The Amazing Story of the Most Daring Papal Encyclical Ever Delivered

‘Mit brennender Sorge’ was smuggled into Germany and read from every pulpit on Palm Sunday, 1937 — and none of the Nazis saw it coming.

A 1922 portrait of Pope Pius XI.
A 1922 portrait of Pope Pius XI. (photo: Public Domain)

In writing papal encyclicals, many popes have taken courageous stances against the spirit or powers of the age. The titles Rerum Novarum, Pascendi, and Humanae Vitae come readily to mind. And yet, there is one papal encyclical that stands out both for its bold opposition to evil and for the dramatic means taken to present it to its intended audience. Issued by Pope Pius XI in 1937 as a response to Hitler’s demonic Nazi regime, it was titled Mit brennender Sorge.

In modern times, many seem eager to believe anything and everything negative regarding the Catholic Church, regardless of how bizarre the legend or conspiracy theory may be. One such theory is the supposed complicity of the Vatican and other influential Catholics toward Hitler’s Nazi regime. Of course, such a position completely collapses under the weight of solid historical investigation performed in such books as The Myth of Hitler's Pope: Pope Pius XII and His Secret War Against Nazi Germany by Rabbi David G. Dalin; Hitler, the War, and the Pope by Ronald Rychlak; and Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History by Rodney Stark.

In word and deed, both Pope Pius XI and Pope Pius XII were devastating opponents of Nazism, and the issuance of Mit brennender Sorge—largely written by the future Pius XII and issued during the reign of Pius XI—was the philosophical hallmark of that opposition to Nazism. By 1937, Pope Pius XI wanted to address the situation directly to German Catholics. Since this would be completely impossible, he did the next best thing. He issued this encyclical, whose title translates into English as “With burning anxiety.”

There were a number of unique aspects of the encyclical. First, its unique and original authorship in German was a sign of solidarity with faithful Catholics in Germany and as a reminder of exactly who the encyclical was holding in contempt. Second, Mit brennender Sorge exhibited something rarely seen in papal documents: anger. Consider the following passage:

The experiences of these last years have fixed responsibilities and laid bare intrigues, which from the outset only aimed at a war of extermination. In the furrows, where We tried to sow the seed of a sincere peace, other men - the ‘enemy’ of Holy Scripture — oversowed the cockle of distrust, unrest, hatred, defamation, of a determined hostility overt or veiled, fed from many sources and wielding many tools, against Christ and His Church. They, and they alone with their accomplices, silent or vociferous, are today responsible, should the storm of religious war, instead of the rainbow of peace, blacken the German skies.

Pope Pius goes on to illustrate the inherent contradiction between Nazism and Christianity:

In your country, Venerable Brethren, voices are swelling into a chorus urging people to leave the Church, and among the leaders there is more than one whose official position is intended to create the impression that this infidelity to Christ the King constitutes a signal and meritorious act of loyalty to the modern State.

If anger was rare in encyclicals, contempt and mockery were even more so. Pope Pius continued:

None but superficial minds could stumble into concepts of a national God, of a national religion; or attempt to lock within the frontiers of a single people, within the narrow limits of a single race, God, the Creator of the universe…

Ronald Rychlak writes that Pope Pius’ encyclical “was one of the strongest condemnations of any national regime that the Holy See ever published.”

But there was something else that made Mit brennender Sorge unique: the method of delivery. From the Latin, the word “encyclical” means “to circle,” meaning that it is meant to be widely distributed. And though all encyclicals are intended to be distributed far and wide, none in history have been delivered quite like Mit brennender Sorge. Pope Pius and his advisors realized that they could not simply print this encyclical letter and casually mail it to the many Catholic churches in Germany without the authorities noticing. Were they to find it, the Gestapo would never allow it to be distributed.

And so, the document was prepared in Rome, smuggled into Germany, and distributed to Catholic printers. An estimated three hundred thousand copies were printed, and under the cover of night on March 11, Mit brennender Sorge was delivered to Catholic churches throughout the nation.            

The next morning, Palm Sunday, 1937, priests throughout Germany read the encyclical letter to their congregations. The numbers are staggering. As Dalin writes, the encyclical was “read in its entirety from the pulpit’s of all of Germany’s Catholic Churches…” It is estimated that over twenty million German Catholics heard the encyclical in virtual unison that morning. This must have been a surreal experience for all involved. Reading the encyclical from the pulpit was a shocking act of open defiance against Hitler and his regime. Everyone involved—priests, printers, couriers—risked death or imprisonment. Indeed, some were imprisoned for their “crime.”

Perhaps even more astonishing was the fact that none of the Nazis saw it coming. Rychlak writes: “The only reason Mit brennender Sorge was read to anyone was because the Nazis were caught off guard. By the time Palm Sunday Mass was over, Gestapo guards were at the church doors to confiscate copies.” Yes, they were confiscated, but not before millions of German Catholics had heard the message. The delivery of Mit brennender Sorge was one of the great and heroic clandestine efforts against Hitler, before or during World War II.

Though it was written for a particular time and place, Mit brennender Sorge contains a beautiful and powerful defense of truth. Many anonymous heroes sacrificed their careers and jeopardized their lives in order to make these truths known. This story should not only inspire us to read it today, but it should also inspire us to read more of the encyclicals that the popes have issued over the years. In the Church’s many encyclicals, a wealth of knowledge and wisdom awaits us.