Jul 18, 2011
In many respects, the war that ripped apart Spain between 1936 and 1939 was the testing ground for the fate awaiting the Church across Europe during the Second World War. Here were all the ingredients that marked the Church’s experience between 1939 and 1945. Spain had long been torn between liberals and conservatives, and one of the hallmarks of a liberal ‘progressive’ viewpoint was a pronounced anti-clericalism. Almost invariably, this meant that the Church in Spain, as in so many other countries, believed itself forced to side with the forces of the right.
I write ‘believed itself forced’ as this was not actually the case. Successive Popes since Leo XIII had been constructing a Catholic social alternative to both Marxism and Capitalism, and their position made uncomfortable reading to the adherents of a politically conservative world view. The emphasis on the rights of workers, the increasing emphasis on the status of St. Joseph as a workman, and the growing acknowledgement that conservatives had contributed to the polarization between the classes caused discontent amongst the forces of the right. Indeed, in countries where Pope Leo XIII’s teachings were fully implemented, countries like Belgium or Holland, the threat of Communism was almost invisible, and there was no need to placate far right dictatorship.
On the other hand, it has to be acknowledged that the Church’s leadership had been slow to react to the propaganda from the left, which had succeeded in identifying the Church as right-wing and anti-progressive in the minds of many. It also has to be acknowledged that many in the leadership of the Church, both in Rome and at a national level, came from the landed aristocracy or from backgrounds in which a more right-wing worldview was the norm. In Germany, aristocrats occupied many an episcopal see, and included amongst their number that inveterate opponent of the Nazis, Bl. Clemens August Cardinal von Galen.
Not all men who led the Church came from this background, however, and the opposing political stance of two Cardinal Archbishops of Paris from this period illustrates just how much background influenced their politics. Jean Cardinal Verdier was born into a very modest family and rose through the ranks of the Church on merit. He was to prove a tenacious opponent of the extreme right, which was so prevalent in France in the period. When the Nazis invaded France, Verdier took a strong stance against the aggression, but also against their ideological view.