Seventy years ago a fateful meeting occurred in Rome. The Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pope Pius XII), and Germany’s vice chancellor, Franz von Papen, formally signed a concordat between the Holy See and the German Reich on July 20, 1933. This event ended negotiations that began after Adolf Hitler became Germany’s chancellor on Jan. 30, 1933. Among the witnesses to this event were Msgr. Giovanni Battista Montini (the future Pope Paul VI) and Msgr. Ludwig Kaas, the leader of Germany’s Catholic Center Party. Neither Pope Pius XI nor Hitler attended the meeting; both had already approved of the concordat. The pope ratified the agreement two months later on Sept. 10. The Concordat of 1933 specified the church’s rights in the Third Reich.
The political significance of the signing of the Concordat of 1933 was, however, ambiguous in its day and still remains so. Hitler interpreted the concordat to mean that he had won the church’s approval, thereby gaining international recognition of his Nazi regime. At least some German Catholics took the signing of the treaty as an indication that church officials had softened their opposition to National Socialism. Some political commentators, journalists and historiansthen and nowhave viewed this event as a manifestation of Pope Pius XI’s and Cardinal Pacelli’s underlying motives, which allegedly included their preference for dictatorships over democracies, their readiness to use Nazi Germany as a bulwark against the spread into Europe of Stalin’s Communism and their disregard for German Jews. The pope and his secretary of state insisted, however, that they approved the agreement simply to protect the church. Cardinal Pacelli said as much in August 1933 to Ivone Kirkpatrick, the British minister to the Vatican: The spiritual welfare of 20 million Catholic souls in Germany was at stake, and that was the first and, indeed, only consideration in agreeing to the concordat. The Holy See had to choose between an agreement on [Nazi] lines and the virtual elimination of the Catholic Church in the Reich.
This statement is noteworthy because it expresses the theology of church that shaped the words and deeds of Pope Pius XI, Cardinal Pacelli and the German bishops. As Cardinal Avery Dulles explained in Models of the Church (1974), this ecclesiology regards the church as a hierarchical institution, indeed as a perfect society, founded by Jesus Christ in order to make grace available to all people. Given this view, church officials saw themselves responsible before God for protecting the church’s organization and its functions of sanctifying, teaching and governing. In Pius XII and the Holocaust (2002), José M. Sánchez has pinpointed a pope’s first obligation according to the ecclesiology of perfect society: As head of an institutional church, he is charged with protecting that church; according to Catholic theology, the church is the necessary means of providing the sacraments which give the grace needed for salvation. Without the priests to administer the sacraments and the freedom to receive them, Catholics can be hindered in their search for salvation (p. 36).
Pius XI and Cardinal Pacelli judged that their first duty was to secure civil guarantees for the autonomy of ecclesiastical institutions and their activities. After the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1918, the Holy See had tried to sign a concordat with the Weimar Republic but did not succeed. The sticking point was the church’s insistence on state support for Catholic schools and for Catholic religious instruction in the public schools. This stipulation was not acceptable to Weimar’s parliament, especially to its Socialists, who held that it violated the separation between church and state. As the Vatican’s nuncio to Bavaria (1917-20) and then to the Weimar Republic (1920-29), Eugenio Pacelli had arranged concordats with individual German statesnamely with Bavaria in 1925, Prussia in 1929 and Baden in 1932. Given this history, Pius XI and Pacelli had reason to be pleased when Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen came to Rome on April 7, 1933, to negotiate a concordat with the Reich’s new government.
The Concordat of 1933 gave the papacy what it wanted most, but it also required some concessions from Pius XI and Pacelli, as Joseph Beisinger has described in Controversial Concordats (edited by Frank J. Coppa, 1999). It stipulated that the state would permit parishes to administer the sacraments to the faithful and to instruct its members in the faith and that civil authorities would not interfere in the naming of bishops and pastors. These safeguards were important, because the predominantly Protestant Prussian government had closed Catholic churches, imprisoned bishops and pastors, and stopped the appointment of new bishops during Otto von Bismarck’s Kulturkampf (1870-80). The concordat asserted, too, that the state would give financial support to the church’s schools and that it would make Catholic religious education available in the public schoolsreligious education taught only by instructors approved by the bishops.
The Holy See’s concessions included the concordat’s requirement that clergy not engage in political activities and not hold political offices. Bishops were required to swear an oath of loyalty to the Reich and its legally constituted government. The bishops would sponsor only those lay organizations dedicated to charitable works and to social activities of a religious nature. Although it was agreed that a list would specify which organizations were protected under the concordat, this list was never completed. In addition, diocesan newspapers and church-affiliated publishers were left vulnerable to the state’s interference and suppression, because the concordat did not explicitly protect them.
The Concordat of 1933 embodied a problematic theology of the church, for it implicitly reduced the church to an organization concerned solely about a private, otherworldly realm unrelated to the social and political aspects of human life. It devalued the fuller reality of the church expressed in German Catholicism’s rich tradition of social and political activism, as realized in the Kolping Society, the programs of Mainz’s Bishop Wilhelm Ketteler (d. 1877) and the Catholic Center Party. As a result, it lost sight of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno (1931). Moreover, it cast ambiguity upon the church’s civil autonomy by requiring the bishops’ oath of loyalty to the Reich.
The concordat was also flawed in its timing and implementation. Cardinal Pacelli signed the agreement too early in the regime’s history, for this treaty gave Hitler the international respectability he craved. The signing of the concordat also demoralized German Catholics, who had stood with their bishops in opposing National Socialism from the early 1920’s until March 28, 1933. On that date the bishops, relying on Hitler’s solemn pledge to make the two churches [Catholic and Protestant] the cornerstone of our work of national renewal, rescinded their bans against membership in the Nazi Party. Pius XI and Pacelli may have operated in the best interests of the church as an institution, but they implicitly diminished the church as an advocate of human rights and justice. Here was one of the ill effects of the ecclesiology of perfect society. The metaphor of the church as a medieval castle or a Gothic cathedral so dominated Catholic thought that it lessened the role of the church as a proponent of universal human values as embodied in natural law.
The ecclesiology of perfect society had a negative impact also upon the implementation of the Concordat of 1933. Since this theology accentuated the church’s hierarchical character, it called for top-down decision making and secrecy. Pius XI, Pius XII and the German bishops avoided public disagreements with the Third Reich, choosing instead to voice their protests in confidential messages and behind closed doors. As a result, German Catholics were puzzled by the silence of church officials amid Nazi injustices, for example, after the national boycott of Jewish businesses on April 1, 1933, after the murder of Hitler’s political opponents on June 30, 1934, and after the destruction of synagogues and the imprisonment and murder of Jews on November 9-10, 1938. By contrast, German Catholics were heartened by the encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge (March 14, 1937), in which Pius XI criticized Hitler for violating the terms of the Concordat of 1933 and exhorted Catholics to uphold their Christian faith amid Nazi paganism.
Analyzing the Concordat of 1933, the Rev. John Jay Hughes has rightly observed that [t]oo much reliance was placed on diplomatic protests; and too little was done to acquaint rank and file Catholics in Germany with the existence and content of these protests and to mobilize them in support of church rights. Fueling this inadequate implementation of the concordat was the theology of the church as a hierarchical institution. The fundamental cause of this failure was theological: the view of the church as consisting of a more or less passive laity, an obedient body of pastoral clergy, and a hierarchy that directed and led both laity and clergy, making all decisions in lonely and splendid isolation.
Theological ideas have concrete consequences. The notion of the church as a perfect society guided Pius XI, Cardinal Pacelli and the German bishops in 1933 to concentrate on the preservation of ecclesiastical structures and religious activities to the neglect of social justice. This monolithic ecclesiology no longer dominates Catholic thought, for the Second Vatican Council embraced a diversified ecclesiology, speaking of the church as mystery or sacrament, as people of God, as body of Christ, as collegial community and as servant of the world in the causes of justice, peace and human rights. The Second Vatican Council clarified, too, that the church has a duty to acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, especially among Jews.
The pope and the bishops now have theological resources that call them to promote human rights, even when their efforts jeopardize ecclesiastical structures. Pope John Paul II is conveying this rich ecclesiology in his inspiring statements and actions for the dignity of all people. The bishops are usually doing the same, though some have placed the interests of the institutional church ahead of the well-being of the victims of sexual abuse. If the Holy See and the bishops were facing the Third Reich today, one hopes they would be impelled by Vatican II’s ecclesiology to act differently than Pius XI, Cardinal Pacelli and the German bishops did in 1933.