A New Concordat?

A New Concordat? - R.R. Reno

Vox temporis, vox Dei: The voice of the times is the voice of God. On issue after issue we're told the Future has spoken. History has issued its irrevocable decrees, and woe unto him who does not heed them. This atmosphere of inevitability was on my mind as I read Dietrich von Hildebrand's Nazi-era memoirs. They have recently been translated by John Henry Crosby and John F. Crosby, and they serve as the centerpiece of a collection of his anti-Nazi writings, My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich, just out from Image.

One is impressed by Hildebrand's prescient recognition of Nazism's threat to civilization. He often refers to it as "the Antichrist." But more important, at least for me, these remembrances of Germany's dark decades are filled with lament over the many instances of Catholicism's capitulation, even collaboration. There were heroic exceptions, yes, as well as countless individuals who lived in quiet opposition. But the official Church too often went along. Facing the very different challenges posed by the sexual revolution, we can learn from this sad episode in the Church's history.

Hildebrand converted to Catholicism in 1914, and after the war he took a teaching appointment at the University of Munich. It was during the postwar period of political unrest, assassinations, and paramilitary conflict that Hitler launched his movement in Munich and participated in the failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch.

Hildebrand saw in Hitler a profoundly anti-Christian spirit. This was not because of the nationalism and anti­ Semitism Hitler promoted. Hildebrand vigorously opposed both, but sadly these attitudes were widespread. Rather, it was Nazism's belief in power and its promise that the knotted difficulties facing Germany could be simply cut—and cut with a sharp, ruthless blow. This mentality was capable of justifying anything.

As Hitler rose to power in the early 1930s, Hildebrand rang the alarm bell again and again. Active in Catholic intellectual circles, he gave papers denouncing "the poison of collectivism." He tried to rally colleagues and to put spine into church leaders, but without much success.

Some were drawn to Nazism's exaltation of sacrifice for the fatherland, thinking it a useful antidote to modern individualism. Others fixed on the peril of communism. (Hildebrand anathematized it as well.) There had been a series of socialist governments in Munich immediately after World War I. They were suppressed by right-wing militias during an extended period of communist and anticommunist violence. This memory led many Catholic leaders to feel that Nazism was the lesser evil—"No enemies on the right." But perhaps more powerful was the general fear of being out of step with a rising power that seemed to have history on its side. Hildebrand recalls that many were resigned and accommodated themselves to Nazism's triumph. "Growing numbers of people saw it as inevitable, even if they did not explicitly welcome it."

Hildebrand deeply regretted the Church's failure to witness in a clear and forceful way. "Just fourteen days after Hitler's seizure of power, the German bishops had lifted the excommunication that previously had been attached to membership in the National Socialist Party, including both the SA and the SS." He saw the demoralizing implications of the concordat between the Hitler-led German government and the Vatican that was signed in 1933 as Hitler was consolidating dictatorial powers. "It must have given Catholics throughout Germany the impression that the Vatican was withdrawing its rejection of National Socialism and of racism-as if it were possible to be a Catholic and a Nazi at the same time."

He was friends with Eugenio Pacelli, the Vatican secretary of state responsible for negotiating the concordat and the future Pius XII. He never criticizes him in his memoirs, no doubt because he knew that the concordat was being sought by Rome to secure a basis for the Church's survival rather than to legitimate Hitler. Nevertheless, looking back he comments: "I saw with horror that path some leading Catholics were taking, and I saw how terribly the soon-to-be concluded Concordat with Hitler was bound to affect the spirit of Catholics, how their inner resistance would be paralyzed by it." He tried to convince others that the Church must speak clearly and forcefully. But most "were eager to shelter themselves in an illusion." They came up with all sorts of rationalizations. He tells of a Benedictine priest who "praised the Third Reich as the realization of the Body of Christ in the secular world." Others said that the Church had to adjust her message to "the new historical situation." Young people were enthusiastic about Hitler, he was told. They are the voice of the future.

The sexual revolution is very different from the political and cultural revolutions advocated by Hitler. It worships individual desire, not blood and soil. There's no love of violence in today's progressive culture warriors who want to empower the state to eliminate "homophobia" and other barriers to desire's freedom. Although progressives can be quite ruthless in their ritual denunciations, theirs is a latex revolution, not one of fire and steel.

The relevance of Hildebrand's memoirs, then, is not to be found in his analysis of Nazism. Instead, it rests in his observations about why the Church was unable to maintain a clear institutional witness against Nazism. For we too are living in a time of revolution when there are great pressures to accommodate and collaborate. We too are tempted to endorse concordats with the new cultural regime envisioned by today's sexual revolutionaries.

We've already accommodated. Since the furor over Humanae Vitae upon its release in 1968, the Church has largely refrained from condemning the sexual revolution. Seeing that contraception was a battle it was going to lose, church leaders adopted a "Don't ask, don't tell" policy. The same goes for other transgressions of church teaching. Priests in the parishes may deal with the sexual revolution in the confessional, but they're not challenging it in the pulpit.

In short, Catholicism in the West has conceded the bedroom to the sexual revolution. The Church remains officially opposed, but when it comes to sex, bishops and clergy refrain from saying very much about private choices. This easygoing approach is now being tested, however. The sexual revolution has moved into a new stage, one that demands public recognition and endorsement.

The HHS contraception mandate requires church­-related institutions to collaborate with the dominant, contraceptive culture of our time, and to do so in a public way. This is why the mandate has been a bone in the throat of Catholic institutions in a way that widespread use of contraceptives among Catholics hasn't.

This is even clearer in the case of homosexuality. A dimension of the sexual revolution, it has always been unique in its claim for public space. There are gay neighborhoods and gay­-pride parades. "Coming out" asserts the right to a public sexual identity. Contrary to what many outsiders suppose, the Catholic Church in America has in many ways acquiesced to homosexuality's demand for public space. In 2012, the city council in Omaha, my former hometown, passed a gay-rights ordinance without official opposition from the Omaha archdiocese. Most dioceses with large cities have one or more gay parishes. (It's telling that nobody speaks of a contracepting parish or a cohabiting parish, or a parish for the divorced and remarried.) Some religious orders, especially women's orders, are known to be gay-friendly, even outspokenly so. Until the sexual-abuse crisis rocked the Church, many bishops had a policy of welcoming gay men into the priesthood. The official doctrine of the Church was quite clear and unchanged, of course, and for the most part these accommodations have been tucked away in remote corners. The Church maintains her public identity as an adversary of the sexual revolution.

Now, the terms of engagement are changing. The institution of marriage is being redefined to allow for same-sex unions. Given the central role of marriage in social life, this puts great pressure on Catholics and Catholic institutions to shift from accommodation to collaboration.

Some succumb to the pressure. My old employer, Creighton University, joined the ranks of a number of Catholic universities in providing benefits to same-sex partners of employees. University president Fr. Timothy Lannon, S.J., cited imperatives of "social justice" and defended the decision as "consistent with our efforts to foster an inclusive, compassionate and respectful campus environment."

He goes on to assert that "the extension of benefits is not a statement of approval of same-sex marriage." Perhaps, but the real question is whether Creighton (or anyone else) can disapprove of gay marriage while offering benefits to same-sex spouses. Unlikely.

As Hildebrand recalls with anguish, although the concordat with Hitler's Germany did not mean the Vatican was endorsing the Nazi regime, it undermined resistance.

The same goes for recognizing gay marriages. As Archbishop Chaput observes in his Erasmus Lecture published in this issue ("Strangers in a Strange Land"), the public reality of marriage gives its redefinition powerful "sign value." If we negotiate unofficial concordats with same­ sex marriage of the sort Creighton has—not "approving," mind you—then it's hard to maintain the Church's public identity as a teacher of truths about sex, marriage, and the family that are at odds with the sexual revolution.

Join our email list