Mit brennender Sorge

The encyclical Mit brennender Sorge issued by Pope Pius XI was the first papal encyclical written in German.

Mit brennender Sorge (About this sound listen ) German pronunciation: [mɪt ˈbʀɛnəndɐ ˈzɔʁɡə], "With burning concern") On the Church and the German Reich is an encyclical of Pope Pius XI, issued during the Nazi era on 10 March 1937 (but bearing a date of Passion Sunday, 14 March).[1] Written in German, not the usual Latin, it was smuggled into Germany for fear of censorship and was read from the pulpits of all German Catholic churches on one of the Church's busiest Sundays, Palm Sunday (21 March that year).[2][3]

The encyclical condemned breaches of the 1933 Reichskonkordat agreement signed between the German Reich and the Holy See.[4] It condemned "pantheistic confusion", "neopaganism", "the so-called myth of race and blood", and the idolizing of the State. It contained a vigorous defense of the Old Testament with the belief that it prepares the way for the New.[5] The encyclical states that race is a fundamental value of the human community, which is necessary and honorable but condemns the exaltation of race, or the people, or the state, above their standard value to an idolatrous level.[6] The encyclical declares "that man as a person possesses rights he holds from God, and which any collectivity must protect against denial, suppression or neglect."[7] National Socialism, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party are not named in the document. The term "Reich Government" is used.[8]

The effort to produce and distribute over 300,000 copies of the letter was entirely secret, allowing priests across Germany to read the letter without interference.[9] The Gestapo raided the churches the next day to confiscate all the copies they could find, and the presses that had printed the letter were closed. According to historian Ian Kershaw, an intensification of the general anti-church struggle began around April in response to the encyclical.[10] Scholder wrote: "state officials and the Party reacted with anger and disapproval. Nevertheless the great reprisal that was feared did not come. The concordat remained in force and despite everything the intensification of the battle against the two churches which then began remained within ordinary limits."[11] The regime further constrained the actions of the Church and harassed monks with staged prosecutions.[12] Though Hitler is not named in the encyclical, it does refer to a "mad prophet" that some claim refers to Hitler himself.[13]


The Reichskonkordat was signed on 20 July 1933 in Rome. (From left to right: German prelate Ludwig Kaas, German Vice-Chancellor Franz von Papen, Secretary of Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs Giuseppe Pizzardo, Cardinal Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli, Alfredo Ottaviani, and member of Reichsministerium des Inneren (Home Office) Rudolf Buttmann)

Following the Nazi takeover, the Catholic Church hierarchy in Germany initially attempted to co-operate with the new government, but by 1937 had become highly disillusioned. A threatening, though initially mainly sporadic persecution of the Catholic Church followed the Nazi takeover.[14] Hitler moved quickly to eliminate Political Catholicism. Two thousand functionaries of the Bavarian People's Party were rounded up by police in late June 1933, and that party, along with the national Catholic Centre Party, ceased to exist in early July. Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen meanwhile negotiated the Reichskonkordat Treaty with the Vatican, which prohibited clergy from participating in politics.[15] Kershaw wrote that the Vatican was anxious to reach agreement with the new government, despite "continuing molestation of Catholic clergy, and other outrages committed by Nazi radicals against the Church and its organisations".[16]

The Reichskonkordat (English: Reich Concordat) was signed on 20 July 1933 between the Holy See and Germany. According to historian Pinchas Lapide, the Nazis saw the treaty as giving them moral legitimacy and prestige, whilst the Catholic Church sought to protect itself from persecution through a signed agreement.[17] According to Guenter Lewy, a common view within Church circles at the time was that Nazism would not last long, and the favorable Concordat terms would outlive the current regime (the Concordat does remain in force today).[18] A Church handbook published with the recommendation of the entire German Church episcopate described the Concordat as "proof that two powers, totalitarian in their character, can find an agreement, if their domains are separate and if overlaps in jurisdiction become parallel or in a friendly manner lead them to make common cause".[19] Lewy wrote "The harmonious co-operation anticipated at the time did not quite materialize" but that the reasons for this "lay less in the lack of readiness of the Church than in the short sighted policies of the Hitler regime."[19]

In Mit brennender Sorge, Pope Pius XI said that the Holy See had signed the Concordat "in spite of many serious misgivings" and in the hope it might "safeguard the liberty of the church in her mission of salvation in Germany". The treaty comprised 34 articles and a supplementary protocol. Article 1 guaranteed "freedom of profession and public practice of the Catholic religion" and acknowledged the right of the church to regulate its own affairs. Within three months of the signing of the document, Cardinal Bertram, head of the German Catholic Bishops Conference, was writing in a Pastoral Letter of "grievous and gnawing anxiety" with regard to the government's actions towards Catholic organisations, charitable institutions, youth groups, press, Catholic Action, and the mistreatment of Catholics for their political beliefs.[20] According to Paul O'Shea, Hitler had a "blatant disregard" for the Concordat, and its signing was to him merely a first step in the "gradual suppression of the Catholic Church in Germany".[21] Anton Gill wrote that "with his usual irresistible, bullying technique, Hitler then proceeded to take a mile where he had been given an inch" and closed all Catholic institutions whose functions weren't strictly religious:[22]

It quickly became clear that [Hitler] intended to imprison the Catholics, as it were, in their own churches. They could celebrate mass and retain their rituals as much as they liked, but they could have nothing at all to do with German society otherwise. Catholic schools and newspapers were closed, and a propaganda campaign against the Catholics was launched.

— Extract from An Honourable Defeat by Anton Gill

Following the signing of the document, the formerly outspoken nature of opposition by German Catholic leaders towards the Nazi movement weakened considerably.[23] But violations of the Concordat by the Nazis began almost immediately and were to continue such that Falconi described the Concordat with Germany as "a complete failure".[24] The Concordat, wrote William Shirer, "was hardly put to paper before it was being broken by the Nazi Government". The Nazis had promulgated their sterilization law, an offensive policy in the eyes of the Catholic Church, on 14 July. On 30 July, moves began to dissolve the Catholic Youth League. Clergy, nuns and lay leaders were to be targeted, leading to thousands of arrests over the ensuing years, often on trumped-up charges of currency smuggling or "immorality".[25] Historian of the German Resistance Peter Hoffmann wrote that, following the Nazi takeover:[26]

[The Catholic Church] could not silently accept the general persecution, regimentation or oppression, nor in particular the sterilization law of summer 1933. Over the years until the outbreak of war Catholic resistance stiffened until finally its most eminent spokesman was the Pope himself with his encyclical Mit brennender Sorge ... of 14 March 1937, read from all German Catholic pulpits... In general terms, therefore, the churches were the only major organisations to offer comparatively early and open resistance: they remained so in later years.

— Extract from The History of the German Resistance 1933–1945 by Peter Hoffmann

In August 1936 The German episcopate had asked Pius XI for an encyclical that would deal with the current situation of the Church in Germany.[27] In November 1936 Hitler had a meeting with Cardinal Faulhaber during which he indicated that more pressure would be put on the Church unless it collaborated more zealously with the regime.[28] On 21 December 1936 the Pope invited, via Cardinal Pacelli, senior members of the German episcopate to Rome. On 16 January 1937 five German prelates and Cardinal Pacelli agreed unanimously that the time had now come for public action by the Holy See.[28] Pope Pius XI was gravely ill but he too was convinced of the need to publish an encyclical about the Church in Germany as soon as possible.[29]