ROME, APRIL 4, 2007 (Zenit.org).- On Palm Sunday of 1937, Pope Pius XI’s encyclical “Mit Brennender Sorge” was read in all the parishes of Germany.
It was arguably the Holy See’s harshest criticism ever of a political regime, according to Jesuit Father Peter Gumpel.
He says that the 70 years since the encyclical’s publication have confirmed what the Holy See understood about the nature of Nazism and that the encyclical was prophetic in explaining how the separation of faith and morality leads to decline and war.
In exploring the history, nature and teachings of “Mit Brennender Sorge” (With Deep Anxiety), Father Gumpel explained that after World War I, the Holy See had often attempted a concordat with Germany, without succeeding.
There were concordats with some German states, such as Bavaria, Prussia and Baden, but never with Germany itself.
On Jan. 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor and, as early as April, offered a concordat to the Holy See on his own initiative.
The Holy See did not believe or trust Hitler, but it found itself in the difficult situation of being unable to refuse what appeared to be a very favorable agreement, Father Gumpel explained. The Holy See therefore signed the concordat even though everyone in the Roman Curia knew that Hitler would not follow or respect the agreements.
Persecution of Catholics
A few weeks after the signing of the concordat, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, then-secretary of state, was asked by a British diplomat whether Hitler would respect the concordat.
Cardinal Pacelli replied: “Absolutely not. We can only hope that he will not violate all the clauses at the same time.”
And in fact, immediately after the signing of the concordat, Hitler began persecuting Catholics at every turn, so much so that the Holy See sent 50 protests to the government.
Despite the official protests, the Nazi persecution increased, in education, in the press, with the imprisonment of priests. By 1936, the German episcopal conference asked for public intervention.
The German bishops were expected in Rome for their five-yearly visit in 1938 but the date was moved forward to 1937. On that occasion, all the prelates agreed to ask the Holy See to publish a document condemning Nazism.
Father Gumpel told ZENIT: “The archbishop of Munich, Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber, secretly composed the first draft of the encyclical. To maintain secrecy, he wrote it by hand instead of dictating it.
“To Cardinal Faulhaber’s text, which was the basis of the encyclical, Cardinal Pacelli’s interventions were added, and in seven weeks a text was prepared with passages that were even stronger than those proposed by Cardinal Faulhaber.”
Pius XI signed the definitive text of the encyclical on March 14, 1937. Printed copies were brought by diplomatic briefcase to the nuncio in Berlin. He passed these on to the bishop of Berlin, who had them distributed by secret couriers to all the German prelates.
Twelve printers reproduced the text under the noses of the Gestapo. Several bishops had copies printed in the hundreds of thousands. Afterward, again in total secrecy, the text was distributed to every parish priest, chaplain and convent, and the encyclical was read in every church on March 21, 1937, Palm Sunday.
“I was 14 years old and was at in the cathedral in Berlin when the text of the encyclical was read during the homily,” Father Gumpel told ZENIT. “The cathedral was packed and the general reaction was one of approval.”
The language was clear and explicit: Hitler was deceiving the Germans and the international community. The encyclical affirmed that the Nazi leader was perfidious, untrustworthy, dangerous and determined to take the place of God.
The Jesuit observed that “the reaction of Catholics was enthusiastic” while “Hitler was furious.” It was said that, in fact, Hitler was so beside himself that for three days he did not want to see or receive anyone.
A print shop employee informed the Gestapo about the encyclical on the Saturday evening prior to Palm Sunday, but it was already too late to stop anything. The Gestapo did not dare to enter the churches because this would have incited a revolt, Father Gumpel said.
Still, there were Gestapo guards in front of the churches on Sunday morning, checking to see if anyone had a copy in hand. Anyone found possessing a copy was arrested. The 12 print shops were taken without reimbursement and some people ended up in jail.
The international community reacted enthusiastically. The Jewish communities were elated since that encyclical presented the strongest condemnation of racism. All the Jewish newspapers in the world showed their enthusiasm for what the Holy See had done, Father Gumpel recalled.
“Nevertheless,” he added, “despite the Pope having declared Hitler untrustworthy, at the conference in Munich in 1938, England, France and Italy came to an agreement with the Nazi regime.”
According to Father Gumpel, the encyclical is “a document whose value goes beyond the historical context; there are parts that have taken on a prophetic significance and a contemporary relevance.”
“‘Mit Brennender Sorge,'” the Jesuit continued, “has more than a symbolic value; it is based on the principles of natural law and faith. It is prophetic also in regard to today’s situation and it has a permanent value.
“If one does not comply with the natural law or the faith he falls into decadence and history has amply shown that this creates continual problems in the international order.”
The first part of the encyclical traces a history of the concordat and it points out the continual violations in regard to the Catholic Church and the faithful.
There is a part in which “Mit Brennender Sorge” denounces “whoever identifies, by pantheistic confusion, God and the universe, by either lowering God to the dimensions of the world, or raising the world to the dimensions of God, is not a believer in God.”
The encyclical condemns racist ideas, which “divinize with an idolatrous cult,” land and blood and “perverts and falsifies the order God has planned and created.”
The pontifical document underlines “the error of speaking of a national God, of a national religion; or attempt to lock within the frontiers of a single people, within the narrow limits of a single race, God, the Creator of the universe, King and Legislator of all nations before whose immensity they are as a drop of a bucket.”
“Mit Brennender Sorge” strenuously defends the Old Testament, arguing that “whoever wishes to see banished from church and school the biblical history and the wise doctrines of the Old Testament, blasphemes the name of God, blasphemes the Almighty’s plan of salvation, and makes limited and narrow human thought the judge of God’s designs over the history of the world.”
The encyclical commends those who, defending the Catholic religion, “are subjected to a violence that is as illegal as it is inhuman,” and it speaks clearly of temptations to “the Judas bargain of apostasy.”
There is also an explicit condemnation of the attempt to build a “national German church.”
On the moral plane “Mit Brennender Sorge” strongly opposes “all the efforts to remove from under morality and the moral order the granite foundation of faith,” a road that leads to “the moral degradation of individuals and societies.”
The condemnation of the Nazi principle that “there is a right to what is useful for the nation” is also implied. Indeed, in a prophetic way it is said that, “that principle, detached from the moral law, would mean internationally a perpetual state of war among nations.”
No. 1 enemy
Father Gumpel also emphasized that “the harshest statements against Nazism were Pacelli’s, and Hitler knew it,” so much so that Hitler considered Pacelli his No. 1 enemy and feared his moral power.
The Jesuit priest then commented on the report that appeared in La Repubblica last week, according to which archive documents from former East Germany reveal that Pacelli was the Nazis’ enemy and that the Soviet Union was behind the campaign to calumniate Pius XII.
Gumpel told ZENIT: “These revelations do not add anything to what the Holy See already knows, but it is important for those who have thought and written that Pacelli was ‘Hitler’s Pope.’
“Now there are other documents that show how many false statements have been made about Pius XII. The responsibility of the Soviets is also evident in the campaign to calumniate Pius XII.”