Moral Accords?

Controversial Concordatsby Edited by Frank J. CoppaCatholic Univ. of America Press. 248p $44.95 (hardcover) $24.95 (paper)

Concordats are treaties between states and the Holy See regulating the civil status of the church. Because the Holy See represents not only political interests but moral ones as well, concordats, unlike most treaties, tend to be confused in the popular mind with the notion that the Holy See approves of the moral quality of the regime it is dealing with.

No concordat in recent times reflects this confusion as much as the German concordat of 1933, the treaty negotiated by Cardinal Pacelli, the Vatican’s Secretary of State (and later Pope Pius XII), with Hitler’s representatives. In view of the slipshod accounts of the negotiation and meaning of this accord currently bandied about in John Cornwell’s controversial book, Hitler’s Pope, and by his supporters, this brief work comes as a pleasant surprise. It gives a refreshingly scholarly account of concordats in general and three concordats in particular. Engagingly written to appeal to both the specialist and the general reader, this book offers insights into the accords that the popular press does not.


The three concordats selected were controversial because they tied the church to the dictators, offering fuel to anticlericals and anti-Catholics as proof that the church preferred dictators to democratic regimes. In fact, as the authors point out, the concordats had little to do with the nature of the regimes, but were negotiated to solve either longstanding problems or problems created by the dictators; and in no case did the accords imply approval of the regimes, although the dictators used them precisely for that purpose.

The editor, Frank J. Coppa, professor of history at St. John’s University in New York, selected outstanding historians to comment on these concordats. John Zeender of The Catholic University of America provides an introduction to concordats in general, and Stewart Stehlin of New York University contributes a conclusion. The meat of the book is in the three essays on the respective concordats.

William Roberts of Fairleigh Dickinson University deals with Napoleon’s concordat of 1801 with Pope Pius VII. This accord settled the problems created by the French revolutionaries’ attempts to destroy the power of Catholicism in France. It was a settlement that needed to be made, for the revolutionaries had nationalized church property and forced a dangerous schism by requiring all clergy to take oaths to support the anticlerical regime. By the terms of the concordat, Pius recognized the loss of church property in return for state salaries for the clergy, and all the bishops were required to resign and be reappointed by the pope in consultation with the emperor. Roberts maintains that despite the official support the bishops and the popes gave the Napoleonic regime, the concordat was far more advantageous to the papacy than it was to the state, and the concordat continued in force until the anticlerical French government of 1905 unilaterally abolished it.

The Lateran Accordsthe treaty and concordat that Mussolini signed with Pius XI in 1929ended the Roman Question (the papacy’s condemnation of the new Italian state’s confiscation of the papal states in the 19th century). General editor Coppa describes and analyzes this agreement. While Mussolini got the prestige of having settled one of the church’s (and Europe’s) outstanding problems, and Pius called him a man sent by Providence, the Pope got what he wanted: The anticlerical laws of the preceding regimes were abolished, and despite the power of the Fascist state, the church managed to pursue an independent policy and protect its institutions from Fascist control. Furthermore, the concordat’s guarantee of the freedom of action of Catholic Action enabled it to become the springboard for the revived Christian Democratic Party that played such an important role in Italy’s postwar democratic development.

Joseph Biesinger of Eastern Kentucky University gives one of the best treatments this reviewer has seen of the Reich concordat of 1933 with Hitler. He discusses the various interpretations of this accord, ranging from the question of whether the Vatican sacrificed the German Catholic Center Party to achieve the concordat, to the effect the agreement had on German Catholics’ power to oppose the Nazi regime. He points out that in the early months following Hitler’s accession to power in January 1933, the Nazi regime had begun a persecution of the church, arresting both laypeople and members of the clergy. When Hitler offered to settle issues with a concordat, it came as a complete surprise to the Vatican, which had been negotiating for years with the Weimar regime. Biesinger concludes that it would have been foolish for the Vatican to reject the offer, for it gave the Vatican a basis to complain about future attacks on the church, which it knew would be forthcoming, and it ended the immediate persecution. Hitler, of course, used the concordat for propaganda purposes, and some writers have ever since used it as a vehicle for attacking Pope Pius XII.

Stewart Stehlin, in his conclusion, makes an interesting point: that our hindsight obscures the fact that the Vatican in 1933 did not know how long the Hitler regime would last, for the previous history of Germany in the 1920’s indicated that no regime would last long; and therefore to get the arrangements in the concordatsupport for Catholic education and guarantees that the clergy could not be drafted into combat positions if war should occur, among other concessionswas a major triumph for the church. That it would compromise the church with an immoral regime was not a factor in the thinking of the Vatican diplomats.

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