Examining Pope Pius XII and Print Media Coverage in the U.S.

By Patrick M. Hutchison
2009, Vol. 1 No. 11 | pg. 1/1

Over the last few decades there has been an overflow of publications and discussions regarding Pope Pius XII in realtion to the Holocaust and World War II. Originally stemming from Rolf Hochuth’s “The Deputy,” the controversy was reignited more recently with the book “Hitler’s Pope” by John Cornwell. Most literature centers on either a defense or an attack of Pius, while others attempt to be neutral, with varying success. One of the central arguments that appears again and again is the supposed vagueness of Pius’ messages. Some argue that his encyclicals and radio messages did not speak out clearly enough against the atrocities of the war, while others argue that a clear and deliberate message would have been devastating for the Church and its members.

The United States had a special relationship with Pius XII. As Secretary of State, Eugenio Pacelli visited the United States in 1936, just years before he became Pope Pius XII and the outbreak of the war. When he was crowned pope on March 2, 1939 he became the only pontiff to have ever visited the United States. Combined with the reestablishment of a diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and the Vatican, Pius was a familiar face in America. Throughout the war period, Pius’ encyclicals and messages were heavily covered by press in the U.S. Both secular and non-secular publications provided articles on Pius’ messages.

Many articles would use Pius and the Vatican, or Pius and the Church interchangeably. For this research a focus on comments regarding Pius the person, were emphasized. Where pertinent, the distinction between the two is noted so as not to confuse the interpretation of the institution, for interpretation of the man.

Several key dates are important in understanding why and how coverage of Pius changed throughout the war. This paper will examine articles that were written from the election of Pius XII March 1939, to the end of the war in Europe, January 1945. The outbreak of WWII began with the invasion of Poland on September 2, 1939. Many papers begin to change their discourse, from discussing Germany to discussing Hitler, Nazis, and the Axis. Of particular interest to Catholic publications, is June of 1941, when the U.S. began supporting the Soviet Union through the Lend Lease Act. Because communism was seen as a specific threat to Catholicism as indicated by Pius XI in Divini Redemptoris, many Catholics would not want to support the U.S. aid. However, through some backchannel negotiations, Pius XII allowed a clarification to be made by Bishop McNicholas of Cincinnati who stated that Divini Redemptoris referred to communism and not to the Russian people, who would be the recipients of aid. Though many still opposed the decision it allowed many Catholic publications to support the U.S. The last important date is December of 1941 and the bombing of Pearl Harbor; an event which led to U.S. military engagement in the war. Looking at how publications shift and change their interpretations and support of Pius during these years provide interesting insight into the attitudes toward Pius in America at the time.


Run by Jesuits and published weekly, America was a liberal publication with a history of fighting for social and racial justice. One of its key contributors and later editors was John LaFarge, a priest who had been called to the Vatican to assist Pius XI with his encyclical, On the Unity of the Human Race, while Pius XII was still Eugenio Pacelli, Secretary of State. LaFarge would be a key analyst of Vatican diplomacy throughout the war for America. Shortly after Pius XII’s election, LaFarge wrote an article entitled, “Pius XII as Christ’s Vicar is Not a Political Pope”. In it, LaFarge points out that Pius XII is “first and foremost a man of God, that he is a spiritual man, that he will treat the political issues of the day in a spiritual manner, and, finally, that such a treatment is the only one which will bring peace and order into the world today”.1 The idea that Pius’ message is the ‘only’ message that will ‘bring peace’ is a pattern which emerges in many papers. Later, just before news of the invasion of Poland was realized, an article states “There is nothing, absolutely nothing, political in these teachings of the Holy Father” in regards to Pius XII’s plan for peace with justice. The article goes on to say that “There is nothing partisan in the Pope’s pleas, rather an impartial appeal to all nations”.2

America would seem to support the Pope’s message of peace and justice without partisanship when a month after the invasion of Poland they write, “The Pope’s words are spoken to all; and it would be both unjust and idle to try and to wrest them to the advantage of any regime in the present conflict”.3 Yet a week later LaFarge writes, “The disorders which the Pope signalizes have run their logical course and burst out into full flame in certain countries which are belligerents or near-belligerents (such as Russia)” and it is “by a repeated assurance, that the Church is taking up with no political issue, no partisan side.”4 Though America writes that the Church and the Pope take no partisan side they feel that they must intervene and add Russia’s name as a belligerent. It is important to note that America attaches Russia’s name to a comment regarding the Pope’s actions while non-partisanship is attributed to the Church. Many publications use Pius and the Church interchangeably, but often, support for the war is attributed to the Pope’s comments while the neutrality of the institution is emphasized.

At this point Catholics were still very opposed to Communism and Russia was seen as the embodiment of Communism. In January America writes, “He [Pius XII] has never left a doubt that he believes Soviet Russia to be a threat to Western culture and to the reign of Christ”.5 After the Lend Lease Act is put into action and the National Catholic News Service had distributed Bishop McNicholas’ letter reconciling support of Russia and support of Communism, America abandoned it’s denouncements of Russia for which they had used Pius’ messages to advocate. Meanwhile, America continued to criticize the Nazis and Hitler

From the outbreak of the war to the completion of the Lend Lease Act with Russia, America openly criticized both the Nazis and Communism. However, their condemnation of Nazis never manifested itself as the direct message of Pius the way their denouncement of communism did. The article which stated, “He [Pius XII} has never left a doubt that he believes Soviet Russia to be a threat to Western culture and to the reign of Christ” assumed to interpret Pius’ peace messages into a direct denouncement of Communism by the Pope himself. America’s criticism of Nazism, at least until the U.S. entered the war, did not assume to be direct statements by Pius

Covering a meeting that took place between Herr von Ribbentropp and Pope Pius America writes, “As Pope Pius, he began to counsel once more in peace with the Nazi Regime. But there is no lasting peace possible between Nazi paganism and Christian sanctity”.6 Though this statement does not proclaim that Pius believes there is no possible peace with the Nazis, by putting the statement in the same article it suggests that Pius is strongly opposed to Hitler and the Nazis; especially when earlier in the article it states, “the German diplomat’s ears were chilly when he was escorted over the Vatican border-line”.7

Once the U.S. enters the war America begins to take the same liberties with Pius’ messages that it did when condemning communism before June of 1941. After the Pope’s Christmas Message of 1941 America covers the Pope’s five point peace plan, concluding that “It is to the Axis powers directly that Pius speaks, as it were, face to face in their stronghold” even though the Axis was not mentioned in the message.8 By May of 1942 America states “No voice of political indifference is heard over the Vatican Radio; no phrases of balanced caution, measured by surmises as to where the victory may lie. The Pope speaks to America with a voice vibrant with consciousness that truth and justice will triumph”.9 America has taken the Pope’s radio address to be speaking in direct support of the Allied effort; that “truth and justice will triumph”. No longer were Pius’ messages mere blanket statements of peace and justice.


Another weekly Catholic publication, Commonweal, is a privately funded liberal magazine. Like America, it is also seeks to provide reasoned discussion of public affairs, but unlike America it is run by lay Catholics as opposed to a religious order. After Pius’ election, Commonweal ran an editorial on Pius entitled “Pius XII and World Politics”. The editorial criticizes the secular press for emphasizing the “Pope’s attitude toward fascism—Italy and Germany. Though Commonweal does not clarify what the Pope’s attitude is but they do clearly indicate that “his [Pius XII] first duty is religious and that the cannot run the risk of politically disturbing any group of Catholics” and that “he cannot commit himself to any particular system or theory of government as being better or more moral than some other system of government”.10 Yet, like many publications the invasion of Poland will push Commonweal to begin interpreting Pius’ messages in tandem with American thinking.

“Pope Pius is thoroughly convinced that the German aims, for instance comprise far more than any territorial claims in eastern and western Europe or elsewhere”.11 This statement just a month after Pearl Harbor is not as direct as those interpretations made by many in the secular press. As in America, Commonweal is very careful about how it approaches its coverage of Pius messages. Instead of proclaiming directly that ‘Pius is against’ certain countries or regimes it adds its own commentary using the Pope’s message as support. For example, to support the Allied effort Commonweal discusses the Pope’s Christmas message of 1940 and concludes that “it is inescapably clear that the Pope’s words fit next to infinitely closer to those of Chamberlain than they do to the New Year’s Hitler message”.12 Commonweal would use this tactic in other articles, but less frequently than America. Interestingly enough coverage of Pius’ messages shrink after December of 1941. While most other publications begin looking to the Pope for support against Germany, Commonweal is noticeably absent.


The Chicago Defender was started in 1905 as an African American newspaper in Chicago, though it quickly gained support by African Americans across the country. The paper took specific aim at battling segregation, lynching, and racial injustice. At a time when America was still very racist, the Chicago Defender saw Pius XII as a possible advocate for social equality. When Pius XII appointed native Africans as bishops on two separate occasions it was a promising start to a papacy that might speak out on racism in the U.S. “A hope is based upon the Pope’s antecedent acts and utterances which give warrant of a new day, if not a new deal for the black adherents to the faith. It is our firm belief that Pius XII in due time will prove to be the greatest force against international banditry, exaggerated nationalism and racial persecution that the world has ever had”.13 Unfortunately, these hopes were short lived when a short article was published in November of 1939. “The Pope’s reference to members of the Race was made in connection with his praise of the missionary zeal of American Catholics. It included no condemnation of lynching and jim-crow discrimination. That the omission was not motivated by reluctance to ‘interfere’ in American affairs was shown by the Pontiff’s complaint that religion was not taught in American schools”.14 Pius XII’s criticism of American schools evidenced his willingness to denounce American practices, but when it came to racial inequality he was silent. In the same issue, news of a new segregated Catholic school was announced. The Defender titled the article “The Catholic Church-Its Policy” and argued that church racism was becoming typical yet, “the Supreme Head of the Catholic Church, Pope Pius XII is denouncing the satanic effect of racism...in almost every encyclical he has thus far issued”.15 The Defender had national support, but was still a local paper. The combination of silence from Pius and the opening of a new segregated school were too much. Though they laud Pius’ message they criticize the Church illustrating the difference between interpretations of Pius and those of the Church. In the seven months since the Pope’s election he had appeared twelve times in the Defender, after the November issue the Pope is mentioned in only eight articles for the remaining five years of the war.


The New York Times is one of the most widely distributed and read newspapers in the United States. It deals extensively with foreign affairs and is looked to by many to be a primary new source for events occurring around the world. Because the N.Y. Times is so widely read it allows a good perspective of popular opinion at the time. Without ties to religious organizations the N.Y. Times acts at times as though it is propaganda for the war, especially when the U.S. enters combat.

Only during the few months between Pius’ election and the invasion of Poland does the N.Y. Times refrain from linking Pius to anti-Nazi or anti-Communist ideals. For these months the Times dutifully report that Pius is working through ‘diplomatic channels’ to promote peace and avoid a war effort. “Pius told how he put aside other duties to promote peace and how he tried to keep the balance between nations even”.16 Once Poland is invaded, the Times began to report Pius’ fear and disgust for both Germany and the Soviet Union. “A powerful attack on totalitarianism and the evils which he considers it has brought upon the world was made by Pope Pius XII in his first encyclical…It is Germany that stands condemned above any country or any movement in this encyclical-the Germany of Hitler and National Socialism”.17 Isolating Germany as the totalitarian regime in Pius message is clear support for the manipulation of Pius messages to support anti-Nazi attitudes in America. Still, in an article one month later, the Times remarks that all past messages issued by Pius hedged around the naming of specific countries. In a November 1939 article entitled “Pius XII: Militant for Peace” the Times reports, “The Pope was more horrified by that [invasion by Russia of Western Poland] than by anything since the commencement of the war. What in his eyes were the two greatest enemies of Christianity – communism and Nazism – were now united in the conquest of what he called ‘a Catholic nation’”.18 Pius’ encyclical did not mention either Soviet Union or Germany. Though the Pope’s encyclical is most clearly associated with this action, the Times inflate the message to promote support against communism and Nazism. “The messages were couched in such a manner as to convey clearly the Pope’s feelings without openly attacking Germany”.19 For the Times, these couched messages would conveniently end in December of 1941.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, American attitudes toward the Axis powers were strong to say the least. Likewise, there could be no room for interpretation when it came to Pius’ messages for peace and an end to all atrocities. “In his most pessimistic speech he has uttered since the war began [Pius XII] clarified his position regarding the conflict…In calling for a ‘real new order’ based on ‘liberty, justice and love, to be attained only by a return to social and international principles capable of creating a barrier against the abuse of liberty and the abuse of power’ the Pope put himself squarely against Hitlerism”.20 The Times would continue to use Pius’ messages to promote war support in a propagandic way until the Allies declared victory. In September of 1943 the Times reports “His Holiness is reminding the German people that their Blitzkrieg has gone astray, and that their hopes of a swift, and easy victory now lie in the dust and rubble of their battered cities”.21 It is doubtful that the Pope would say such a thing directed at the German people specifically and not the Nazi Regime or Hitler. The Times’ report manipulates Pius’ message into what would be most aptly described as trash talk.


Time magazine is a national weekly publication that covers current events, arts, and entertainment. The magazine was the first to dub the conflict in Europe ‘World War II’ and had correspondents throughout Europe covering the war. Its coverage of Pius’ messages is fairly straightforward and does not succumb to the same pressures that the New York Times does. The time between the Pope’s election and the outbreak of the war finds Pius’ in Time as seeking preventative peace. There is no mention of anti-Nazi or anti-soviet sentiments occur in these articles. After the invasion of Poland, Time does offer a few fleeting comments leading readers to understand Pius’ messages as supporting the Allied effort. “His Holiness put his trust in those ‘statesmen who before the outbreak of war nobly toiled to avert such a scourge from the peoples’ (evidently not Herr Hitler); and those ‘millions of souls in all countries and of every sphere who call not for justice alone but for love and mercy’ (obviously not the Nazis)”.22 Though these insertions of interpretation are very clearly stated they do not commit the crime of pretending to be Pius’ actual thoughts and statements; a distinction that the New York Times and other publications often do not make.

Once the U.S. engages in the war, Time remains moderate in coverage of Pius. The magazine recognizes the dilemmas that Pius faces and even offers insight into why some may not agree or understand Pius’ motives. For Time, the issue seems more to do with the Church as an institution, with Pius as an extension of that institution. An August 1943 issue features Pius on the cover superimposed over the image of a palm branch breaking a sword; a symbol of peace triumphing over the sword, of peace winning over war. The feature article inside states, “As a power for peace, Pius XII is less a man than the continuation .of a policy…But, whether or not Pius is present, the Catholic Church’s peace policy will be tremendous”.23 Time does not separate Pius as a lone defender of peace with justice but as the servant of a greater institution, and in this way they do not single him out to combat the forces of Hitler and National Socialism, but they do acknowledge the peace program to be essential.


Social Justice was run by Father Charles Coughlin. Born in Canada Coughlin became a Catholic priest who presided over a church in Royal Oak, Michigan. He began to use the radio to broadcast sermons and messages that often contained clearly anti-Semitic messages. In addition to being anti-Semitic, Coughlin was very anti-communist and took full advantage of his radio broadcast and newspaper to publish literature which reflected these viewpoints. Coughlin was even known to support Hitler and Mussolini as being advocates against communism. When the Pope was elected, Coughlin’s newspaper, Social Justice, ran a nine page collection of articles on Pope Pius. Many of the articles dealt with Pius’ relationship with Germany, possibly because Coughlin saw Germany as a bulwark against Communism. Social Justice seemed to think of Germany and Hitler as the lesser of two evils. Shortly after Pius’ election, an article states, “Pius is more concerned over the peril to the souls of German Christians from the neopaganism of Nazi extremists than he is over the persecution of clergy or the confiscation of church property”.24 Yet in an article less than a month later, Social Justice stipulates that “He [Pius] appreciates the importance of the role Nazi Germany is filling in preventing the spread of communism”.25 The paper clearly takes license in speculating these attitudes of Pius to promote its own agenda. It was around this time that rumors appeared in Social Justice that Pius XII was attempting to shut down the newspaper. As Pacelli, he had worked to shut down Coughlin’s radio program. The appearance of these rumors in the April issue of 1939 marked the beginning of a drought of articles dealing with Pius until the paper was shut down in 1942. Like the Chicago Defender, Social Justice did not find support from the Pope for its own agenda.>


Publications in America used Pius’ messages in a variety of ways. While some used his encyclicals and peace messages to promote their own agenda and others to support the Allied war effort all of them looked to Pius for support and hope. Pius’ call for ‘peace with justice’ was advocated by every paper.

A pattern emerged in many papers that showed the Pope as a sole figure of peace in Europe. Clear emphasis on the Pope’s position as a solitary figure working for peace is found in many publications. In America, “Pius XII stands almost alone as the persistent, unequivocal champion of the dream of peace”26, in the New York Times, “The voice of Pius XII is a lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe”.27 This interpretation could possibly stem from the Pope’s radio broadcasts. As only the second Pope to use international broadcasts Pius’ voice would seem to come out of the darkness and sound quite lonely to many American people.

In analyzing these articles it is important to make a distinction between two types of manipulation. Secular publications often manipulated Pius’ messages into direct statements against Axis powers, while non-secular publications merely suggest his denouncements of these regimes and atrocities. Secular papers were consistently more aggressive in their interpretations of Pius’ messages into support for the Allies. Yet, non-secular publications such as America and Commonweal are not far behind. These Catholic pieces maintained liberal stances, which included supporting the war effort, in an effort to draw more readers and contributors and followed support of popular American beliefs regarding the war.

Some publications had hopes of Papal support for specific programs. For the Chicago Defender, the Pope’s lack of direct condemnation of American Racism felt abandoning, and for Social Justice, Coughlin’s anti-Semitic program was too much for Pius’ patience.

Pius’ message was important for Americans. He was on the second Pope to be able to deliver radio broadcasts to the U.S. and provided hope in hard times. He had visited the States as Secretary of State and made a good impression on the country. It was only natural for his messages and radio broadcasts to be interpreted as they were. Hearing his voice would seem as though he was speaking directly to each and every person, and his denouncement of totalitarianism would have been easy to ascribe to. While some were disappointed with his motives and action, none could reject his message of peace and all looked to him for support. Pope Pius was not Hitler’s Pope, but everyone’s Pope, America’s Pope.

1.) LaFarge, John. Pius XII as Christ’s Vicar is Not a Political Pope." America 18 March 1939

2.) Delaney, John P.. Pope Bases Peace on Principles And Prayer." America 02 September 1939

3.) COMMENT." America 04 November 1939

4.) LaFarge, John. Mankind is Called To Unity In Christ." America 11 November 1939

5.) COMMENT." America 06 January 1940

6.) COMMENT." America 23 March 1940

7.) COMMENT." America 23 March 1940

8.) COMMENT." America 03 January 1942

9.) The Pope Speaks." America 23 May 1942

10.) Pius XII and World Politics." Commonweal 17 March 1939

11.) The Pope's Reply to President Roosevelt." Commonweal 02 February 1940

12.) The Text and the Interpretation." Commonweal 2 January 1940

13.) Pope Pius XII." Chicago Defender 17 June 1939

14.) Pope Pius Overlooks Racial Discrimination." Chicago Defender 25 November 1939

15.) The Catholic Church--Its Policy." Chicago Defender 25 November 1939

16.) Pontiff Still Sees a Chance for Peace." New York Times 20 August 1939

17.) First Encyclcial." New York Times 28 October 1939

18.) Pius XII: Militant for Peace." New York Times 19 November 1939

19.) Vatican Foresees No Immediate War." New York Times 12 May 1940

20.) The Pope's Message." New York Times 25 December 1941

21.) The Pope's Message." New York Times 02 September 1943

22.) No Dove." Time 06 November 1939

23.) Peace & the Papacy." Time 16 August 1943

24.) Hope Seen for Vatican Accord with Germany." Social Justice 27 March 1939

25.) From the Church." Social Justice 10 April 1939

26.) Is Pius Another Benedict Crying in the Wilderness?." America 18 May 1940

27.) The Pope's Message." New York Times 25 December 1941

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