“Mit brennender Sorge”, the cry of Pius XI
Emma Fattorini 25 November 2008

This article was published in issue 94 of the magazine Reset, which devoted to a dossier to Pius XI with comments by Anna Foa and Silvana Truzzi among others. To order this issue please call 06 68407012, or email resetmag@tin.it.

Emma Fattorini teaches Contemporary History at La Sapienza University in Rome. She is the author of Pio XI, Hitler e Mussolini. La solitudine di un papa (Einaudi).

For years the German Ambassador to the Holy See, Ernst von Weizsaecker, stated in his memoirs that, “if the so energetic and impulsive Pius XI had lived a little longer, relations between the Reich and the Curia would very probably have been interrupted.” It is well-known, although not often studied, that in the last years of his life, Pius XI had an open and clearly stated position of wishing to sever relations with Nazism and in many ways this also applied to Fascism. The interpretation presented by Giovanni Miccoli is notably confirmed by new documentation discovered in the archives. These documents concern the German Nunciatura’s relations with the State Secretariat in great detail, and confirm a different attitude, as well as one less inclined to diplomatic negotiations, than that of Pacelli and most of the German Episcopate.

Between 1937 and 1939 there were clear differences of opinion between the Pontiff and his Secretary of State. The future Pius XII had become increasingly determined to follow a diplomatic path of mediation with the Nazi regime – a path that he would then attempt to implement as soon as he was elected – while Pope Ratti turned out to be increasingly inclined to break off relations. This break, however, did not take place since Pius XI never lost faith in his irreplaceable Secretary of State, the diligent executor also of his excesses, and his appointed successor for the dark years to come. This major complicity did not eliminate their profound differences. The last years of the life of Pius XI can be seen as a workshop revealing the Vatican and the Church’s relations with 20th century’s totalitarian regimes. Close observation of the maturation of Pius XI, allows one to avoid a number of naive pitfalls, such as clearly separating the Church’s prophetic and diplomatic positions with totalitarian regimes. This conflict, matured immediately after the war and later within the culture of the Second Vatican Council, was the result of a judgemental and vindictive vision of these events, and one that is basically protective of the later historical and ecclesial conscience. It was only then, in fact, that the concept of the Church’s relationship with the world – that makes her the mother of all humankind and thus not only simply concerned with protecting her own children – was acquired, and one would say fully interiorised.

To explain Pope Ratti’s intolerance for the diplomatic path that Pacelli always followed, it is not for example so necessary to appeal to the category of prophecies. The roots of this condemnation, which rose to a crescendo during the last period of the life of Pius XI, are instead deeply rooted in a particular theological concept. If not fully achieving the status of real political theology, it certainly matured in a spiritual sense based on a “totalitarian” concept of the Church. On this subject, there is an often quoted statement that is enlightening regards to what Pius XI had matured as far as the fluctuating and ambiguous concept of “totalitarianism” was concerned. Hence, in a speech on September 18th 1938 in the midst of the Sudetenland crisis, addressing a delegation of French Christian trade-unionists, Pius XI touched on a particularly important “point of doctrine”, which was the real and profound nature of the conflict between the Church and totalitarianism. Hence the fact that this involved two totalitarianisms. “This is what many people say; everything must belong to the State. This results in the totalitarian State as it is known: nothing without the State, everything belongs to the State. And if this were the case there would be great usurpation, since if there is a totalitarian regime – totalitarian both in name and by law – that is the Church’s regime, because human beings belong totally to the Church, must belong to it, since human beings are the Good Lord’s creatures”.

His “conservative” ecclesiology and his traditional training were combined with Christocentric feelings indicating such an absolute centrality of the Church that it made him immune, at least at a spiritual level (because in practice this was not the case), to real “subjugation” to Fascist and Nazi totalitarianisms, of which he had however perceived an initial consonance. This inspiration resulted in the persuasion that only the Church could really negotiate directly with nations, without wasting time in mediations undertaken by Catholic political parties. It was based on this ecclesiology that in 1938 he would fully perceive the religious aspects of the totalitarian attack and understand that precisely due to this, mediation was no longer an option. Until 1936-37, the Vatican pronounced its condemnation of the neo-paganism of Nazism from the moment of its ascent and at other times, especially the ideas contained in Rosenberg’s The Myth of the 20th Century.

Suffering experienced in solitude

It was with the Encyclical With Burning Concern that a new theological point of view was revealed. It is interesting to observe how and in what sense, after 1938, this critical attitude started to also include Italian Fascism. This was an event perceived correctly by Minister Bottai, when in July 1938, on the subject of Pacelli’s speech at the French Social Weeks stated that “the Church would progressively take a stand against “totalitarian” States, be they Fascist or not.” But it was in the challenge to the Nazi regime that the aforementioned theological roots emerged. Pope Ratti’s indignation was obviously not addressed at improbable democratic-liberal human rights issues, nor was there a generic and abstract appeal to evangelical principles. It was rather the Church’s competition with the totalitarian regression of the concept of Volk that in the Nazi state-worship totally absorbed the community-people relationship. The last years of the pontificate of Pius XI were marked by growing, acute and powerful contempt, by furious intolerance to Nazism and Fascism’s complicity with it. This torment was largely experienced in solitude. In the course of 1937 and during the first months of 1938, signs of clashes between the Holy See and Germany became increasingly frequent, especially those instigated by Pius XI.

These ranged from the condemning encyclical Mit brennender Sorge to the Pope’s praising of Cardinal George Mundelein, Archbishop of Chicago, who had called Hitler a mad house painter; to the speech made at Christmas 1937, with its extremely harsh tone and intense theology, to the reprimand addressed at Cardinal of Vienna, Theodor Innitzer, ordering him to publicly recant his previous enthusiasm about the Anschluss, to include his most important act which consisted in commissioning an encyclical against anti-Semitism, that because of his death was never published, just to quote a few of the many examples available. These interesting signs of the growing distance between the Vatican and Germany were evident well before 1937, but it was during the period between the encyclical “shouted from the rooftops” to the unpublished one that it is possible to reconstruct important elements concerning the events and personalities who played leading roles in the growing relationship between Italy and Germany. The Holy See’s increasing hostility regards to Germany was so obvious that it was to be used by Italian diplomacy.

The intransigence of a sick Pope

Between Christmas 1936 and Easter 1937, Pius XI was extremely ill and obliged to remain bedridden at length. His relationship with his disease seems to confirm how physical deterioration and infirmity increased his inner maturity to the extent of inspiring great spiritual intuitions. A path of psychic awareness of the concept of the limitations preceding and accompanying a spiritual acceptance of the finiteness, the impermanence, the changing of events and the destiny of humankind. Giacomo Martina correctly observed how the illness, referred to the last years of the Pope’s life, had “In some way weakened the Pope’s fibre and reduced his activity, thereby inducing him to meditate at length on the virtues of the Crucifixion and its redeeming power.” His increasing intolerance of Nazism and his profound disappointment in Fascism, added to his already fiery and extrovert temperament, have often been attributed to his illness, almost as if his absolute intolerance were the result of age and physical pain, and led to events greatly marked by his personal experience and ended up by restricting his condemnation of totalitarianisms. The fact that his firm condemnation was based on his intimate experience of suffering added greater strength and depth to a less political and more religious vision of that rejection of the vanities of powers that marked the Pontiff’s spirituality during the last years of his life. “He revisited all the work and the events of his pontificate, and silently and calmly had to undertake a sort of revision, something between a historical assessment and a personal examination of conscience”, wrote Luigi Salvatorelli already at the end of the Thirties.

The meeting between the three Cardinals

The genesis, the antecedents and the various drafts of the Mit brennender Sorge (there are at least four in the Vatican secret archives) leave many unanswered questions while awaiting total disclosure of the archives. One question certainly concerns relations between the encyclical and doctrinal condemnations planned since 1934 by the Rector of the German College of Santa Maria dell’Anima, Alois Hudal (who was a supporter of Nazism), contained in the archives of the Sant’Uffizio and well reconstructed by Philippe Chenaaux. It seems this was a condemnation in principle, a sort of Syllabus against modern heresy, a doctrinal condemnation that probably would not have had the same effect and effectiveness as pastoral and diplomatic condemnation, like a real encyclical. Rosenberg’s 20th Century Myth had already been banned in 1933. The most interesting aspects of this planned doctrinal condemnation remain however the concept of heresy alluded to and a more explicit reference to the theory of race.

The Mit brennender was preceded by a famous meeting in Rome, on January 17th 1937, between three German Cardinals, Bertram (Breslau), Faulhaber (Munich) and Schulte (Cologne) and two Bishops more hostile to the regime, the Bishop of Berlin Konrad von Preysing, and the Bishop of Muenster, Clemens August von Galen. The Pope, still unwell, received them in his bedroom. In spite of a request presented by Bertram, as instead explicitly requested by Pius XI, Monsignor Berning, Archbishop of Osnabrueck who had not resigned from his position as advisor to the Prussian State as the Pope wished, was not invited to attend the meeting. Bertram, and above all Faulhaber, to whom Pacelli entrusted the German version, wished to avoid conflict, suggesting that matters should be limited to a letter from the Pope to Hitler and to the German Bishops. And, as Faulhaber said, “the Holy Father’s pastoral letter cannot be controversial. National Socialism and political parties should absolutely not be named; irenical dogmatism, containing however a reference to German relations.” The first draft respected this intentionally general and generic spirit, in a manner that would never have angered Hitler. The second draft, which was twice as long, had a tone and style that were scathing, accusatory and totally explicit. To Pacelli was attributed the most significant rearrangement, the one with a result that was so determined it disclaimed his previous concern regards to not wishing to have excessively harsh tones used that might have endangered the Concordat.

To what extent and how did the Pontiff’s desire to assume at last an unequivocally firm position influence these changes, hence abandoning the exhausting diplomatic negotiations entirely addressed at defending the Concordat, to instead assume, also in the language used the tones of Biblical condemnation that worried little about political and diplomatic consequences? The first part of the encyclical centred on the Concordat should be attributed to Pacelli, while Cardinal Faulhaber was responsible for implementing Pius XI’s recommendations to present the condemnation of totalitarianisms in “a spiritual light” in the second part. But, in addition to Faulhaber, how much of Pacelli is there, and how much of the Pope or others are in the final draft?

Against the arrogance of nations

Meaningful references to the Old Testament, suggest a spiritual moment experienced by the Pope. After an audience given to him on March 22nd, the French Cardinal Baudrillart siad that “Even when he was suffering the worst pain, when it passed, if he could not sleep, he felt at rest and with an active brain. Then he thought of the three encyclicals he wished to write. He drafted them mentally, then he asked to be read to and obtained information; at times he dictated his work. And it was thus that his work was prepared.” A number of observations concerning the use of Biblical texts in this encyclical seem to confirm his intervention: “He who lives in the heavens laughs at them” (Psalm 2,4); “…Behold the nations count as a drop in the bucket” (Isaiah 40,15); “The wind blows where it wills” (John 3,8); “…God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (Matthew 3,9; Luke 3,8).

The quotations from the New and the Old Testaments are so meaningful and rich. In that use of Isaiah in minimising national pride (“Behold the nations count as a drop in the bucket”) one can see the pride of his faith and his profound passion. There is that centrality of Christ that, in this case, is not invoked to support the various cults at the service of the Church’s policies (a good example is the cult of the Sovereignty of Christ, the Quas primas dated December 11th 1926, which not only had a religious value but a real political-social aspect too). On that occasion, Christ was invoked against the arrogance of nations as the one, true anti-idolatrous antidote. This confirmed the persuasion “that in no case could the Church be subordinated to national values”. This was a profound intuition already at the basis of the condemnation of Action Française, that was anything but a mere operation involving political tactics, but profoundly linked to his specific and meaningful idea of spiritual autonomy. The Pope’s speech of December 14th 1926, condemning Action Française was instead too often interpreted as a simple tactical concession to the French government so as to establish more relaxed diplomatic relations after the storm caused by the separation at the start of the century, and not as instead happened, a fundamental characteristic of Pius XI’s ideas.

A number of famous passages of this Encyclical, such as the one on “genuine faith in God”, prove that the profound meaning and the Encyclical’s essence were entirely addressed at opposing Nazism’s “religious”, idolatrous aspects. “You will need to watch carefully, Venerable Brethren, that religious fundamental concepts be not emptied of their content and distorted to profane use”; “Blood… race… False coins of this sort do not deserve Christian currency.”; or when the Nazis are described as “destroyers of the Christian West”; and also “Laws which impede this profession and practice of Faith are against natural law.”

Powerful condemnation

On April 12th, The German Ambassador von Bergen sent Pacelli an extremely strong note of protest against the Encyclical, denouncing the wrecking of the Concordat and the Church’s ungratefulness to National Socialism for having saved the Church from Bolshevism. Pacelli’s answer, in a very long note dated April 30th, is a masterpiece of sophisticated diplomatic arguments. Do the tone and style, diametrically the opposite of those of Pope Ratti, indicate a complementary division of tasks or a real distinction between greater determination and lasting acquiescence? The clash between the Holy See and Germany, Pacelli seems to suggest in each passage, is restricted to a momentary break down, it is simply a “disease”, with the only objective of “a rapid, radical and safe recovery”. On the basis of the addressees one cannot deduce that the objective was a political one and hence the accusation of this being an “attempt to mobilise the world against Germany is unjustified… the religious intention was clear, far from any political tendency.” And in the fourth paragraph on Bolshevism, one reads that “The Holy See does not disregard the great importance that is attributed to creating intrinsically healthy and vital defensive political fronts against the danger of atheistic Bolshevism… it has never missed an opportunity for consolidating and perfecting a spiritual defence against Bolshevism… this however cannot become carte blanche for tolerance, nothing is more unfounded than the false idea that defending Bolshevism can only be based on external and not on spiritual forced.”

With regards to the Concordat, Pacelli denounced the many German violations, also speaking of the Holy See’s untiring patience, “considered excessive by many,” taking advantage of any possible opportunity for mediation. All in all, the answer from the Secretary of State still gave credit to the fact that there were still reasonable elements within the German government, and basically denies that the spirit of the Mit brennender is really that of full frontal conflict. There was instead a direct clash in the manner in which it was made public, even before its contents were addressed. The total secrecy with a surprise effect, the capillarity with which it was made known (more than one priest refused to real this text in homilies), the amazing effect it had on the international press, all contributed to increasing the Nazi regime’s furious reactions. Preparations for its launch had the planning and exciting tempo of a secret operation. The directive from the Secretariat of State dated March 10th requested Ordinaries “to make this encyclical known to the faithful as simultaneously as possible and make sure it was safely delivered as quickly as possible.”

The fact that, above all in Pius XI, Bolshevism and Nazism were increasingly condemned, marked a theological-pastoral change more than a political-diplomatic one. The priority was no longer to present a united front against Bolshevism (and in fact the Holy See’s policies were accused of weakening the anti-Bolshevik front). These were no longer Pius XI’s motivations. He began to perceive a different relationship between politics and religion; a sort of anti-idolatrous urgency that became a priority, that had to be more important than any other consideration or political opportunity, in spite of the all-but-secondary issue of defending against Bolshevism. Hence the merits of National Socialism on this front were no longer in any way a justification. This was the reason for which there were indications that the Vatican no longer wished to move a political attack but rather a religious one. This fact was often emphasised by Pius XI and was to be at the centre of another great and important occasion for expressing condemnation. The speech dated Christmas 1937, should not be understood as a diminutio, but instead became, in the Pope’s spirit, a reinforcment of this condemnation. All in all, the encyclical against communism entitled Divini redemptoris, promulgated during the same period, in which communism was considered intrinsically perverse, with no chance of redemption, an “absolute evil”, remains however a more cerebral encyclical. It is apparently harsher, but also more doctrinal, less impassioned and vibrant.

Translation by Francesca Simmons