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New book details Catholic Church’s role in twentieth-century European politics

Overall, Giuliana Chamedes’ A Twentieth-Century Crusade: The Vatican’s Battle to Remake Christian Europe is a well-researched, often insightful work filled with little-known and rarely-discussed information.

Pope Pius XII is pictured at the Vatican in a file photo dated March 15, 1949. (CNS file photo)

It is a rare enough book which calls attention to a set of facts which are crucial to an accurate understanding of a given period of history and yet widely overlooked. Giuliana Chamedes’ A Twentieth-Century Crusade: The Vatican’s Battle to Remake Christian Europe is, therefore, a somewhat special treat, recounting no fewer than three (admittedly interrelated) stories which have long needed to be told:

1) The important role which the Catholic Church continued to play in European politics from 1914-1945, a period which it is often thought to have been politically marginalized;

2) the historical context within which the Vatican responded to the rise of Nazism, a context which did not foresee the events which took place from 1939-1945; and

3) the Vatican’s shift, between the end of World War II and the Second Vatican Council, from an alliance with Continental European nationalists to an alliance with liberal democracies oriented towards the United States.

As the remnants of the old Christian political order of Europe were largely destroyed in the years surrounding the end of the First World War, the Vatican turned to political movements which combined elements of traditionalist conservatism and of nationalism. Its program was based on a distinction between, in philosophical terms, the “substance” of an explicitly Catholic (or at least Christian) political order and the “accidents” of the old monarchies. The new map of Europe and its new republics were accepted—enthusiastically, grudgingly or with indifference depending on the particular case—while the ideologies of classical liberalism, progressive liberalism, socialism, and communism were vigorously opposed.

The key to the “new Christendom” envisioned by the Vatican was the concordat, a form of agreement between the Holy See and a national government which had the legally binding status of a treaty under international law. Both the Church and the new governments had much to gain from such treaties. Not only was the Church’s freedom to pursue its mission, its property. and its finances legally secured but governments entering into concordats bound themselves to a political and legal order based upon Catholic moral principles, such as those concerning marriage, separation of spouses, and annulments.

Concordats also included formal recognition of the new governments’ legitimacy by the Church, assuring them the support of the substantial numbers of Catholics whom they governed and who might otherwise have been inclined to work for restoration of the fallen monarchies. The result was that new governments solidified their own power by allowing a degree of political power to the Church more reminiscent of the seventeenth century than of the late twentieth century.

Though opposed in varying degrees to all political philosophies not explicitly Christian, the Holy See saw socialism and communism as the primary enemies, partly because their atheism and their rejection of property rights made them some of the most radical enemies of a Christian political order but also because of the frequency with which attempted socialist and communist revolutions either temporarily gained power or relied on the use of armed force during the interwar period.

It is this anti-communist context that shed light on the attitudes of the Vatican to the rise of Nazism and the events which led to the outbreak of World War II. Most critiques of and most apologias for the actions of Pope Pius XII (Cardinal Pacelli before his election as pope) and of other leading prelates interpret their behavior through the lens of hindsight, assuming that their opinions and actions during the 1930s reflect their attitudes to the events which took place from 1939 to 1945. Though Chamedes is overly critical of such churchmen she does at least put their opinions and actions in the context of what was known in the 1930s rather than of what we know now. She paints a picture of men so preoccupied with the dangers of Soviet Russian expansion and of what they believed to be widespread communist conspiracies throughout the western world that they was willing to turn a blind eye to evils in Germany, which they would have vigorously opposed under other circumstances. In her view Pius XII’s wartime behavior was that of a man who was weak rather than complicit.

While I would not wish to endorse Chamedes’s interpretations in their entirety, they are not without points of merit. The Vatican did indeed overestimate the extent of communist infiltration into political life and the press, as well as of formal communist conspiracy. But such infiltration and such conspiracies were widespread enough for the Vatican’s beliefs to constitute an understandable exaggeration rather than near paranoia. It is also true that Vatican officials of the 1930s massively underestimated the degree of the danger posed by the Nazis. Such a grave error of judgment is more understandable than is now apparent: even a temporary German conquest of half of Europe appeared highly implausible until it happened, and long-term maintenance of such conquests seemed impossible. Unlike communist internationalism, a radical German nationalist movement could never attract support outside of its own “master race.” Belief that communism was the greater long term threat was valid enough, Hitler ruling Germany for twelve years compared to communists having (at the time of this writing) ruled much of the world‘s population for more than a century (and having at least as high a death toll per year in power).

Vatican assessments of international politics in the 1930s ultimately betray a rare example of myopic long-sightedness, correctly identifying communism as the greater long term threat while failing to recognize that Nazism was the more imminent one. And as for Pius XII’s own actions during the war, he himself spent the rest of his life wondering if he could have or should have taken firmer or more drastic action—an attitude which proves both his goodness and the reasonableness of suggesting that his judgment calls may have left something to be desired.

When World War II ended the coalition of traditionalists and nationalists upon which the Vatican had relied a quarter of a century earlier was no longer a viable political force on its own. Certain elements of it had either reluctantly cooperated or enthusiastically collaborated with the Axis. Others turned to an alliance with liberal democracy as the only viable alternative to fascistic, socialist, and communist authoritarianism, and it was with this new alliance that the Vatican associated itself. The history of this alliance provides essential background for interpretations of Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae, a document which does not represent a repudiation of earlier papal teaching (as celebrated by some disciples of John Courtney Murray and castigated by disciples of Marcel Lefebvre) but is, rather, grounded in a belief that the magisterial condemnations of classical liberal philosophy which prevent the Church from full reconciliation with classical liberal political orders do not prevent a pragmatic modus vivendi with them, or from recognizing areas of shared concern.

Though requiring careful, critical reading and disagreements with some of its interpretations, A Twentieth-Century Crusade is a well-researched and in many ways insightful work filled with little-known and rarely-discussed information essential to a deeper and more accurate understanding of Catholic history in the first half of the twentieth century.


A Twentieth-Century Crusade: The Vatican’s Battle to Remake Christian Europe
By Giuliana Chamedes
Harvard University Press, 2019
Hardcover, 440 pages

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About James Baresel 18 Articles
James Baresel is a freelance writer. He holds a Master of Arts in philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Cincinnati.


  1. Medical ethics acknowledges a difficult reality. That between black and white we frequently perceive gray. Ms Chamedes’ kind word on Pius XII musing whether he should have done differently signals his good. Not overly surprised that Essayist J Barasel cites Dignitatis Humanae as Ms Chamedes’ centerpiece of the present Liberal Conservative ecclesial World War between The disciples of John Courtney Murray SJ and disciples of Marcel Lefebvre CSSp. That Declaration as written cannot reconcile either. It can be easily defended and easily repudiated the anomaly is that both sides defend it on different grounds. Indicating a missing piece the very basis of what forms conscience. A reminder. The Natural Law written in the heart of Man [the Catechism calls the Decalogue God’s “reminder”]. Josef Fuchs SJ at the Gregorian Inst taught there’s a soteriological love of the Redeemer that surpasses Natural Law. Although Fr Fuchs fails to demonstrate how the Redeemer can transcend the Creator Word who institutes natural order in all things, an order that reflects the Eternal Law. It speaks to the dual Vatican papal messaging of a Messianic new paradigm essentially different from a quite traditional Jesus of Nazareth. Amazonia is epochal. A Vortex of all these political ecclesial forces likely omitted by Chamades due to prior publication. As a not too distant aside Der Ring des Nibelungen Wagner’s Das Rheingold is dramatic as is Amazonia. Foreboding. A magic ring is shared by the Nibelungen that destroys them all. Of course the black ring at the Vatican lawn Pachamama ritual comes to mind. Foreboding yes.

  2. “The Vatican did indeed overestimate the extent of communist infiltration into political life and the press, as well as of formal communist conspiracy. But such infiltration and such conspiracies were widespread enough for the Vatican’s beliefs to constitute an understandable exaggeration rather than near paranoia.”

    How does one get sufficient historical evidence to back up an assertion such as this?

    • Bearing in mind the actions of Lenin and Stalin, the millions killed in pursuit of the communist ideal, (estimated by Solzhenitsyn as 60 million and by others as over 100 million) and, bearing in mind the thousands of priests and faithful Catholics killed by reason only of their Catholic faith, did Pope Pius XII exaggerate the threat of communism? If one puts into the calculations further efforts at implementing socialism throughout the world, including China, Kampuchea and Eastern Europe, Communism/ Socialism has killed many more people than the Nazis ever did. But, in any event, it was not as if there was a choice, the Vatican had to deal with the political situation that existed, the Vatican is the site of a religion, not an armed country. The Pope and the Vatican rightly identified both ideologies, Nazism and communism, as evil and they assessed it correctly- they were both evil.

  3. I find it incomprehensible that any scholar would characterise the actions of Pope Pius XII as ‘weak’. One has only to read the remarks of the prominent Jewish leaders at the time to understand the courage of this pontiff, who tackled Nazism head-on, and was the only western leader to do so.
    Perhaps the author has not read the autobiography of Israel Zolli, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, who converted to Catholicism and changed his name to Eugenio, in honour of Pope Pius XII, because of his courage and moral leadership. Perhaps she has not read the observations of the Rabbis of Palestine, or Golda Meier or the other Jewish leaders. Or perhaps she has not read the Jewish newspapers of the time, or the New York Times editorials of 1941 and 1942, when Pope Pius XII was described as ‘a lone voice’. If these actions are considered, together with his directions to the Catholic clergy and institutions to shelter and rescue Jews and other victims of the Nazis, then the conclusion regarding this holy man can only be admiration for a man of such courage that it is humbling to consider our vanity In positioning ourselves to pick out actions omitted and make judgment on him.
    If the author has not referred to the contemporaneous opinion of Pope Pius XII, that is, the world-wide opinion of him that predated the communist character assassination that began with ‘The Deputy’ in 1963 and was resurrected by other books of purported ‘scholarship’ in the 1990’s, then I would seriously question the assertion of ‘scholarship ‘ on her part. The facts, statistics and newspapers are freely available on the internet, a factor which has made the continuing attempt to denigrate this great man more difficult. It also makes the perpetual claim to ‘scholarship’ by these analysts of the Catholic Church more meaningless. I recommend really looking into the actions of Pope Pius XII and the thousands of Catholic clergy, nuns, priests, monks, laity, who risked their lives and spoke out during that time. Books which detail contemporaneously include; Pinchas Lapide,’ Three Popes and the Jews’, Jeno Levai ‘Hungarian Jewry and the Papacy’, Carroll-Abbing, ‘But for the Grace of God’.
    Those who author books of purported ‘scholarship’ who, in reality, are using the disguise of ‘scholarship ‘ to re-disseminate the character slur against Pius XII and the Catholic Church, should bear in mind that whatever political ideology they believe, it cuts across the laws carved into our hearts to bear false witness, against these brave men and women and against Christ’s Church.

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