Religion Takes Sides
ON September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, starting World War II. Three weeks later The New York Times carried the headline: “German Soldiers Rallied by Churches.” Did German churches really support Hitler’s wars?
Friedrich Heer, Roman Catholic professor of history at Vienna University, acknowledged that they did: “In the cold facts of German history, the Cross and the swastika came ever closer together, until the swastika proclaimed the message of victory from the towers of German cathedrals, swastika flags appeared round altars and Catholic and Protestant theologians, pastors, churchmen and statesmen welcomed the alliance with Hitler.”
Indeed, church leaders gave unqualified support to Hitler’s war effort, as Roman Catholic professor Gordon Zahn wrote: “The German Catholic who looked to his religious superiors for spiritual guidance and direction regarding service in Hitler’s wars received virtually the same answers he would have received from the Nazi ruler himself.”
Religions on the Other Side
But what were churches saying in the countries that opposed Germany? The New York Times of December 29, 1966, reported: “In the past local Catholic hierarchies almost always supported the wars of their nations, blessing troops and offering prayers for victory, while another group of bishops on the other side publicly prayed for the opposite outcome.”
Was this support of opposing armies done with Vatican approval? Consider: On December 8, 1939, just three months after the outbreak of World War II, Pope Pius XII issued the pastoral letter Asperis Commoti Anxietatibus. The letter was addressed to chaplains in armies of the warring nations, and it urged those on both sides to have confidence in their respective military bishops. The letter admonished the chaplains “as fighters under the flags of their country to fight also for the Church.”
Religion often takes an aggressive lead in mobilizing countries for war. “Even in our churches we have put the battle flags,” admitted the late Harry Emerson Fosdick, a Protestant clergyman. And regarding the first world war, British brigadier general Frank P. Crozier said: “The Christian Churches are the finest blood-lust creators which we have, and of them we made free use.”
However, that was religion’s record in the past. What about its recent role in the war in republics of the former Yugoslavia, where most people are either Roman Catholic or Orthodox?
A headline in Asiaweek of October 20, 1993, declared: “Bosnia Is an Epicenter of Religious Conflict.” A headline for a commentary in the San Antonio Express-News of June 13, 1993, proclaimed: “Religious Chiefs Should End Bosnian Woes.” The article said: “The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Muslim faiths . . . can’t slough off responsibility for what is happening. Not this time, not with the whole world nightly watching. It’s their war. . . . The principle that religious leaders bear responsibility for warfare is clear. Their very sanctimoniousness provokes it. By blessing one side over the other they do so.”
Why, for example, is hatred between members of the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Churches so great? Popes, patriarchs, and other church leaders are responsible. Ever since the final separation between these religions in 1054, church leaders have fostered hatred and wars between their members. The Montenegrin newspaper Pobeda, September 20, 1991, pointed to that religious schism and its consequences in an article about the recent fighting. Under the title “Killers in the Name of God,” the article explained:
“It is not a question of politics between [Croatian president] Tudjman and [Serbian leader] Milošević but rather it is a religious war. It should be stated that already a thousand years have passed since the Pope decided to eliminate the Orthodox religion as a rivalry. . . . In 1054 . . . the Pope declared the Orthodox Church responsible for the separation. . . . In 1900 the first Catholic congress explicitly explained the plan of genocide against the Orthodox for the 20th century. [This] plan is now taking place.”
However, the recent conflict is not the first example of religious strife in this century. Fifty years ago, during World War II, Roman Catholics tried to eliminate the Orthodox Church presence in the area. With the pope’s backing, the Croatian nationalist movement called Ustashi came to govern the independent state of Croatia. The New Encyclopædia Britannica reports that this Vatican-approved rule employed “extraordinarily brutal practices, which included executions of hundreds of thousands of Serbs and Jews.”
In the book The Yugoslav Auschwitz and the Vatican, not only are these mass killings documented—involving tens of thousands of victims—but the Vatican’s involvement in them is also documented.
On the other hand, the Orthodox Church has backed the Serbs in their fighting. In fact, one Serbian unit leader was quoted as saying: ‘The Patriarch is my commander.’
What could have been done to stop the killing, which in Bosnia and Herzegovina alone has left as many as 150,000 either dead or missing? Fred Schmidt declared in the San Antonio Express-News that the UN Security Council should pass “a formal resolution calling on the pope, the patriarch of Constantinople, and [the other leaders] of the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Muslim churches having jurisdiction in Bosnia-Herzegovina to forthwith call off their dogs and meet together to figure out how their faithful can find it in their hearts to live as neighbors with those of other faiths.”
In a similar vein, a commentary in the Scottsdale, Arizona, Progress Tribune concluded that the war “might be stopped if the religious leaders over there got serious about stopping it.” The article suggested that they do that “by immediately excommunicating any congregant who fires a shell at Sarajevo.”
No Real Force for Peace
However, popes have consistently refused to excommunicate the worst of war criminals, even when fellow Catholics have appealed for such action to be taken. For example, the Catholic Telegraph-Register of Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.A., under the heading “Reared as Catholic but Violates Faith Says Cable to Pope,” reported: “An appeal has been made to Pius XII that Reichsfuehrer Adolph Hitler be excommunicated. . . . ‘Adolph Hitler,’ [the cable] read in part, ‘was born of Catholic parents, was baptized a Catholic, and was reared and educated as such.’” Yet Hitler was never excommunicated.
Consider, too, the situation in parts of Africa where brutal warfare has raged. Fifteen Roman Catholic bishops from the African nations of Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zaire confessed that, despite the presence of many baptized “Christians” in the region, “internal conflicts have led to massacres, destruction and forced removals of people.” The bishops admitted that the root of the problem “is that the Christian faith has not sufficiently penetrated the mentality of the people.”
The National Catholic Reporter of April 8, 1994, said the “pope . . . felt ‘immense pain’ at fresh reports of conflict in the tiny African nation [of Burundi], whose population is predominantly Catholic.” The pope said that in Rwanda, where about 70 percent of the population is Catholic, “even Catholics are responsible” for the killing. Yes, Catholics on both sides have massacred one another, even as they have in countless previous wars. And, as we have noted, other religions have done the same.
Are we therefore to conclude that all religions take sides in war? Is there any religion that is a true force for peace?
[Picture on page 5]
Hitler, here seen with the papal nuncio Vassallo di Torregrossa, was never excommunicated