Last century, Peter spoke out powerfully against tyrants, as noted in this superb article from Catholic World Report, would it be so today we pray.
Eighty years ago this week, Pope Pius XI issued two encyclicals condemning two of the most brutal regimes in history: Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Pius released Mit Brennender Sorge (“On the Church and the German Reich”) on March 14, 1937 (which was smuggled into Germany and read from pulpits on March 21, Palm Sunday), and Divini Redemptoris (“On Atheistic Communism”) on March 19, 1937 (the Feast of St. Joseph). They were issued when Hitler’s war machine and Stalin’s reign of terror were in full gear. (Six years earlier, he issued an encyclical condemning Italian fascism). Pius exemplified heroic courage by speaking truth to power in an age of dictatorships.
In Mit Brennender Sorge, Pius directly confronted the neo-pagan and racist ideology of the Nazis. He wrote that only “superficial minds” lock God “within the narrow limits of a single race.” Christians “deny their faith in the real Christ” if they deny that the Old Testament is “exclusively the word of God” and a “substantial part of his revelation.” The Torah shows that creation was not merely the product of an impersonal force such as necessity or chance. Each and every human being is created by the free act of a loving God, and endowed with a spirit capable of reflection and free choice. The Jewish scriptures show the unfolding of God’s promise of salvation to the chosen people, which is fulfilled in Christ for all. In 1938, Pius reaffirmed that “spiritually, we are Semites.”
Benedict XVI lived through this same period in Germany, and later wrote that the “decisive no to all racism” is the teaching of Genesis that every person, without exception, is formed with God’s spirit, in God’s image, and from the one earth. Since everyone is fashioned from the same earth, “there is only one humanity in the many human beings” and “not different kinds of ‘blood and soil,’ to use a Nazi slogan.”
This Biblical teaching also undermines Nazi tyranny. Each person’s immortal soul will outlive any world-historical power. God’s creation and redemption of every individual is the highest gift of personal dignity that cannot be bestowed by a regime. Christ “has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20), not for an exclusive collective like a race or empire. The ultimate bulwark against totalitarianism is the promise of a personal resurrection, which infinitely surpasses any hope for an ideal society on earth.
Pius warned that the Nazis aimed for a “war of extermination,” including a brutal campaign against the Church. Because of the Church’s repeated admonitions against Nazi ideology over several years, Pius concluded that no honest person “will be able to lay the blame on the Church and on her Head” for the devastation wrought by Hitler’s regime.
In Divine Redemptoris, Pius diagnosed similar violations of human dignity in Stalin’s empire. Since communism holds that humanity is determined solely by matter and an inevitable class conflict in history, there is “no room for the idea of God” and “neither survival of the soul after death nor any hope in a future life.” The Soviets disdained Christian hope in heaven because it eclipsed the communist version of a perfectly just society in history.
The Catholic social tradition holds that the inner life of the individual is the origin of authentic social development, not collective entities such as a class, State, or a blind historical process. In Centessimus Annus, St. John Paul taught that the “the first and most important task” for building a society “is accomplished within man’s heart.” The primary shaper of the heart is not a society’s political or economic system. It is the culture, which is where the Church makes its “specific and decisive contribution.” The Church’s vital concern for the vocation of individual souls is the foundation of social development.
There is a certain individualism in Catholic social thought. In Populorum Progressio, Paul VI taught that while the larger community can assist in personal fulfillment, it is ultimately the individual’s duty to be “the chief architect” of one’s success, self-fulfillment, and salvation. These goals are not forged by one’s ego. They are inspired by each person’s desire for self-fulfillment in the deepest sense. As Benedict XVI said in his homily prior to his election to the papacy:
All people desire to leave a lasting mark. But what endures? Money does not. Even buildings do not, nor books. After a certain time, longer or shorter, all these things disappear. The only thing that lasts forever is the human soul, the human person created by God for eternity. … The fruit that endures is therefore all that we have sown in human souls …
In Caritatis in Veritate, Benedict taught that serving the material needs of others is “part and parcel” of evangelization, because Christ “is concerned with the whole person.” Actively serving both the material and spiritual needs of our neighbors is indispensable to the faith, which is otherwise “dead” (Jas 2:16). There is no dualism of body and soul. Providing for a person’s basic needs also touches their soul. Work that is done well, from one’s initiative and charity, in free collaboration with others, provides both a material and spiritual service. One’s good work, no matter how mundane, sows goodness in human souls and fruit that endures. This has long been a teaching of the Jewish and Christian traditions. The USCCB’s commentary on Revelation 14:13 provides that “according to Jewish thought, people’s actions followed them as witnesses before the court of God.” Those actions include one’s work for economic development.