Though Pope Pius XII has been labeled Hilter’s Pope for his failure to denounce the Third Reich, author Peter Eisner points to his predecessor, Pius XI, and his attempts to build a church campaign to stand in opposition to oppressive regimes sweeping across Europe. Pius XI, branded a fearless leader wise to the dangers of Hitler’s ideology, enlisted the help of an American Jesuit civil right's activist and was in the midst of composing a Catholic encyclical to denounce the Holocaust but his message was muted due to his untimely death in 1939.
In his book The Pope’s Last Crusade, Eisner paints of picture of a divided church in the lead up to World War II, with many seeking to thwart the strong willed pontiff resolved to use his position to speak on behalf of the oppressed and the marginalized.
But other factions working within the walls of the Vatican worked actively to suppress the message and just days before Pius XI was set to launch a campaign targeted at the immoral movements pervading Europe, he died in February 1939.
With his death, his declaration failed to reach the millions of Catholics and even non-adherents who looked to religious leader for guidance during the turbulent period. Hitler felt 'he could go to any length with the Jews, without fear of attack from any church,' Irish politician Conor Cruise O'Brien wrote in 1989, according to Eisner's account.
Had Pius XI been able to deliver the encyclical he planned, the green light would have changed to red. The Catholic Church in Germany would have been obliged to speak out against the persecution of the Jews. Many Protestants, inside and outside Germany, would have been likely to follow its example.'
Instead, Cardinal Pacelli, who had worked for the pope as his Secretary of State, became the new pontiff, Pius XII, and ensured the message never saw the light of day, reportedly ordering that correspondence and written messages from Pius XI be burned. Pius XII has been judged for not using the institution of the church to speak for those who could not speak for themselves, choosing to stay neutral in the face of glaring evil.
In a 1972 report about the encyclical that was never released, the editors of the National Catholic Reporter stated 'we must conclude that the publication of the encyclical draft at the time it was written may have saved hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of lives.'
In an effort to repair his tarnished legacy, the Vatican has recently released new documents about clandestine efforts the Vatican undertook to try to protect Jews under the watch of Pius XII.