Catholic social teaching and the Third Reich

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 12, 2016

One thing I chose not to mention in yesterday’s review of Mark Riebling’s brilliant and exciting book, Church of Spies, was the careful attention paid by key figures to Catholic social teaching. This was another factor which made it impossible for a moral attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler to be developed rapidly by just a few people.

If you read the review (which you should if you have any interest at all in Pope Pius XII’s efforts to remove Hitler from power), you’ll recall that I mentioned the need for the Catholic spy network to carefully select and work with key individuals in military and civil positions, people who could move quickly to take up the reins of government after the assassination of the Fuhrer, ensuring that neither a civil war nor widespread anarchy would be the result.

Whatever country you may be from, you’ll be able to easily imagine the haphazard creation of a governing group which might well commit itself to evil policies, even if the evils involved were not the same evils fostered by Hitler. Alternatively, you can imagine a chaotic situation in which the new government would be unable to maintain a unified character, resulting in a rapid breakdown of government altogether.

The lay Catholic conspirators in Germany who were part of the overall network coordinated in Rome therefore took very seriously their need to understand the principles of Catholic social teaching, to ensure the selection of collaborators who were committed to these principles, to make sure everyone involved agreed on the top priorities of the new government, and even to lay the groundwork for a “social democratic” party which would strive to find practical applications of key principles such as the natural law, the universal destination of goods, respect for private property, subsidiarity, solidarity and the common good.

After all, what good would it have done (for example) to remove Hitler only to end up with a secular liberal government immediately committed to marginalizing religion, social engineering, utopian schemes, abortion, euthanasia, and sexual license? (Yes, I know that’s a loaded rhetorical question, but I’m sure you see the point.) Moreover, even in the Vatican there were some secret Fascists and admirers of Nazism (not limited, I presume, to those who were serving as Nazi spies). In the 1940s, many Europeans confused solidarity with Fascism, just as we confuse both solidarity with State control and subsidiarity with libertarianism today.

In any case, as a simple matter of historical fact, the chief German contacts in the assassination effort spent long hours over a period of years studying Catholic social teaching, developing concrete policies based on it, and laying the groundwork for a new political party. In this, once again, we see their hard-headed commitment to engage in a moral tyrannicide which would give Germany an opportunity for a more decent politics, rather than thrust it into chaos or place it under a new kind of tyrant.

All of this took time, but it was a necessary effort. You might argue that Catholics make poor conspirators because they worry too much about doing things right. On the other hand, perhaps we should be planning for a new political party in our own countries with the very same diligence—before we are forced into hiding by the growing tyranny we face today.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Oct. 19, 2016 10:05 AM ET USA

    "Catholics make poor conspirators because they worry too much about doing things right." As you know, there is sometimes a fine line between due diligence and scrupulosity. We must be on guard against the latter. If Pope Francis' denunciations were limited to scrupulosity and the like, then who could question his words? But unfortunately they are not. Regarding "moral tyrannicide," I suggest prudence. There must be adequate space for our mercy to mirror God's. About a new political party, ditto.