Today we remember how in a remarkable meeting in Rome Pope Pius XI missioned the American Jesuit John LaFarge to draft an encyclical on ‘racialism’ as he felt the topic was the "most burning" one of the time, particularly the rise in influence of the racist ideology of National Socialism in Germany. It was drafted during the summer and given to the Pope by the end of the year. However, it was never promulgated, as Pius XI died in early 1939.
The Pope had already released an encyclical the year before, on the Church and the German Reich, with the title Mit brennender Sorge "With burning concern". Unusually written in German, not the usual Latin, and had been smuggled into Germany for fear of censorship and read from the pulpits of all German Catholic churches on one of the Church's busiest Sundays, Palm Sunday. It was a considerable achievement as the effort to produce and distribute over 300,000 copies of the letter was kept entirely secret, allowing priests across Germany to read the letter without interference. The Gestapo raided churches the next day to confiscate all the copies they could find, and the presses that had printed the letter were closed. A new wave of persecution against the church began, although the concordat agreed four years earlier remained intact, There was an increase in the harassment of monks and priest with staged prosecutions for alleged immorality and phony abuse trials.
The new encyclical envisaged by the Pope, was to be universal, as such racist ideology was not limited to Germany and was to be called Humani generis unitas ('On The Unity of the Human Race'). LaFarge, a Harvard graduate, had gone to Austria to study theology at the University of Innsbruck where he was ordained a priest in Innsbruck. His early work as a Jesuit had been in Maryland spending fifteen years ministering to mainly African-American and immigrant communities along Chesapeake Bay. This work had deeply shaped his attitude to race relations and to racism, which he considered a sin. He spoke out publicly against the conditions under which African-Americans lived, and he demonstrated special interest in furthering education for disadvantaged communities, founding an industrial school in southern Maryland for African-American boys, the Cardinal Gibbons Institute. He left Maryland to become an editor of America, a leading Jesuit weekly magazine and his articles on racism attracted broad public attention in the United States and abroad, including Pope Pius XI.
As the Nazis massed forces against Europe in the summer of 1938, Pius XI saw the urgency of awakening world leaders to the Nazi’s murderous intentions against the Jews. The Pope had just read Lafarge’s book Interracial Justice: A Study of the Catholic Doctrine of Race Relations, which had been published the year before. In it, Le Farge had argued against then-prevalent ideas about the innate inferiority of African-Americans and vigorously against segregation and the 'separate but equal' doctrine. When LaFarge met the Pope, he was amazed that the Pope had read his book and agreed to the project, even though he felt unworthy. Drafted urgently during the summer of 1938 it would reject antisemitism and the Nazi doctrine based on myth that promoted the persecution of the Jews. It encompassed a general critique of ideas such as the state and race that had diminished human dignity and argued against the moral evils of racism and anti-semitism.
Why was the Encyclical never released? For several decades the encyclical lingered in the obscurity of the Vatican Archives until the researchers Georges Passelecq and Bernard Suchecky brought it to light in the 1990s. Peter Eisner published a book in 2013 called The Pope's Last Crusade: How an American Jesuit Helped Pope Pius XI's Campaign to Stop Hitler which tells the full story. It seems that it was a race against time, as the Pope had a worsening heart condition that made him more inaccessible, and is failing health had created a power vacuum. There were conservative forces in the Vatican who saw Communism as a greater threat than Fascism. The Pope foresaw this so commissioned the encyclical directly and secretly, bypassing the usual channels particularly the diplomat Cardinal Pacelli and the Polish Jesuit General Vladimir Ledechowski.
After it had been commissioned, Ledechowski subsequently assigned two other priests, Fathers Gundlach and Desbuquois, to join LaFarge in this task, swearing them to strict secrecy. When he had finished the draft, mindful that the Pope had asked him, to deliver the encyclical directly to him, Le Farge returned to Rome to do just that but found Pius XI weak and possibly dying. With his direct route to the Pope blocked, LaFarge handed over the encyclical to Ledechowski, who assured him he would pass it on. Le Farge felt that this was his duty as an obedient Jesuit, and he later admitted to regretting it, as Ledechowski was playing for time. When Leo rapidly died, there were unsubstantiated rumours that the Pope’s doctor, Patachi, had hastened his death. He was the father of Claretta Petacci, Mussolini's mistress. After the conclave and Pacelli being elected as Pius XII, Vladimir Ledechowski persuaded the next pope that Pius XII that Lafarge’s manuscript lacked focus and was too extreme. The encyclical thus lost the endorsement of the Vatican.
Three months before his death, LaFarge walked in the 1963 March on Washington and stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial behind Martin Luther King Jr. for his famous "I Have a Dream" speech (see pod of Mar 10 ). This was understood as a public acknowledgment of LaFarge's early role in a movement for racial equality that was now being led by others. He would die, possibly prematurely, days after the assassination of John F Kennedy. At his eulogy, Boston's Cardinal Richard Cushing spoke of him as a pioneer in the field of interracial justice.