Nazis and Fascists during World War II). 

A foreign correspondent who's worked for The Associated Press, Newsday and The Washington Post, Eisner also wrote The Freedom Line, “about a group of young Europeans who set out on their own to rescue, hide ands transport fallen Allied airmen across occupied territory." He says he's attracted to writing about World War II because it “helps us easily understand moral issues and absolute evil. I hope my writing always finds individuals that have moral choices to make, whether to turn away or make decisions that matter to the larger world."

"Pope Pius XI actually had that moral challenge — and through him this Jesuit journalist, John LaFarge, was also faced with a moral decision," he continues. "And I'm working on a new World War II book now, in which an American singer finds herself stranded in Manila and becomes a guerrilla and a spy for the Allies in the midst of Japanese occupation.”

Pope Pius XI, according to Eisner, “was trying to use his public persona to awaken others to the fact that this was not just a question of survival of the church or anti-semitism. This was a world danger.”

Facing a similar moral challenge, LaFarge completed the encyclical but didn't push for its publication, in part because he felt beholden to the leader of the Jesuits at the time, who held anti-Semitic views and wasn't a fan of Pius XI's inflammatory statements on world events. “He didn't go all the way,” Eisner says of LaFarge. “He was stuck in the middle between moral conviction and following orders, which makes it more intriguing to me.” 

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