For or against Caesar? (E. Gentile)

Totalitarianism and religion, these two terms pose many problems. Are totalitarian regimes compatible with traditional religions? Are they new religions? Leo XIII already mentioned the existence of a "cult of the God-State" in modern societies in the encyclical Arcanum Divinae Sapientiae published in 1880. With the advent of totalitarian regimes, this cult took on new relevance. This was not the only sticking point between the state and the churches. The Christian Churches and their faithful had to position themselves in the face of these new regimes which were very different from each other. Emilio Gentile, professor of contemporary history at the University of Rome, analyzes the relationship between Christianity and the state in emerging totalitarian regimes (Soviet Russia, fascist Italy and Nazi Germany) in his latest book For or against Caesar? Christian religions in the face of totalitarianism.

The Church's reaction to modernity and the emergence of totalitarian regimes

Modernity was seen by the Church very early on as a scourge. The French Revolution, this "beast of the Apocalypse" according to Johann Jung-Stilling, was intended to distract the faithful from the true faith. The persecution of the refractory clergy, the beheading of the king or the institution of the cult of the Supreme Being were all elements that threatened Catholicism. The Church totally condemned the French Revolution as "a movement for the rebirth of paganism". Napoleon may have appeared for a time as a new Constantine, but the split between Pope Pius VII and the Emperor thwarted this analysis. While the Catholic Church disapproved of apocalyptic interpretations of contemporary events, the popes had nonetheless created a discourse on deeply anxiety-provoking modernity that would continue throughout the 19th and part of the 20th centuries. The new ideas were so many attacks on the Christian fortress. Liberalism, socialism, communism, patriotism and secularism were seen as formidable enemies whose sole objective was the end of Christian civilization. Developed by Gregory XVI, the condemnation of modernity was continued by his successors. If the pontifical discourse was still as virulent, Leo XIII was less firm with secular powers because he wanted Catholics to be able to practice their faith in peace in their countries. The First World War was seen by Pope Benedict XV as a divine punishment against human errors. If the papacy remained neutral in the conflict, the clergy (Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox) contributed to the sanctification of war by presenting war as a “crusade against evil” and by exalting patriotism. Thus the First War contributed to the sacralization of the State in which the individual owes "total dedication" what the author equates to a "secular religion, which [manages] to subordinate traditional religion in its own interest" . The papacy therefore condemned statehood and the deification of the state. The modern state for Emilio Gentile had found its religion: nationalism. Catholics criticized nationalism because it divided peoples (contrary to Christian universalism) and upset the traditional hierarchy of values ​​(including religious ones).

The fears and criticisms of the Holy See are present in the background throughout the book. Emilio Gentile dwells at length on the different arguments of the actors of the time and brilliantly reproduces complex thoughts. It accurately transcribes the words and thoughts of personalities such as Don Primo Mazzolari (a Catholic priest very early opposed to fascism), Don Sturzo (one of the founders of the Italian People's Party, precursor of Christian democracy) and many others. hostile to fascism for different but not contradictory reasons. These passages are an opportunity for the reader to delve into the teeming thoughts of these different actors and their diversity. The author clearly shows the points of convergence that existed between Christianity and totalitarian regimes: they came together in the critique of modernity that guided their actions. However, many people noted early on the incompatibility between totalitarianism and Christianity. From the very beginnings of fascism, some saw in this movement a neopaian religion of the state. The Holy See worried him about the constant progression of statehood in Europe which only kept growing. Another criticism voiced by Christians at that time was important: they recalled that it is the State which must be at the service of the individual and not the other way around. This intellectual history is not the only thing about the book. It is also a question of the relations between the totalitarian Caesars and religions.

Total rejection or privileged partnership?

The Russian government in its constitution established in Russia the separation of Church and State and follows the Mexican or French laws already in force in this area. However, the Bolshevik party was a militant atheist party which wanted the destruction of religion: a real atheist policy was then put in place which aimed to destroy the religions in place without offending too much religious people. The Orthodox clergy opposed the new measures and the persecution of its members. However, the patriarch remained neutral in the civil war and sought not to poison relations between the state and the Orthodox. In 1922, the latter ceded to the state all valuables except those used in the sacraments in order to fight the raging famine. These gestures were not sufficient and the Bolsheviks preferred to discredit the clergy: all objects of the Church without exception were requisitioned. The Catholic Church called on the government to stop its attacks on Christians. The government's response was scathing. The clergy could not endorse communism which was becoming a very important threat against which the Church had to fight.

Relations between Catholics and Fascists are more complex. The early fascist movement (like Mussolini) was decidedly anti-Christian and anti-clerical. Mussolini quickly changed his mind when he understood the interests he could benefit from if he leaned on the Church. His praise of universal Roman Christianity became very common, and Christianity was in his eyes another empire that strengthened Roman centrality. Christianity would not be what it is today without Rome. Emilio Gentile begins Chapter 3 with this quote from Cardinal Ratti, Archbishop of Milan and future Pope Pius XI: “Mussolini, a great man: did you understand me correctly? Terrific ”. The Pope, like a majority of Catholics, was not hostile to fascism. Fascism was seen as a response to the crisis of the liberal state and a way to protect Italy from the threatening communism. But some protested against this alliance for reasons as diverse as the incompatibility between Christianity and fascism or the violence exercised by the fascists: the papacy did not hold it against. On the contrary, she accepted the many gifts that the Duce offered her. The Church turned a blind eye to the Matteoti affair and accepted the fascist regime, reminding the bishops that they should not be concerned with political matters. The Holy See did not wish to interfere in secular affairs except when the state was too closely concerned with religious affairs.

However, relations between the Holy See and the Italian State deteriorated from 1926. Catholics disapproved of the creation of the Opera Nazionale Balilla, the organization of fascist youth which was in competition with another Catholic organization. Catholic Action. The latter suffered after the creation of the ONB a new wave of violence. The question at stake was that of the monopoly of conscience which the Church could not compromise on. However, there was no rift between the two states. The Lateran Agreements (1929) were seen as Mussolini's greatest political victory. But this agreement had been contested by a large part of the priests. The Pope no longer had any illusions and increasingly feared the fascist government. The author analyzes this struggle between Catholics and Fascists in detail. Certain contradictions of the Holy See also came to light: how can we condemn the nationalism of Charles Maurras and the Action Française in 1926 and continue to close our eyes to what is happening in Italy? In 1931, encyclicals condemning fascism partly broke the contradictions, but another even more threatening danger appeared beyond the Alps.

The increase in fears

Nazism very quickly posed more problems. Hitler was not fundamentally opposed to Catholicism and had a certain admiration for this old institution which left so many masterpieces and which retains an imposing ceremonial. The Catholic Church has been so successful that it has become a world church. This aspect made Schöner and then Hitler say that the Catholic Church was "a foreign mystic". It was therefore necessary to Germanize the cult for it to be acceptable and to turn away from Rome. Hitler's anti-Semitism also led him to take a keen interest in the Bible. Although his anti-Semitism is more biological than religious, biblical references appear in Hitler’s notes and in his words. Hitler abandoned his anti-clericalism and anti-Catholicism as soon as he entered politics. He had a particular vision of Christianity. For him, Jesus was a man of combat whose mission was to deliver the world from the Jews. Hitler wanted a Christianity that was openly anti-Semitic and far removed from traditional Christian religions. This view was not far removed from those of some Catholics. Hitler was careful not to give a religious tone to his movement. The latter, however, defined his movement as a political faith and adopted the model of traditional religions. Within the National Socialist movement, many visions of what religion should be in the future Germany clashed. The positive Christianity promoted by Rosenberg in The myth of the twentieth century mixed racism and religion and proposed a religion that really diverged from Catholic or Protestant Christianity of the day. As early as 1930, the Bishop of Mainz condemned Nazism.

At first, the condemnation was not unanimous, but was later echoed by many German Catholic officials. This condemnation was essentially religious. In addition, the Catholic hierarchy opposed the formation of a national and Germanic Church. Rome's position was different, there was no question of coming into conflict with the new German regime as long as it did not come into conflict with the Catholics. After accepting the dissolution of the Zentrum (German Christian party), the Holy See signed a concordat in 1933. The Lutheran Churches also had to position themselves against the new regime. They were not opposed to the creation of such a Church. Hitler’s ideas were shared by many German pastors and theologians. In 1933, this Church was formed by Hitler. The Protestant Church of the Reich was quickly crossed by dissension because it proposed a too authoritarian model. The Calvinists in particular were quickly sidelined because they did not come from a movement of Germanic origin. This new Church was quickly dominated by German Christians, a German racist and anti-Semitic movement supported by the Nazi regime. In 1933, a movement opposed to this new Church was set up: the Confessing Church. However, he split up because of too much intransigence towards the Reich episcopate and the state. Like the majority of Catholics, a large part of the Protestants were not hostile to the New Reich.

World opinion was interested in what was happening in Germany. The religious character of the National Socialist movement impressed many observers. Some watched with interest the unfolding Church war. Between 1934 and 1939, Hitler's religious policy wavered between conciliatory and repressive measures. All Christians were affected by these measures. The majority of German Christians throughout this period confined themselves to condemning Nazism on religious and not political grounds. The Nazi regime was under fire from critics. Even the Duce repeatedly criticized the Führer's religious policies and Rosenberg's ideas. In 1934, criticism of the latter intensified with the failed coup attempt in Austria. He recalled that good understanding between the State and the Church was necessary and desirable. Mussolini appeared to the world as a model of wisdom. A large part of the foreign anti-Totalitarian Catholics even praised the latter's policy: they were anti-Totalitarian because they were opposed to Communism and National Socialism but were not therefore defenders of democracy. Tensions between the Holy See and the fascist government were minimal in the eyes of foreign observers. In 1936, relations between Caesar and the churches, both in Italy and in Germany, were at their peak.

1937, the rupture and the advent of the Antichrist

“In direct competition with the Church of Christ, the new totalitarian states promised the masses security and salvation. European Christians were to thwart the designs of the Antichrist. The most uncompromising with totalitarianism may have even succumbed to patriotism for a moment like Don Primo during the conquest of Ethiopia. At that time he approved of the "sincere" and "cordial" collaboration between Church and State. May 9, 1936, the day the empire was proclaimed, was a great patriotic moment for the parish priest. Soon after, these doubts returned and he again became very critical of the new regime. In 1933, the Soviet regime decided to eradicate all churches, but this was not implemented until 1937. Some Catholics succumbed to the spell of communism: the Pope recalled the Catholic position towards communism in the encyclical Divini Redemptoris. Nazism was not spared by the papacy: the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, published in German to be more easily disseminated in Germany was the first text emanating from the Holy See which contained, albeit indirectly, heavy accusations against the Nazi regime without condemning it. This text was perceived by some as a simple protest. Others, however, were satisfied with this text. The simultaneous publication was intended to put Nazism and Communism on the same level. Hitler responded by reconciling with Ludendorff, leader of the neo-pagan anti-Christian movement. He also warned the Churches (not just the Catholic Church) by reminding them that he would force them to act only in the "spiritual and pastoral" sphere and that they had no right to criticize the morality of the state. He persecuted the Confessing Church again. The rapprochement between the Führer and the Duce, in September 1937, led the fascist regime to take a racist and anti-Semitic turn. The Fascist Party entered a month after this meeting again in conflict with the Holy See because of the new measures strengthening its monopoly on education.

The response of Christians to the various totalitarianisms was formulated at the Oxford conference, also in 1937, which brought together representatives of all the Christian religions of the world (except the Catholic Church, which nevertheless welcomed the initiative and the representatives of the confessing church for lack of passport). This conference recalled that Christians were opposed to a "deification of the state," that they should respect the state and serve the nation, but that these should not go against Christian principles. The issue of education was also on the agenda and it was decided that the state should not exercise any monopoly in the matter. Another aspect addressed in this conference was the position that Christians had adopted in the face of modernity: the conference recognized that the Church had helped to create the emergence of totalitarianism (with the various concordats) and that it had ceded to temptation of secular power already denounced by Don Primo years before. The conference also ended with the finding that the Church had contributed to the radicalization of racism and anti-Semitism. To respond to the totalitarian danger, the Church must now be present in the modern world and stop only condemning it and defend individual freedoms which it has not done sufficiently until then. The Vatican was not yet so strongly condemning totalitarianisms and was accommodating the Italian fascist regime despite the growing concerns of Pius XI. However, the Oxford conference marks a real turning point in the Christian world: this aggiornamento will affect Christianity in a lasting way and announce in a certain way for Catholics the Vatican Council II.

This book is fascinating in many ways: the analysis of the relationship between churches and totalitarian states says a lot about the different protagonists. The question of the religiosity or not of totalitarian regimes is far from being resolved, all the more so when we know that the Holy See itself called itself totalitarian. This book contributes in its own way to the still ongoing debate on the concept and nature of totalitarianism. This erudite, brilliant, clear and accessible work will delight all readers interested in totalitarian regimes, the interwar period and Christianity. The many quotes help make reading even more enjoyable. The magazine the story noted that it was regrettable that the "research was not completed for this work by the archives of the pontificate of Pius IX". It is also regrettable that the book does not deal with the relationship between churches and totalitarian regimes during World War II. These remarks, however, do not detract from the remarkable qualities of this book of political and intellectual history.

KIND Emilio, For or against Caesar? Christian religions in the face of totalitarianism, translated by LANFRANCHI Stéphanie, Paris, Aubier, 2013.

Video: Caesars Funeral 44. (July 2021).