Samuel Moyn describes one man’s journey from supporting fascism to putting individual human dignity on the global agenda.
Pius XII is probably even more important than Jacques Maritain as an advocate of human rights within the Catholic church, because he commanded it from the very top. He had seen the threat of revolution when he was a papal diplomat, as a young man in Munich right after World War I, where there was widespread revolutionary activity. And he was so frightened by the threat of secular revolution, in this inheritance from the French Revolution that had so traumatised the church long before, that he became one of the most militant conservatives of the era. He was favourable towards fascism and even Nazism at the beginning. He participated in making agreements with those political movements and their states to advance the church’s interests. He favoured Francisco Franco in Spain against the republican forces, because he thought the republicans were communists (which many of them absolutely were).
And then in the 30s, the late 1930s, like some other Christians, and especially Catholics, he began to discern the need to impose limits on states. These right-wing states might advance the church’s mission, but they might trample on the church’s prerogatives. It was a big concern to a lot of Christians that racial anti-Semitism involved depredations against Jews even when they converted to Christianity. And for many Christians, this was beyond the pale.
And so Pius XII, in the midst of World War II, gave some addresses on Christmas Day in 1942 and 1944 in which he said that the post-war world will have to be based on individual human dignity and individual human rights. No leading Christian had ever said such things. And Pius was in a position to get his views heard by the whole world. And I think without him it’s hard to believe that we would be invoking these ideas – especially human dignity, but also global human rights, today.