With the announcement of the beatification of Pope John Paul I, Pius XII stands as the most recent Pope not to be beatified or canonized. Pius XII had been on track for beatification, but Pope Francis halted these efforts in 2014. While Francis has cited the lack of a miracle as rationale, it seems likely that concerns about Pius’ studied neutrality during World War II had something to do with it. While not “Hitler’s Pope,” a combination of love for Germany and its culture, anti-communism and concern to protect the church from attack led him to (mostly) silence in the face of horrific evil. Pius has defenders who raise some valid points, but canonized sainthood is not owed even to the saints; rather, it serves the purpose of instructing the faithful in exemplary behavior—heroic virtue.
Pius’ stance during the war evoked 1930s debates that James Chappel has effectively described in his book Catholic Modern. Catholics during that period, rather than identify explicitly with either fascism or communism, tended (with some notable exceptions) to be either anti-communist or anti-fascist. This tendency reflected both the accurate sense of Catholics as “politically homeless” (though many sympathized with the corporatism of fascism or the redistribution of communism) but it also posed a danger: defining oneself by antipathy to one ideology often led to a kind of “anti-anti” sympathy for the other.
The term “fascism” became so radioactive in American politics after World War II that attempting to use it as a descriptor becomes challenging, but Robert Paxton offers some clarity on how to actually define this kind of movement: it begins from a preoccupation with decline of the political community and leads to the abandonment of democratic liberties and constraints in order to purge internal enemies. Paxton has warned in his book The Anatomy of Fascism, as well as numerous articles, that the U.S. faces a danger of sliding into fascism, but this is not inevitable—it would be the result of choices by many people who ought to know better.
The United States remains gripped in a political crisis that in many ways began with the election of Donald Trump in November 2016 and continued below many people’s radar during the first year of Joe Biden’s administration. While it may not go by that name precisely (though there were groups on January 6 that specifically used symbols and ideas evocative of fascist movements, including the Nazi swastika and references to “Camp Auschwitz”) there are clear fascist and otherwise illiberal overtones in today’s American political environment, particularly the rise in efforts to selectively restrict voting, sloganeering (“Let’s Go Brandon”), and the threats of stochastic terrorism. This is less in evidence in the “Acela Corridor” of the Northeast, but even slightly outside the major metropolitan and suburban regions of New York or Connecticut it becomes very much apparent.
The Catholic bishops have been notably silent about this dangerous political environment. With some occasional exceptions, their entire political apparatus has been centered on overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision striking down all state laws that banned abortion. These efforts appear to be on the cusp of succeeding, but rather than seeing this as a moment to shift emphasis and moderate, bishops such as Archbishop José Gomez have doubled down on culture war rhetoric, perhaps because this is all they know at this point.
Catholics, however, cannot simply place blame on the failings of bishops. Many lay Catholics, including intellectuals such as Chad Pecknold of the Catholic University of America and Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame, have joined the illiberal cause, evincing a particular fondness for Viktor Orbán’s neofascist Hungarian government. This kind of advocacy goes beyond simply arguing for a conservative political view—competing political factions are part of any democracy—and into the realm of attempting to build a kind of Fascist International. Short of advocacy, but perhaps even more dangerous due to larger numbers, is the silent complicity of those who are prepared to accept the fall of democracy if it does not particularly affect their everyday lives.
One of the key pillars of the post-1945 world order was the “never again” sensibility—that the fascist movements that brought about World War II and its horrors could not be allowed to return. The church’s embrace of religious freedom and opening to other religions (especially Judaism) at Vatican II was in part a response to that moment and the horrors that preceded it. We owe it to the architects of the Council, many of whom were involved in the resistance to fascism, to resist it again. Pius XII, while probably not deserving of canonization, kept silent in response to unprecedented events—if we keep silent now, we have no such excuse.
Daniel A. Rober is a systematic theologian and Catholic studies professor at Sacred Heart University.