Pius XI Urges Resistance Against Nazism

In the midst of Adolf Hitler’s assault on organized Christianity and the early stages of the Holocaust, Pope Pius XI issued an encyclical to the German bishops urging them to resist Nazi attempts to destroy Catholicism in Germany.

Summary of Event

On July 20, 1933, after six months of negotiation, Cardinal Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli, the Vatican’s secretary of state and future Pope Pius XII, signed a concordat with the vice chancellor of the new German regime, Franz von Papen. Pope Pius XI ratified the agreement on the Vatican’s behalf on September 10. The concordat guaranteed the Catholic Church and its personnel freedom of action in organizing, preaching, teaching, and conducting religious rites in the secular state. In exchange, the Vatican agreed to keep the Church out of German politics. [kw]Pius XI Urges Resistance Against Nazism (Mar. 14, 1937)
[kw]Resistance Against Nazism, Pius XI Urges (Mar. 14, 1937)
[kw]Nazism, Pius XI Urges Resistance Against (Mar. 14, 1937)
Mit brennender Sorge (encyclical)
Roman Catholic Church;papal encyclicals
Nazism;papal condemnation
Papal encyclicals;Mit brennender Sorge
[g]Italy;Mar. 14, 1937: Pius XI Urges Resistance Against Nazism[09430]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Mar. 14, 1937: Pius XI Urges Resistance Against Nazism[09430]
[c]Human rights;Mar. 14, 1937: Pius XI Urges Resistance Against Nazism[09430]
[c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Mar. 14, 1937: Pius XI Urges Resistance Against Nazism[09430]
[c]World War II;Mar. 14, 1937: Pius XI Urges Resistance Against Nazism[09430]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar. 14, 1937: Pius XI Urges Resistance Against Nazism[09430]
Pius XI
Pius XII
Hitler, Adolf
Faulhaber, Michael von

The Weimar government had refused to make the formal reassurances that the pope saw as vital in the highly secularized nation, which had a high percentage of Protestants and a history of anti-Catholic government actions. The Vatican felt that the agreement to such guarantees by the new National Socialist (Nazi) government, which was doctrinally anti-Christian, was a major diplomatic achievement and vital to the safety and security of the Church in Germany and its adherents. The concordat also appeared to give formal Church recognition of the Nazi state, which was a boost to the new government’s legitimacy and an opportunity for the Nazis to calm German Christians’ fears of repression.

German leader Adolf Hitler broke the terms of the agreement again and again. Catholic clergy were ridiculed and physically assaulted, worshipers were harassed, and Catholic schools were oppressed or closed by state organs such as the SA (Sturm Abteilung, Sturm Abteilung also called the Brownshirts) and the Gestapo. Gestapo The rise of the blatantly pagan Hitler Youth movement, Hitler Youth movement led by Baldur von Schirach, undermined moral and religious teaching in every Catholic school and actively sought to supplant every Catholic youth organization.

Nazi attempts to undermine Catholicism were fed by Hitler’s plans for a German national church that would absorb all forms of Christianity. At the same time, Nazi anti-Semitism ran rampant, expressed in both state-sanctioned and private murders of Jews and in the destruction of Jewish property. The unbridled power of Hitler’s Germany confronted every institution or organization that seemed to pose a threat to Nazi hegemony. Official state religiosity teetered somewhere between atheism and mythical Germanic neopaganism, with the cult of a semideified Hitler as its focus.

Between the signing of the concordat and the middle of 1937, Pius XI and Pacelli issued nearly sixty formal, private diplomatic letters to the German government in which they protested the unwarranted and illicit treatment of Catholics and the Church in Germany. Pacelli had earlier served in Germany as papal nuncio to the state of Bavaria and then to the Weimar government, so his knowledge of German affairs and his rapport with the German Church were quite strong. Typically, however, the Nazis paid no attention to the Vatican’s pleas. The protests were ultimately recorded in three volumes that were secretly provided to German bishops as a way of informing them of papal activities.

Papal concerns, however, were not limited to the status of Catholics. Leaders in the Vatican worried about Christians in general and about the German Jews, who were the special targets of Nazi hatred and oppression, especially after the 1935 passage of the Nuremberg Laws, Nuremberg Laws (1935) which stripped Jews of their citizenship. Hitler, however, saw the concordat as a guarantee against papal meddling in German politics, including the “urgent struggle against international Jewry,” as he put it to his cabinet in 1933. For his part, Pacelli spoke out forcefully against Nazi atheism, racism, and use of terror in a speech in Lourdes and in an open letter to the archbishop of Cologne in 1935. By 1936, the position of the Catholic Church in Germany had deteriorated even further, and the Church was also under assault in such places as Mexico, war-torn Spain, and the Soviet Union.

The situation in Germany worsened, and in August of 1936, German bishops urged Pius XI to issue a formal protest against the Nazis’ doctrines and actions. The following winter, the ailing pope decided to issue two encyclicals, or formal letters, that would be read to Catholic congregations and published in the Catholic press.

Pius issued his anti-Nazi encyclical, Mit brennender Sorge, on March 14, 1937. Pacelli was charged with drawing up the statement against the Nazi regime, a task in which he was aided by three German cardinals and two German bishops. Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber, archbishop of Munich, drafted the initial document for the group, and Pacelli lengthened and intensified it. Breaking with tradition, Pacelli made sure that the encyclical was composed in German rather than in Latin, and he took the work’s title from its opening words: “with burning anxiety.” It is addressed to the bishops of Germany and expresses Pius’s pain at learning of the persecution of Catholicism in Germany and of the many Catholics who abandoned the Church for Nazi secularism.

Mit brennender Sorge reviewed the history of the 1933 concordat and lamented the Nazi violations of it. It attacked Nazi neopaganism and the cult that had formed around Hitler while simultaneously reaffirming Christ and the Church as the only sources of religious truth. Furthermore, the encyclical addressed Nazi assaults on the use of Hebrew Scriptures in Christian education and emphasized the importance of the Old Testament and its people in a statement many viewed as a protest against anti-Semitism. Mit brennender Sorge defined freedom of conscience and worship as human rights that the German state was wrong to abridge or even attack, and although its references to faith were clearly intended as statements about the Catholic faith, the principles expressed extend to Protestants and Jews alike.

After the encyclical’s secret publication on March 14, the text was smuggled into Germany and read from every Catholic pulpit on Palm Sunday, March 21, 1937. Bold printers produced tens of thousands of copies, and the German government quickly reacted. So did the Vatican, however, and a second encyclical, Divini Redemptoris, appeared on March 19, 1937. It targeted totalitarian, atheistic, and violently anti-Christian forms of communism in the Soviet Union and Western Europe.


The Nazis had no prior knowledge of the Mit brennender Sorge encyclical, and they were caught off guard by its publication. They condemned what they claimed was an open breach of the concordat and did all they could to stop the document’s spread. Printers who published it were punished, and possession of a copy was declared illegal. Even mention of the encyclical’s title was outlawed. Nazi propaganda as well as Nazi thugs went after the Catholic clergy with increased intensity, and Joseph Goebbels, Goebbels, Joseph Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Propaganda;Nazi Germany started a clumsy campaign claiming that Pius had Jewish ancestry. Internationally, Mit brennender Sorge was viewed as a bold and greatly needed condemnation of a vile regime and a powerful statement of universal rights—especially of conscience and worship—in an age of ever-increasing official repression. Shortly after its publication, Pius ordered a new encyclical aimed directly at Nazi racial and anti-Semitic doctrines and practices, although this document, Humani Generis Unitas, was never promulgated.

Given the horrors of the Holocaust, historians have either defended Mit brennender Sorge as an outspoken, if oblique, defense of Jews and an attack on anti-Semitism or decried it as a lost opportunity for the pope to confront Nazi Germany’s anti-Jewish atrocities directly. In fact, Pius’s intent was clearly to defend Roman Catholic principles of human dignity and to assert the Church’s right to the freedom it needed to minister. Pius was deeply concerned about the integrity and liberty of the Catholic Church in Germany, but the Nazis had essentially declared war on the Vatican even before the encyclical’s publication, and Pius was loath to meddle in what the Nazi regime insisted were internal political matters. Even though no specific reference to the Nazis is ever made in the encyclical, it remains a powerful condemnation of the movement and one of the most forthright papal attacks ever made on a sitting political regime. Mit brennender Sorge (encyclical)
Roman Catholic Church;papal encyclicals
Nazism;papal condemnation
Papal encyclicals;Mit brennender Sorge

Further Reading

  • Cornwall, John. Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. Highly controversial study that criticizes Pacelli, later Pius XII, for his failure to confront or condemn the Nazi state; downplays the importance of Mit brennender Sorge.
  • Godman, Peter. Hitler and the Vatican: Inside the Secret Archives That Reveal the New Story of the Nazis and the Church. New York: Free Press, 2004. Another controversial work based upon a rather narrow reading of relevant sources and underestimation of the brutality of the Nazi regime.
  • Lewy, Guenther. The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany. New York: Da Capo Press, 2000. Fairly even-handed treatment of the relationship of the Nazi regime with the Catholic hierarchy in Germany and the Vatican.
  • Passelcq, Georges, and Bernard Suchecky. The Secret Encyclical of Pius XI. New York: Harcourt, 1997. Emphasizes the importance of Humani Generis Unitas and Mit brennender Sorge.
  • Pius XI.“Mit Brennender Sorge”: Encyclical on the Church and the German Reich. The Vatican. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_14031937_mit-brennender-sorge_en.html. The encyclical is available online in English at this Web site.

Pius X Becomes Pope

Pope Pius X Condemns Slavery

Lateran Treaty

Hitler Comes to Power in Germany

Pius XII Becomes Pope