Hitler came to power in 1933. Thereafter many observers grew increasingly alarmed. That same year the Vatican, to protect the interests of the Catholic church and its people, signed a concordat with the Reich. Hitler observed it as faithfully as he observed his other treaties, which is to say, only when it suited him. By 1937 the concordat had broken down.
Pius XI was among those alarmed by the claims of the Nazis and their disrespect for the church. The Nazis restricted Catholic schools and presses and piece by piece destroyed Catholic organizations throughout Germany.
In response, the Pope issued an encyclical on this day March 14, 1937. His agents smuggled this into Germany and Catholic clergymen read it on Palm Sunday in every church and cathedral. Fortunately, not a single copy had fallen into Nazi hands first.
"Mit brennender sorge..." it began. "With burning concern and mounting consternation we have been observing for some time now the cross carried by the church in Germany and the increasingly difficult situation of those men and women who have kept the faith..."
The failure of the concordat was not the fault of the church said the Pope. "Anyone who still has within him the slightest feeling for truth... will have to admit that in these difficult and eventful years which have followed the Concordat, every one of our words and every one of our deeds have been regulated by loyalty to the agreement...He will, however, also have to note with consternation...how for the other side [the Nazis] it has become the unwritten law of their conduct to misconstrue, evade, undermine, and in the end more or less openly violate the treaty."
The encyclical especially urged Catholics to resist the idolatrous cults of state and race. "Race, nation, state... all have an essential and honorable place within the secular order. To abstract them, however, from the earthly scale of values and make them the supreme norm of all values, including religious ones, and divinize them with an idolatrous cult, is to be guilty of perverting and falsifying the order of things created and commanded by God..."
He denied the legality of recent forced school enrollments. "Conscientious parents, aware of their educational duties, have a primal and original right to determine that the children which God has given them should be educated in the spirit of true faith."
The pope's encyclical was but one of his statements against nazism. In a widely disseminated 1938 speech he reminded Christians that we are spiritual seed of Abraham and that therefore antisemitism is intolerable: "No, no, I say to you it is impossible for a Christian to take part in anti-Semitism. It is inadmissible. Through Christ and in Christ we are the spiritual progeny of Abraham. Spiritually, we are all Semites."
Many Catholics suffered greatly for their faith during Hitler's regime. One strong Catholic voice, however--that of Bishop Galen of Münster--roused such public opinion against Hitler's euthanasia plan it was scrapped.
- Brusher, Joseph. Popes Through the Ages. (Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand, 1959).
- Forell, George W. Christian Social Teachings. (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1966).
- Fremantle, Anne. The Papal Encyclicals in their Historical Context. (New York: Mentor, 1956).
- Sugrue, Francis. Popes in the Modern World. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1961).
- Various encyclopedia and internet articles such as http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Pius_XI
Last updated May, 2007.