The Pope's Anti-Nazi Encyclical: March 14, 1937

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.


For Adolf Hitler, the Catholic Church was the greatest obstacle to the triumph of National Socialism in Germany. It was for this reason that, even while he was violating the concordat, Hitler was careful not to cast it aside. Hitler did not want to annoy Catholics too much; at the same time, he wanted to pressure them to give up their opposition to him and accept National Socialism as the religion of Germany.


Hitler's camera poses, 1930

But from 1933 to 1937, Hitler faced steady opposition from bishops, priests, and laymen, both inside and outside of Germany. Standing with them were stout Evangelical Christians who refused to worship Hitler instead of Christ or abandon the Bible for Mein Kampf. One result of the Nazi persecution was that Catholics and Protestants learned to respect one another. Though neither side abandoned its beliefs, both sides forgot the animosity they had for each other. They were joined in a common front against a common “antichrist,” Adolf Hitler.


Catholics fought Hitler’s racial theories and anti-Semitism as well as his anti-Christian measures. For instance, in 1933, the Austrian bishops issued a pastoral letter condemning “extreme nationalism” and “rational anti-Semitism based on race.” Pope Pius XI himself condemned racism in his Christmas message of 1930, saying no race is superior to another, for all are united “in the heritage of sin.” Racism was condemned, too, in the Jesuit journal Civiltà Cattolica (published in the Vatican with the approval of the pope); and beginning in the mid 1930s, the Holy See’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, began publishing criticisms of the Nazi theory of race, soil, and blood. In 1936, Vatican Radio began exhorting Catholics worldwide to pray for Jews persecuted by the Nazis.


Pope Pius XI

In 1937, Pope Pius XI issued his great condemnation of National Socialism in the encyclical, Mit Brennender Sorge (“With Burning Anxiety”). Written in German instead of the customary Latin, Pius’s encyclical had to be smuggled into Germany, where it was secretly printed. Throughout the night of March 13 and into the early morning of March 14, 1937, the encyclical was delivered by hand to priests, who read it during Masses on Passion Sunday, March 14, 1937. By evening of the same day, police had confiscated almost every copy of the encyclical in Germany.


The opening page of Mit Brennender Sorge

Though it never mentioned the Nazis or Hitler by name, Mit Brennender Sorge was a stern condemnation of National Socialism. The encyclical called on Germany’s bishops to preserve faith in God against the government’s attempts to restore paganism and turn the state into God. “None but superficial minds could stumble into concepts of a national God or a national religion,” said Pius.


Pure faith in God, said Mit Brennender Sorge, cannot long endure without faith in Christ. Any man who would place “a mortal, were he the greatest of all times, by the side of, or over, or against, Christ, he would deserve to be called prophet of nothingness, to whom the terrifying words of Scripture would be applicable: ‘He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh at them’ (Psalm 2:4).” Faith in Christ, said the pope, could not long remain pure “without the support of faith in the Church, ‘the pillar and ground of the truth’ (I Tim. 3:15).” And, finally, said Pius, “faith in the Church cannot stand pure and true without the support of faith in the primacy of the Bishop of Rome.” It is the bishops’ task, said the pope, to preserve and defend these articles of the Faith.


Throughout the encyclical, Pope Pius attacked Nazi racism. “Whoever exalts race,” said the encyclical, “or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State ... or any other fundamental value of the human community . . . above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God.” God’s commandments are for all men, said Pius; and the Church “is the same for all races and all nations. Beneath her dome, as beneath the vault of heaven, there is but one country for all nations and tongues.”


In Mit Brennender Sorge, the pope condemned the Nazi state for violating the right of parents to educate their children. He defended the rights of a believer to “profess his Faith and live according to its dictates.” The German government must not violate these rights, either by arresting those who exercise them or depriving them of the privileges given to all other citizens. The pope expressed his “wholehearted paternal sympathy” with German Catholics for their sufferings for Christ and the Church. There is, said the pope, only one just option for those who are faced with a choice between Christ and the world—and that is heroism. “If the oppressor offers one the Judas bargain of apostasy he can only, at the cost of every worldly sacrifice, answer with Our Lord: ‘Be gone, Satan! For it is written: The Lord thy God shalt thou adore, and Him only shalt thou serve.’”


Hitler and the Nazis saw the pope’s encyclical for what it was—a strong blow against National Socialism. For the Nazis, it was a “call to battle against the Church.” It is said that Hitler himself was livid when he learned of the encyclical. He swore revenge on Pius and the Catholic Church. Though he hesitated to make open war on the Catholic Church in Germany, he was preparing for the time when he could, once and for all, rid Germany of any religion that dared oppose National Socialism. And chief among these enemy religions, for Hitler, was the Catholic Church.


Music the Nazis Didn't Like


The Austrian-Jewish composer, Arnold Schoenberg, was one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. His Twelve-Tone, "atonal," system revolutionized musical composition. The Nazis considered his music degenerate, and, when Hitler came to power, Schoenberg emigrated to the United States, where he remained the rest of his life. This is a recording of Schoenberg's String Quartet No. 4, Op. 37, composed in 1935 and here performed by the LaSalle String Quartet.


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