The relationship between the 20th-century popes, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation is often the subject of discussion. Some publications have given hasty and not always correct answers to questions raised. In this article we will deal with two pontiffs considered by some historians as antithetical; different in character and sensibility, but who had in common a great respect and love for the Russian people, even considering the historical period in which they lived.
Pius XII and the Soviet Union
The legend about Pius XII’s silence in the face of Nazi crimes generally goes hand in hand, in publications hostile to him, with another false interpretation, according to which he avoided publicly condemning Hitler so as not to weaken the struggle he was waging against Bolshevism and Russia. The documentation on the matter – already published beginning in 1965 in the 12 volumes of Actes et Documents – and now made available to scholars after the opening of the Vatican Archives relating to the pontificate of Pius XII, proves beyond doubt this thesis is baseless.
When Germany invaded Russia in 1941, the U.S. president was faced with the question of whether or not to help Stalin economically – as he was already doing with Britain – who was now allied with the Western powers against Hitler. This fact constituted for many Americans a real “case of conscience,” but Catholics especially rejected the idea of U.S. collaboration with Stalin’s Russia. On the Catholic side, the possibility of such cooperation was rejected on the grounds that Russia persecuted religion and, in particular, Catholics. Moreover, Pius XI’s encyclical against communism Divini Redemptoris, dated March 19, 1937, was used in support of this opposition. It stated: “Communism is intrinsically perverse, and no one who would save Christian civilization may collaborate with it in any undertaking whatsoever.” President Roosevelt, in order to weaken the opposition of American Catholics to his plan to help Russia, asked the pope, through his representative Myron Taylor, for an “authentic interpretation” of the above passage, and also to give his assent – tacit, of course – to Allied-Russian collaboration to bring down Hitler’s regime.
On September 11, 1941, the Secretary of State, Cardinal Luigi Maglione, wrote to the Apostolic Delegate in Washington, Amleto Cicognani, telling him that he ought to “confidentially and discreetly reply to the prelates who ask him whether there is anything in the encyclical of Pius XI against the Russian people. The pope condemns Communism and the condemnation remains. For the Russian people the pontiff has, nor can he fail to have, nothing but paternal feelings.” In other words, U.S. Catholics were to have no qualms about supporting Roosevelt in his policy of economic and military support in favor of Stalin against Hitler. At the Secretariat of State, however, not everyone agreed: Archbishop Domenico Tardini – unlike Maglione – held that, “If the Russians win the war, the victory is Stalin’s. No one will be able to dethrone him. And Stalin’s Communism, the absolute master of the European continent.” Instead, he hoped that “from the war now being fought in Russia, Communism will emerge already defeated even annihilated and Nazism will emerge debilitated and ready to be defeated.” Archbishop Cicognani, moreover, tried to solicit a public statement from the Archbishop of Cincinnati, John Timothy McNicholas, in which the pope’s thoughts on the matter would have been made explicit. The archbishop showed himself willing to go along with the pontiff’s wishes and gave assurances that he would make such a statement in a pastoral letter addressed to the faithful of his diocese.