A radio talk show recently discussed the role of the Catholic Church during World War II. One caller asked specifically how many high-ranking Catholic Nazis were excommunicated for their crimes against the innocent. Another caller said that Joseph Goebbels was the only one excommunicated and that was for his marriage outside the Church. Is that true?
To answer your questions about the Catholic Church and the Nazis, I need to offer some general background about excommunications. Most of them are not directed at specific individuals but rather at groups of people who commit certain actions. The 1983 Code of Canon Law gives as examples of latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication having an abortion, giving direct assistance in an abortion, a priest knowingly absolving someone with whom he has broken the Sixth Commandment, committing heresy, apostasy or schism, impersonating a priest in celebrating Mass or hearing confessions, consecrating a bishop without a mandate from the Holy See, violating the seal of confession, desecrating consecrated hosts or striking the Roman pontiff. Belonging to a political party is rarely a reason for excommunication.
To answer your question about the Church and the Nazis: According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on Pius XI (pope from February 1922 to February 1939), he directed 34 notes of protest to the German government between 1933 and 1936. The March 1937 encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (With Burning Concern) was written by Cardinals Eugenio Pacelli, secretary of state and the future Pope Pius XII, and Michael von Faulhaber, archbishop of Munich, and was smuggled into Germany and read from all Catholic pulpits.
“The encyclical condemned with unusual sharpness,” says the article cited above, “the constant violations of law and the un-Christian teachings and practices of National Socialism. Taken together with the previous papal protests, the encyclical constituted a public demonstration of Hitler’s duplicity the like of which was not attempted by any other sovereign power prior to the outbreak of World War II.”
Some Catholic Nazis tolerated the Church’s efforts to protect Jewish people and others in Italy and other countries that the Nazis eventually controlled. Other Catholic Nazis benefited from loyalty to that party.
Cardinal Clemens August Graf von Galen, bishop of Münster and a vigorous opponent of the Nazis, was beatified on October 9, 2005.
The late Father Robert Graham, S.J., and three other Jesuits had full access to the Vatican archives and edited 11 volumes of The Acts and Documents of the Holy See Concerning World War II (1966-81). Father Graham was a strong defender of the actions of Pope Pius XII during World War II. The Vatican’s archives for these years are not yet open to all researchers.
Last May, Catholic News Service reported the finding of a November 1944 memo in which British and U.S. diplomats urged that Pope Pius XII not make a radio appeal to protest deportations of Hungarian Jews. In late 1944, the Catholic Church in Hungary was sheltering an estimated 25,000 Jewish people in homes and religious institutions.
Although individual Catholics who were Nazis were not excommunicated, any Catholic wanting to advance within the Nazi structure knew that closeness to the Catholic Church would damage such a career. Excommunication is a last resort and is used in the hope that it will jolt people into reconsidering their actions. Sometimes it has the desired effect; often it does not.