Mit Brennender Sorge “With Burning Anxiety” (hereafter known as “MBS”) was promulgated as an encyclical letter by Pope Pius XI on March 14, 1937: however unlike most encyclicals it was not written for the Universal church, but for the Church in Nazi Germany. While the Pope does not specifically state that he is speaking ex cathedra, the fact that this encyclical deals with issues of faith and morals and reaffirms traditional Catholic teachings regarding the dignity of the human person and the evils of idolatry means that is it to be accepted and held by all Catholics given their full assent. The Catechism of the Council of Trent states in Part 1 “The Creed”,
In preparing and instructing men in the teachings of Christ the Lord, the Fathers began by explaining the meaning of faith. Following their example, we have thought it well to treat first what pertains to that virtue. Though the word faith has a variety of meanings in the Sacred Scriptures, we here speak only of that faith by which we yield our entire as sent to whatever has been divinely revealed.1
According to the research that I have done, I have found no evidence that there is any dispute about the authority of this document.
Author and Audience
MBS was issued by Pope Pius XI on March 14, 1937 in Latin and the document was smuggled into Germany and translated into German so that it might be proclaimed from the pulpits of every parish throughout the nation. This encyclical was originally drafted by Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, Vatican Secretary of State.2
Between 1931 and 1937, Pope Pius XI wrote three encyclicals condemning totalitarian regimes. In 1931, he promulgated Non Abiamo Bisogno which rebuked the Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini in Italy. In 1937, he promulgated Mit Brennender Sorge which rebuked Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich in Germany. That same year he promulgated Divini Redemptoris which rebuked the Communist government of the Soviet Union. In his article entitled, “Totality and Idolatry: Rereading Pius XI”, John J. Conley states,
“The immediate issue (for the promulgating of this encyclical)
is the violation of the terms of the Concordat between the Vatican
and the German government, signed in 1933. Pius XI details the
Third Reich’s persecution of the Church, in particular, the destruction
of religious schools and the cultural associations whose existence had
been guaranteed by the Concordat. The pope’s primary concern;
however, is to warn German Christians of the religious idolatry that
under girds this persecution. The Nazi idolatry is particularly dangerous
inasmuch at it offers a counterfeit of Christianity.”3
The topic of not worshipping false gods has a very long history in both Jewish and Christian writings. I have found no evidence that this encyclical is the result of a series of prior drafts.
MBS covers such topics as “False vs. True Worship”, “The Moral Consequences of
Nazi Teaching”, “The Insidious Nature of Nazi Paganism”, and “The Misuse of Christian Theological Vocabulary”. With regard to “False vs. True Worship”, Pope Pius points out that Nazis are attempting to replace the worship of God with the worship of the State and Adolf Hitler. The Nazis were using “religious” language which borrowed heavily from ancient Norse worship, in an effort to give their ideals a “religious” sense about them. The Pope urged the German bishops to instruct the people to avoid the tendency to baptize any spiritual language especially materialistic and neo-pagan religious language of the Nazi movement. If the German people are to be successful, Pope Pius knew that they must adhere strictly to an orthodox concept of God which is rooted in the dogma of the Trinity and in the economy of salvation. The Pope also taught about the moral consequences of this teaching. The national Socialist idolatry has clear moral consequences. By replacing the true God with a nationalist idol, the Third Reich has attempted to destroy the natural law implanted by God in the individual and corporate heart. Is regard to this, the Pope writes, “This God, the Sovereign Master, has issued commandments whose value is independent of time and space, country and race. As God’s sun shines on every human face, so His law knows neither privilege nor exception.” MBS 10 The National Socialist “ethical” code is a form of relativism. All universal laws of conduct are violated in the single goal of glorifying a particular race. The Pope dwells on the racial elitism of this ethic, where disfavored groups no longer enjoy the protection of law. Part of the insidious nature of Nazi paganism is that it can ensnare the uneducated Christian because it systematically uses Christian symbols emptied of their authentic content and employed to advance a racist anti-Christian project. With particular virulence, Nazi “theology” has attempted to create a Christianity divorced of its Jewish roots. Pope Pius condemns the anti-Semitic effort to claim that the Old Testament is not divinely inspired. He writes, “The sacred books of the Old Testament are exclusively the word of God, and constitute a substantial part of His revelation; they are penetrated by a subdued light, harmonizing the slow developments of revelation, the dawn of the bright day of redemption.” MSB 15 He also condemns “the cult of the Fuhrer” as nothing other than a false Christianity. The national socialist effort to create a purely national church mocks the universal Church created by God. The Pope also condemns the Nazis for using Christian terms which have been emptied of their true meaning in order to convey the sense that Nazism is simply a new form of Christianity. “Revelation” becomes wisdom of an ethnic group. “Faith” becomes confidence in national destiny. “Immortality”, no longer understood as personal, designates the survival of a particular people. “Grace” becomes the privilege of belonging to an alleged Nordic racial type. All of these distortions of theological vocabulary turn the tools of redemption into instruments of racial oppression. They also serve to rationalize the gospel; that is, to transform references to the spiritual into references of blood and race. 4
Analysis of Theology
The chief moral theology underlying this document is the issue of virtue, sin, and the human act. In his book, Catholic Moral Traditions, Monsignor David A. Bohr addresses this issue by quoting from Pope John Paul II in Reconciliation and Penance no. 16,
“In opposition to the profound and splendid mystery of the ‘communion
of saints’ of solidarity in holiness, one can speak of a communion of sin,
whereby a soul that lowers itself through sin drags down with itself the
Church and, in some way, the whole world. Since values are more often
caught than taught, the evil example on one person’s sin exposes the value
involved in doubt and denial; it weakens that value’s appeal to the conscience of others.”5
All of Pope Pius’ major points address this very issue. The “theology” presented by the Nazi are designed to undermine traditional Christian values and thereby help implant enough doubt and/or denial in the collective mind of the people that they begin to adopt these sinful values as their own. Several times throughout the document, Pope Pius appeals to the need for Catholic orthodoxy as a way of undermining the effects of Nazi propaganda and educating people about the insidious nature of Third Reich ideology. It is not by mere coincidence that this encyclical was proclaimed from the pulpits of every Catholic parish in Germany on March 21, 1937 (Palm Sunday). The people who have just heard the proclamation of the Passion of Our Lord Jesus where Jesus suffered and died at the hands of sinful men and now they would be listening to this encyclical which addresses the evils of Nazi paganism and the creation of a false Christianity.
In the hierarchy of truths this encyclical would come under the heading of The Mystery of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Creator of all things. 6 Pope
Pius himself writes,
“Beware Venerable Brethren, of that growing abuse, in speech
and in writing, of the name of God as through it were a meaningless
label, to be affixed to any creation, more or less arbitrary, of human speculation.
Use your influence on the faithful that they refuse to yield to this aberration.
Our God is the Personal God, supernatural, omnipotent, infinitely perfect,
one in the Trinity of Persons, tri-personal in the unity of divine essence, the
Creator of all existence, Lord, King, and ultimate Consummator of the history
of the world, who will not, and cannot tolerate a rival God by His side.” MBS 9
The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) of the Second Vatican Council begins by making reference to the human person being made in the image of God (Imago Dei). This principle is made reference to again in section 27 with regard to the fact that we are to see our neighbor as another self and offenses such as murder and genocide are violations of the integrity of the human person. While Pope Pius XI did not have the benefit of quoting from this document, his teaching is certainly in accord with it.
I would assess that this document was probably well received by the German people. Pope Pius XI was calling on them to stand up for the Truth and do battle for the true King, Christ the Lord. This appeal to the Kingship of Christ appears to be a reiteration of Pope Pius XI’s 1925 encyclical Quas Primas which served as the foundation for the establishment of the Solemnity of Christ the King on the last Sunday in October. In order to explain why the Church should honor Our Lord as King, Pope Pius wrote:
When we pay honor to the princely dignity of Christ, men will doubtless be reminded that the Church, founded by Christ as a perfect society, has a natural and inalienable right to perfect freedom and immunity from the power of the state; and that in fulfilling the task committed to her by God of teaching, ruling, and guiding to eternal bliss those who belong to the kingdom of Christ, she cannot be subject to any external power. QP31
The Church in Germany faced even more persecutions as a result of the encyclical; however, what was written needed to be said. Pius XI, as Supreme Pontiff, upheld his moral obligation to speak the truth in love. Speaking to the College of Cardinals about the Church and National Socialism on June 2, 1945, Pope Pius XII stated “German Catholics were, one may say, as one to recognize that the encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge had brought light, direction, consolation, and comfort to all those who seriously mediated and conscientiously practice the religion of Christ. However, the reaction of those who had been inculpated was inevitable, and in fact, that very year, 1937, was for the Catholic Church in Germany a year of incredible bitterness and terrible outbreaks.”7 As Vatican Secretary of State, Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli vehemently supported the efforts of Pope Pius XI in his opposition to National Socialism. This encyclical should have helped put an end to the debate regarding whether or not the Church was supportive of Nazism during the war. However, there are still many voices which continue to preach that Pope Pius XII was Hitler’s Pope and that the Church really did not care at all about the extermination of the Jewish people. The fact that Pope Pius XII was a strong supporter of this encyclical and the fact that he was the victim of an assassination attempt as papal legate to Germany should provide ample evidence that the Church’s support of Nazism is completely contrary to the facts.
(1) The Catechism of the Council of Trent: http://www.cin.org/users/james/ebooks/master/trent/tindex.htm Posted 1996, Date Accessed: May 2, 2007
(2) Draft of MBS: http://www.catholicapologetics.net/pius_xii.htm
(3) Conley, John “Totality and Idolatry: Rereading Pius XI”, Catholic Social
Science Review, Vol. VI, 2001, p. 166
(4) Conley, p. 169
(5) Bohr, David Catholic Moral Traditions, Second Edition, (IN: Our Sunday
Visitor), 1999, p. 217
(6) Bushman, Douglas: Hierarchy of Truths: http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features2005/dbushman_hiertruths_sept05.asp
Posted: Sept. 2005 Accessed: April 25, 2007
(7) Pope Pius XII’s Address to the College of Cardinals on June 2. 1945: http://www.ibiblio.org/pha/policy/1945/450602a.html Posted: 12/25/97
Accessed: March 18, 2007
(ed.) The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents of Austin
Bohr, David Catholic Moral Traditions, (IN: Our Sunday Visitor), 1998
Conley, John “Totality and Idolatry: Rereading Pius XI”, Catholic Social
Science Review, Vol. VI, 2001