Pius XII was NOT “Hitler’s Pope;”
The Nazi Persecution of the Church

Pius XII and Hitler

“Do not give offense to Jews or Greeks or to the church of God…”
—1 Cor 10:32


Pope Francis has announced the opening of the Pope Pius XII secret archival materials, beginning in 2020.   Pius XII was the Vatican Secretary of State and then Pope during the rise of German National Socialism in the 1930s and 40s. He has been criticized for not doing enough to stop Nazi Germany’s persecution of the Jews. 

Several books have been published which suggest that Pius was complacent and supportive of the National Socialist movement of the era, among which is Cambridge University Professor John Corwell’s book, Hitler’s Pope.  At the time Hitler rose to power there were 23 million German Catholics.  After the Anschluss (i.e., the German absorption of Austria into Nazi Germany), this increased to 34 million.


In 1933 as Vatican Secretary of State, Pius XII (then Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli) negotiated the Concordat (i.e. treaty) with the Nazis.  In his book The Third Reich in Power Cambridge University Professor Richard J. Evans explains the treaty resulted from Nazi threats “to sack Catholic civil servants and close down Catholic lay organizations.”  The church agreed to refrain from involvement in German politics. 

Evans goes on to relate how the treaty was supposed “to guarantee the integrity of the Catholic Church in Germany along with its assets and organizations.”  Shortly after Hitler signed the Concordat he crowed “the treaty [with the Vatican] shows the world…that the assertion that National Socialism is hostile to religion is a lie,” writes Cornwell.  Hitler went on to assert that the Concordat “will be especially significant in the urgent struggle against international Jewry.”  Pacelli immediately issued statements in which he vehemently denied that the Concordat “implied [the] moral approval of National Socialism.”  Still Professor Cornwell asserts the treaty “[formalized the] moral duty on Catholics to obey the Nazi rulers [and] Catholic critics fell silent.” Pacelli, the future pope, would become one of many world leaders to realize that agreements signed with Adolf Hitler weren’t worth the paper they were written upon. 

Almost immediately the Vatican Secretary of State found himself writing memorandum after memoranda to the Nazi government protesting that they were violating the Concordat.  The Nazi paramilitary organization (Brown Shirts) closed down church organizations, confiscated church money and equipment and began to surveil parish services.  They also put pressure on all Catholic youth organization members to join the Hitler Youth organization.  In response, local parishes expelled Brown Shirts from church services and condemned Nazi surveillance.   Cardinal Pacelli found himself complaining to the Nazis that “the repellant phenomenon of informers hovering around every step, every word [and] every official [church] act” was a direct violation of the treaty.   In January of 1936 Pacelli’s boss, an outraged Pope Pius XI dressed down the German ambassador to the Vatican “on the subject of persecutions and other outrages to which Catholics were exposed,” writes the Vatican scholar Professor Peter Godman in his book Hitler and the Vatican.   It was becoming increasingly apparent that German Catholics were being denied the right to live according to their beliefs. 

Under new anti-Jewish Nazi Laws, Jews who had been baptized and converted to Catholicism decades before were legally considered Jews and were persecuted, for example Edith Stein.  Born a Jew, she obtained her Ph.D. in 1916, eventually attaining a professorship at the University of Friedberg.  She converted to Catholicism in 1922 and took up teaching at a Dominican Catholic school.  With the passage of a new law requiring that all teachers must have an Aryan Certificate in 1933, she was forced to give up her teaching position.  She then joined the Carmelite convent (as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross).  Stein was transferred to a convent in the Netherlands for her protection. 

Ultimately she was arrested along with all converted Jews (244) in Holland who had previously been spared by the Nazis.  She was offered an opportunity to escape by a Dutch official.   She refused asserting “If somebody intervened at this point and took away her chance to share in the fate of her brothers and sisters that would be utter annihilation.” She was sent to Auschwitz and gassed. 

Considered a martyr to her faith, Stein was canonized in 1996 as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.  According to Professor Cornwell she had written Pius XI begging that the church deplore the “hatred, persecution [and] anti-Semitism…“ four years before he would issue his encyclical With Burning Concern.


After so many Nazi abuses against the church, several German bishops and cardinals met with Pacelli in Rome in 1937.  The group formulated the Papal Encyclical “With Burning Concern” which was finally issued by Pope Pius XI. It was secretly smuggled into Germany and read at every Catholic Church in Germany on Passion Sunday. 

The Encyclical “condemned the ‘hatred’ and ‘calumny’ poured on the church by the Nazis,” writes Evans.  It also condemned the Nazi’s “distortion and perversion” of the order of the world created and planned by God by the Nazi Aryan myth of “race and blood.”  The Nazi position was that the white ‘Aryan’ race was superior to all others and that all Germans owed their absolute allegiance to the National Socialist [Nazi] state. 

Since the Catholic Church held that Catholics owed spiritual allegiance to Rome and the Pope, such dual allegiance was incompatible with the Nazi socialistic philosophy.  The Encyclical took dead aim at Hitler and the Nazi hierarchy by declaring: “The Gospel of Christ is final and permanent…[it] knows no retouches by human hand; it admits no substitutes…such as certain [Nazi] leaders pretend to draw from the so-called myth of race and blood.” 

The U. S. Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, noted in his diary that “Not a word of this papal message was mentioned in the [Nazi controlled German] press…copies were published in England and other countries” and that was how many people in Germany learned about it.


The Nazi response to the encyclical was immediate.  Hitler ordered all copies of the Encyclical seized and any further publications banned.  Anyone found possessing a copy was arrested and any printing firm involved in its publication was closed. 

According to Evans, German Police Chief Heinrich Himmler directed his Deputy Reinhard Heydrich (a Catholic who had evolved into a rabid anti-Catholic), “to place secret agents in Church organizations and escalated police harassment of clerics.”  Himmler was also a Catholic. 

Evans also relates that diocesan presses were clamped down upon, restrictions were placed on pilgrimages and processions and Church marriage guidance and parenthood classes were banned.  Monasteries were closed down and their assets seized.  About one-third of all Catholic priests were disciplined by Nazi authorities—some imprisoned. 

The Nazi press reported the arrest of thousands of Catholic clerics, accusing them of sexual abuse. An extensive publicity campaign was waged against priest and monks for homosexual and pedophilia offenses.  Full page stories about these sexual abuse incidents and trials played out throughout Germany in the Nazi press.  According to Professor Evans these stories asserted that “homosexuality and pedophilia were endemic in the Church…[and] by 1937 over a thousand priests, monks and friars…were awaiting trial on such charges…the Propaganda Ministry’s [campaign] portrayed the Church as sexually corrupt and unworthy of being entrusted with the education of the young.”  One article related, according to Evans: “The Church was a sore on the healthy racial body [of the Nazi state].” 

As a result Catholic youth organizations were shut down.  Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, himself raised a Catholic, in one nationwide radio address thundered: “This sexual plague must be exterminated root and branch.”    Martha Dodd, Ambassador Dodd’s daughter in her 1939 book Through Embassy Eyes wrote “the Nazis will be satisfied only when the Catholic Church is destroyed.”

A 1938 story in the Washington Evening Star entitled ‘End of Church Held Nazi Aim’ confirmed her assertion  that obligatory Nazi Party meetings were held “coinciding with [Catholic] church activities.”   Dodd also noted that Hitler was himself Catholic. 


The American press downplayed the sexual abuse scandal allegations coming from Germany.  For example, a story entitled “Nazi Paper Ironic At Popes Comment” ran on page 20 of Section B of the Washington Evening Star.   The Associated Press’ bylined story referred to the scandals as “charges of immorality.”    The Church, as reported in a Rising Sun Midland Journal [MD]  article entitled  “Ten Priests Arrested…” (column 3), responded to the abuse allegations asserting that of the 25,635 priests in Germany only 58 “are involved in immorality charges.” 

Chicago’s Cardinal George Mundelein called the immorality charges “part of the Nazi propaganda campaign against the church [and likened them to] bedtime stories for children [when compared to WWI German] war-time atrocity stories.”   The article published in the Washington Evening Star ( “Nazi Press Shouts for Papal Action” ) related that Mundelein had also called Hitler a “[wall] paper hanger” and the club-footed Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels “crooked.”  Berlin demanded an apology and called upon Pope Pius XI to “call [Mundelein] to order.”  The Holy See refused to take action against Mundelein.


With the opening of Pope Pius XII’s secret archives, it will be interesting to see documents concerning the Church’s internal interactions and memoranda about these Nazi accusations and itself.  There can be little doubt that explosive revelations will be forthcoming.

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1 thought on “Pius XII was NOT “Hitler’s Pope;”<br> The Nazi Persecution of the Church”

  1. My very Catholic sister-in-law insists that during WWII “more Catholics were executed by Hitler than Jews. I do not see this in the above text. What is most amazing is the number of Nazis who were born Catholic… Hitler himself was an altar boy.

    The facts of what Pius II did or did not do regarding the targeted Jewish souls who were murdered will be a continuing discussion. When the final pane of kristalnacth is broken, the truth may be blinding.

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