The Catholic Context in Bonhoeffer’s Lifetime

(This is Neil.) In light of my previous post, I thought that I would share some of the major points of a very interesting paper delivered during a panel discussion at a conference entitled “Dietrich Bonhoeffer for our Times: Jewish and Christian Perspectives” that was held last September. Its author is the Boston College theologian Donald Dietrich.

Professor Dietrich notes that Catholics did not stand up against the Nazis in greater numbers and with more vehemence in part because the regime was “a terrorist dictatorship that was unrestrained in the repression of its perceived enemies.” Some forms of resistance did occur, including dissent from the pulpit. One-third of Catholic priests did suffer some sort of reprisal from 1933 to 1945. All of this should be remembered.

But, during the early months of Hitler’s Chancellorship, some Catholics did share Hitler’s anti-Communism and in the general enthusiasm for German national revival. Even after 1935, when there was Catholic opposition to government policies on sterilization and euthanasia, Catholics were inhibited by their desire to seem patriotic (an elderly man or woman could still remember the Kulturkampf). And, sadly, as Professor Dietrich writes, “No one in authority defended the Jews as Jews, primarily because of the 2,000 years of religious anti-Semitism that had become in the 19th and 20th centuries a weapon to be used against political ‘modernity.’”

Furthermore, the Catholic Church, along with the other Christian churches, was suffering from a loss of moral authority at, not coincidentally, the same time that the modern state “advanced its own demand for supremacy.” Dietrich quotes Richard Rubenstein, “With the collapse of every credible religious or moral restraint on the state, and with the inevitable depersonalizations of relations between the government and citizens, the state’s sovereignty can achieve an ultimacy unimpeded by any contending claim.”

But what about the theologians? Some well-known theologians encouraged the Catholic faithful to support the Nazis in 1933 – Michael Schmaus and the church historian Joseph Lortz are examples. Karl Adam did so during the duration of the regime. How could this be? Some of these theologians, Dietrich says, naively thought that Catholic participation could somehow moderate the regime. Some were uncomfortable with the “modernity” of democracy and preferred the Nazi regime to the Weimar Republic. Some even sought a better relationship with the Nazis to oppose the Vatican’s control of national churches.

But Dietrich emphasizes that these theologians thought that faith could be reintegrated into the renewed life of the German people through certain concepts in the Nazis Weltanschauung, such as “race” or “blood,” that would be capable of “sustaining the connection between the natural and the supernatural.” After all, traditional Catholic theology emphasized the need for such connections in its two-tier theology of nature and grace. “This theological model viewed grace coming to humans through nature, e.g., the state, and thus promoted the desirability of relating the church to the state.”

So one Catholic theologian would speak of church and state in the Reich as analogous to the hypostatic union (Grosche); another would speak of their relationship in terms of the unification of word and element in the sacraments (Winzen). There is inevitably a strong element of political expediency (as well as unreality) in some of this this, but Dietrich also suggests that the traditional theology really could not “engage in any substantive political critique” against a regime that seemed to be at least potentially receptive to the church, especially in light of the church’s difficult relationship with liberal governments since the French Revolution. Not a critique, in any case, that could easily “highlight alterity.”

Not all Catholic theologians failed to critique the Nazi regime. Dietrich highlights Engelbert Krebs, professor of dogmatic theology at Freiburg, who was forced into retirement in 1937. Dietrich writes, “In essence (in Krebs’ thought), the church is an advocate for the well-being of all people and is also a spokesman for the truth.” He goes on to say, “(Krebs) emphasized the model of church as servant during the Weimar years (1918-1933) by himself aiding the efforts of workers, women, and Jews to gain respect in the public realm and to establish organizations through which they could work to achieve their aspirations in German society.”

What is the significance of Father Krebs’ emphasis on the church as servant – as witness to the coming of God’s Kingdom – in light of his resistance?

Dietrich writes, “The more a theologian identified the church with God’s reign, the more he tended to stress that the church must safeguard its own existence at all costs and has the primary responsibility of protecting its members, its sacramental life and institutions.” And he also says, “By contrast, the more a theologian distinguished between the church and God’s reign, the more he tended to emphasize that the church’s first duty is to a transcendent reality of truth, justice and love.” Krebs had a view of God’s creation enabled him to critique the Nazis, even if it seemed as though the Nazi worldview could potentially reconnect the church (and its means of grace) to national life (nature), and, presumably, ensure its institutional flourishing.

Is there a lesson for us in this? Comments and critique always welcome.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to The Catholic Context in Bonhoeffer’s Lifetime

  1. Jimmy Mac says:

    Is there a lesson for us in this?

    Yes. It starts this way: “Those who lie in the mud with pigs …..”

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Jimmy,

    Thanks, as always for writing. Of course, it depends on being able to identify the “pigs” and being able to discern when one has entered the “mud.” …

    Thanks again.


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