Talk of the papacy and totalitarianism usually revolves around the ambiguous figure of Pius XII: once hailed as a great statesman and friend to the Jewish people, later maligned as “Hitler’s Pope”, and now being cautiously rehabilitated by historians like Robert Ventresca. But the story of the Catholic Church and the 20th-century dictatorships is much bigger than the “Pius Wars”. Take, for instance, John XXIII and John Paul II, the two popes being canonised on April 27. Neither was by temperament a political animal, yet their experiences of repressive regimes formed them as leaders.
Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John, was a middle-aged priest in Rome when Mussolini took power. In 1924, Roncalli preached a daring sermon which dismissed the Fascists’ deceptive courting of Italian Catholics, while reminding his hearers that “true patriotism” might mean keeping a “distance” from national politics.
Roncalli, a historian by training, reflected all his life on these matters. As a Vatican diplomat in Atatürk’s Turkey, he endured strict censorship and the ban on religious dress. During World War II, he used what contacts he had to save lives, gaining visas for thousands of Slovakian Jews who were in danger of being sent to concentration camps. He recorded in his diary: “The world is poisoned by morbid nationalism, built up on the basis of race and blood.” The Church, he felt, had to offer a universal and supernatural hope which rose above international hatreds. This played a part in his decision, as John XXIII, to announce the Second Vatican Council in 1959.
Among the significant contributors to Vatican II was Bishop Karol Wojtyla, who during the long years of first Nazi, then Communist rule in Poland had been doing some hard thinking. As George Weigel relates in his biography Witness to Hope, the Communist hierarchy was rather pleased when Wojtyla became Archbishop of Kraków in 1963. Surely the party did not have much to fear from this abstracted philosophy professor?
But that depended on the philosophy. Wojtyla asked the great questions about the purpose of human existence. The answers, for him, could only be fully discovered in a self-giving life directed towards God. Yet even to ask the questions was a kind of rebellion in a country where schoolchildren learnt by rote “The individual is nil. The Party is everything.” And when Wojtyla returned to Poland as Pope John Paul II in 1979, his seriousness about human dignity shook Communist Europe. Like Roncalli, he never set out to be a revolutionary; but one outcome of the 20th century’s upheavals was to make popes look positively subversive.