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Of Church and Reich…
Reflections on the statement
"Mit brennender Sorge"
and on the Concordat of 1933.

For comments on this article, see the page Church and Reich - discussion.

In the Jan 09 issue of Ferment, I wrote that the German Nazi leaders seem to have enjoyed fairly good relations with the Catholic Church through most of the nineteen thirties. I mentioned the Concordat of 1933 (a public, signed agreement between the Hitler regime and the Vatican), and the fact that in 1936 – 1939, Nazis and Catholic leaders backed the same side in the Spanish Civil War. The article however mentioned the Catholic Church only in passing -- I paid much more attention to the eclectic pagan element in Nazism, as represented by J.W. Hauer’s German Faith Movement.

Since then, my brother Michael Robinson (who lives in Western Australia, and has an interest in scholastic Christianity) has suggested that I have a look at the statement Mit brennender Sorge (German: "With Burning Concern") 1 -- an encyclical which was published by Pope Pius XI in 1937, and read out by Catholic priests to congregations throughout Germany...

Indeed, the encyclical makes interesting reading. There are some strong expressions there, e.g. "aggressive paganism" (paragraph 13 of the English text on the Vatican website), "a prophet of nothingness" (paragraph 17). On the other hand, the statement also declares that there is no sin in Catholics helping to build a "Volksgemeinschaft" (paragraph 43 of the text in German). This is a German compound word translated in the Vatican’s English text (paragraph 34) as "ethnical community" (no, not ethical community). It's a term that was much used by the Nazis to describe the Germany of their dreams.

In what context did the leaders of the church use these words? What do the words mean in their context?

My interest (I repeat) is in the relationship between two sets of persons: the Catholic church and the supporters of the Third Reich. And let it be clear from the start that in the nineteen thirties was possible to belong to both those groups at once -- e.g. Franz von Papen was both a very prominent Catholic and an important political ally of Adolf Hitler.

My interest is not (primarily) in the inner world of the Pope who signed the encyclical, or of the theologians who advised him. I have seen Mit brennender Sorge described as a "cry" that expressed "a spiritual moment experienced by the Pope"... 2 To see it only in that way is to forget about the people it was written for.

I want to look at questions like:

To whom is the statement addressed?

Written in German, the encyclical contains specific advice for Catholics in Germany. Also appeals to Germany's rulers to return to the principles of the Concordat of 1933. (paragraph 5)

What, specifically, is that "burning concern" about?

The "burning concern" is partly to do with religious views being promulgated by certain people and groups within the Nazi movement. The people being criticized are not directly named, but some of the references seem clear. E.g. The "so-called myth of race and blood" (paragraph 17) refers to Alfred Rosenberg's book The Myth of the Twentieth Century. 3 The phrase "a Christianity, which is not of Christ" (paragraph 33) likely refers to the Deutsche Christen (German Christians) led by Ludwig Müller. (Compare Jung’s comment in 1936 that “the ‘German Christians’ are a contradiction in terms”. 4 )

The encyclical also expresses concern that the religious life of German Catholics was being restricted, for instance by a campaign against the Catholic school system (paragraph 5) and is likely to be restricted more in the future. It mentions priests who have been locked up for defending "truth" and opposing "error". (paragraph 36) 

A huge concern is that the leaders of Germany might establish a new national German church, which German Catholics (as well as Protestants) would be expected to join. The encyclical alludes to past experience of national churches in various countries, but doesn't name specific examples. (paragraph 22) (The name of Henry the Eighth comes to mind...)

What does it say about the German Jews?

Short answer: Nothing. It is almost entirely about German Catholics, and about the perceived threats and temptations they were facing. 

The encyclical does affirm the sacredness of the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible), and the role of the ancient Israelites as God's chosen people (paragraphs 15 and 16). These are long-standing church doctrines, which were apparently being challenged by the Deutsche Christen.

On the other hand, the encyclical says that no-one should think it sufficient to have faith in God without faith in Christ. (paragraph 14) This bit of the encyclical has been criticized as an attack on Judaism. 5 The wording does indeed denigrate all non-Christian religions, including Judaism; but the context implies that its primary target consists of those among Hitler's supporters who formally renounced Christianity, while declaring themselves Gottglaübige ("believers in God"). Alfred Rosenberg had done this; the Führer himself had not. Some of the Gottglaübige belonged to new religious organizations, such the Bund für Deutsche Gotterkenntnis, founded by Erich Ludendorff. 6

The encyclical is arguing that Christianity (and, specifically, Catholicism) is a unique gift of God, which the faithful should defend and which state authorities should respect. This is clearly not the same thing as arguing that everyone should be free to practise and defend the religion that he or she believes in.

What does it say about possibilities of war?

The encyclical warns that due to violations of the 1933 Concordat "the storm of religious war, instead of the rainbow of peace" may "blacken the German skies". (paragraph 4) The wording implies (as a possible, though not inevitable development) a civil war within Germany itself, between Catholics and opponents of Catholicism.

Another part of the encyclical -- perhaps the most interesting -- says that denial of "natural law" would lead to "a perpetual state of war between nations". In this context, it cites "ancient paganism" (specifically the Roman philosopher Cicero) as a valid source of basic ethical principles. (paragraph 30)

In which case, perhaps the German "aggressive paganism" (paragraph 13) was (in a sense) not pagan enough...

What does it advise its audience to do, or warn them not to do?

There are do's and don'ts... 

For instance young Catholics are assured that these is no sin in participating in national programs of sport and exercise (an apparent reference to the Kraft durch Freude or Strength through Joy movement). However, they are warned that too much exercising is a bad thing, because it may not leave you enough time to go to church. (paragraph 34)

There is no sin in singing "your hymns to freedom... hymns of loyalty to this terrestrial country"  (presumably meaning the anthems of the National Socialist Party and the Hitler Youth movement -- if it doesn't mean that, what does it mean?), providing you don't forget your loyalty to God and the church. (paragraph 34)

The statement affirms that it can never be ok for the role of Jesus as Saviour to be compared to the role of a mortal human... even if the mortal in question were "the greatest of all time"... (paragraph 17)

What was this expected to mean to its audience in 1930s Germany, whose leader was being hailed in the media and on the streets as the one who saved the nation from the Great Depression, the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty and the threat of Communist revolution? What conclusion was a young German Catholic expected to draw? Perhaps... As a good Catholic, I cannot compare Hitler with Jesus; but this is a matter of principle, in no way a denial of the greatness of Hitler as our leader...

On the question of a possible new national church, the encyclical draws a line in the sand. German Catholics are directed not to join any such new church. (paragraph 22)

What are the principles of the Concordat of 1933, which the encyclical defends?

Provisions of the Concordat of 1933 7 include the following...

Reich (realm, empire, nation) isn’t a word invented by the Nazis, but certainly a word much used in their publicity. A notable slogan was “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” -- “One People, one Realm, one Leader”. What, then, are the implications of the Vatican solemnly promising the Führer's representative that Catholic churches would pray every Sunday for the welfare of the Reich? In 1933, in the context of the signing of the agreement, the term "its legally constituted government" could only refer to Hitler's dictatorship.

How does it compare with other papal statements, e.g. about Communism?

A few days after Mit Brennender Sorge, the Vatican published Divini Redemptoris, 8 a statement about the dangers of Communism. How do the two statements compare?

Does the encyclical about Communism appeal to Communist leaders to adopt a more friendly attitude to the church? No, it does not. In fact, according to the papal statement, any suggestion that Communism might, even in different places or times, "assume another and much milder form" is mere "hypocrisy". Communism will never cease its "war against God". (paragraph 57)

Does it tell Catholics that it's quite all right to sing songs about the workers' revolution, as long as you don't forget the hymns of the church?

On the contrary... After noting that Communists sometimes invite Catholics to work with them, and "and at times even make proposals that are in perfect harmony with the Christian spirit and the doctrine of the Church" (paragraph 57), the encyclical goes on to say..."Communism is intrinsically wrong, and no one who would save Christian civilization may collaborate with it in any undertaking whatsoever." (paragraph 58)

(In Europe in the thirties, cooperation between Communists and other parties was a serious issue. For instance, France from June 1936 to June 1937 was governed by the Popular Front -- a government based on electoral alliance of Communists, Socialists and Radicals.)

What did it mean for the relationship between church and Reich?

The 1933 Concordat had spoken of "friendly relations" between church and Reich. The relationship between the Hitler régime and the Vatican in the 1930s may not have been entirely friendly, but it did bring visible benefits to both sides. The Catholic church in Germany got continued financial security, while the Reich got an important source of legitimation.

Mit brennender Sorge demonstrates friction within the relationship; at the same time, by reaffirming the principles of the Concordat, it declares that the church very much wanted the relationship itself to continue. But would the Führer agree?

By some accounts, Hitler was angered by Mit brennender Sorge... He closed down parish newsletters, and got his police to investigate the personal morality of certain priests. 9

But was he angry enough to tell the German tax department to stop collecting church tax and passing it on to the Catholic hierarchy? Or even to opt out of paying his own personal Catholic church tax? No, he paid the church tax all his life. 10 If he had really been planning to abolish Catholicism in Germany by shepherding the Catholic population into a new national church, he either abandoned those plans, or at least suspended them...

The Führer's own Catholicism may have been merely nominal, he may have little love for the mainstream Catholics of Germany; but he needed them.

What current questions are related to these?

Was the current Pope Benedict XVI right when (at an address to the Cologne Synagogue in 2005) he described Nazi violence as "born of neo-paganism"? 11

Or was his statement an evasion of his church's own role and responsibility?

To Christians who think Pope Benedict is right about the perils of paganism, I'd like to ask...

What conclusions follow?

Does it mean, for instance, that you have to be frightened of reading non-Christian literature?

Including Cicero?

April 2010

1 English text of MBS http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_14031937_mit-brennender-sorge_en.html

German text of MBS http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_14031937_mit-brennender-sorge_ge.html

All references in this article are to the English text unless otherwise stated.

2 Emma Fattorini -- "Mit brennender Sorge", the cry of Pius XI --  http://www.resetdoc.org/story/00000001138

3 Alfred Rosenberg -- The Myth of the Twentieth Century http://www.archive.org/details/TheMythOfTheTwentiethCentury

4 Jung, C.W.; "Wotan", in Collected Works Vol 10; RKP, London, 1970; p 190.

5 Liberals like Christ webpage with critique of MBS http://www.liberalslikechrist.org/Catholic/encyclicals.html

6 For information about the Bund für Deutsche Gotterkenntnis see entry in the Wikipedia in German 


7 Concordat of 1933 http://www.newadvent.org/library/docs_ss33co.htm

8 English text of Divini Redemptoris http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_19031937_divini-redemptoris_en.html

9 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mit_brennender_Sorge (accessed 5 April 2010)

10 Steigmann-Gall, Richard; The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945, Cambridge University Press, 2003;  page xv.

11 Benedict XVI Address at the Synagogue of Cologne, August 2005 http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2005

© Colin Robinson 2010


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Church and Reich - discussion.

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