Assaults against the Catholic Church are not new. Among the most dramatic examples occurred in Germany, under Otto von Bismarck, during the infamous Kulturkampf, in the last quarter of the 19th century.
Bismarck, who served as first Chancellor of the modern State of Germany, is usually cited as having initiated the Kulturkampf (i.e., “struggle for civilization,” a disarmingly soft phrase introduced by Rudolf Virchow, a known atheist and materialist, who stood in the Prussian Landtag as a representative of the German Liberal Party). As a movement, Kulturkampf led the way in neutralizing, and eventually banning, all religious ikons or references to sacred models. Bismarck followed with various regulations and/or laws to reduce the Catholic Church to the status of a pawn in the hands of the State.
In 1873 the Prussian Landtag passed and promulgated the so-called May Laws, also known as the Falk Laws (named for Adalbert Falk, a legislator especially close to Bismarck). When German bishops or priests objected, they were first fined, then jailed. (The Archbishop of Cologne was among them.) In May 1875 all religious (e.g., priests, nuns and sisters who belonged to the German Church) were expelled by the State – summarily dismissed, as it were; only those attached to the hospital apostolate were allowed to remain. By June of 1875 all Church property was confiscated – stolen, actually. By 1877 thousands of parishes no longer had pastors; and in Prussia, nine of the 12 bishops had been expelled.
Eventually the State gave way; Falk was out of power by 1879. And by 1887 the Falk Laws were modified as to their hostility to Catholicism. (Austria also experienced Kulturkampf; Switzerland, too, suffered from it.)
Among the religious Sisters expelled were five Franciscan nuns whose ship, the Deutschland, went down in the mouth of the Thames during a sudden gale on 7 Dec., 1875. When the Jesuit priest-poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, read about the tragedy in the Times of London, he composed his famous poem, “The Wreck of the Deutschland.” The poem has survived as a world masterpiece.
Simply read these lines, excerpted from the poem; Father Hopkins is recalling the plight of the suffering nuns and the hatred that drove them from their native land:
“Loathed for a love men knew in them,/Banned by the land of their birth,/Rhine refused them. Thames would ruin them; …”(Stanza 21)
One of the details about these women’s deaths was the report that just before the Deutschland disappeared into the roiling waters of the Thames, one of the Franciscans could be seen standing, from afar, with outstretched arms, as she prayed, “Oh, Christ, Christ, come quickly.” Hopkins repeats this prayer, adding, “The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wild-worst Best.” (Ibid.)
Christians in general today live in the midst of absurd gales, where Christ’s walking on the waters is so often almost impossible to discern. A fundamental principle of philosophy, carefully husbanded by our Athenian forbears – Aristotle, Plato – is ignored and even (absurdly, of course) denied; specifically, the principle of contradiction. Catholicism is attacked for holding on to perennially valid principles, such as Christ our Lord’s “Be not afraid” as he leads us personally through the contradictions of our world, in which the intrinsic meaning of words we normally use is gainsaid. This nonrational thinking provides the useless raw materials from which absurdity emerges and takes nourishment, absurdity such as Kulturkampf.
What happened in Germany during the last quarter of the 19th century occurred in kind many times before and since. The meteoric rise of Adolf Hitler is the classic, most tragic modern example. Hitler simply could not control his Party and his nation unless he silenced the clergy and the Churches of his land – which he failed at doing, albeit not without causing widespread imprisonments and executions.
In France, between the 20th century’s two World Wars, the government passed a series of laws under the title of laïcité, an idiom for “secularization,” in an effort to render Church law as nonrelevant. Whereas secularization began largely as an attempt to bracket anything religious as without merit, it has become, by and large, a highly aggressive, radical movement openly hostile to acknowledgment of Church influence anywhere in the public forum.
Attempts to silence the Church date from the very beginning, when in Rome, for example, Church law and practice were viewed a priori as inimical to the State. From the very start, therefore, the State resented the role of the Church, refusing to acknowledge the Church’s religious and moral authority.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.