Thy Will Be Done: German Catholics and National Identity in the Twentieth Century

By Menke, Martin | The Catholic Historical Review, April 2005 | Go to article overview

Thy Will Be Done: German Catholics and National Identity in the Twentieth Century


Menke, Martin, The Catholic Historical Review


One of the most difficult parts of the development of the modern era to understand is the challenge to use history, along with philosophy and theology, to find a coherent understanding of the world. In our secular age, the ability to separate firmly private virtue from public responsibility does not shock or even disconcert. And yet, certainly in the United States and in most European countries, the majority of the people and their leaders still define themselves, in a broad sense, as Christian. Without thinking too much about it, most people still acknowledge the desire for salvation or at least the validity of vaguely Christian values. Since what Ernst-Wolfgang Bockenforde has called the Christian ordo has disappeared, Christians must ask themselves how a Christian achieves salvation in the modern secular and pluralistic world if the Christian value system continues to demand a coherence of belief, values, and action.1

The Christian churches, the Roman Catholic Church among them, have risen to this challenge in a number of different ways. Since the publication of Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum, Catholics have had a fairly clear basis from which to develop Catholic social teaching, the purpose of which is the perpetual struggle for social justice. Thus, there is plentiful evidence of how Catholics strive to live out their faith in the modern world. Not only the issues of abortion and of religious education, but also of economic justice, of peaceful conflict resolution, the education of children, and many other issues have found much attention by historians, philosophers, theologians, clergy, and the laity. And yet, this is not a coherent understanding of the world in a Christian sense. Consistency seems to be missing. A coherent and consistent understanding of the world, one on which both private and public morality are based, needs to address all areas of life. To achieve salvation, Catholics must be consistently Catholic.

Perhaps one of the most difficult areas in which to achieve this consistency is the question of the Catholic's correct attitude to people, nation, and nationalism. Nationalism, the ideological belief that those of a particular nation have a particular destiny in history, is perhaps the most pervasive, universally accepted idea of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Its effect seems to be longer lasting even than that of Marxism and its heirs. At least in its extremes, it has been the most destructive idea of the industrial world. Conversely, for most people, religion has become either a private matter or a non-binding public conscience, but without influence or significance for policy formulation. From a religious perspective, few Christians see clearly the tension between patriotic commitment to their country and the imperatives of their faith. Yet they recognize, to some degree or another, the separation of church and state. From a political perspective, in pluralistic if not multicultural societies, it seems impossible to achieve a complete compatibility-Vereinbarkeit-of national and religious identities.2 Exceptions are such places as contemporary Iran or, almost a dire warning against the commingling of religion and nation, the Taliban's Afghanistan. Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the complete persecution of all religion by a state seems limited to exotic places such as North Korea. Nonetheless, for Christians, the relationship between national identity, the conscious self-identification with a particular nation and with a particular nation state, remains or should remain a lot more complex. An example of this complexity is the experience of Catholics in twentiethcentury Germany.

Like members of other nations, Germans have multifaceted identities. They are members of religious groups, have regional identities, class identities, etc. One fairly broad characteristic is that more than ninety percent of Germans identify themselves as Christians, of whom roughly one-third are Roman Catholics. …

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