Article Note: Udi Greenberg, “Catholics, Protestants, and the Violent Birth of European Religious Pluralism”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 30, Number 2 (Summer 2024)

Article Note: Udi Greenberg, “Catholics, Protestants, and the Violent Birth of European Religious Pluralism,” American Historical Review 124, no. 2 (April 2019): 511-538.

By Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

In this article, Udi Greenberg explores how Catholics and Protestants set aside longstanding animosities in favour of new conceptions of religious pluralism and religious freedom that preserved Christian identity by excluding Jews and Muslims. In contrast to the view that Catholic-Protestant collaboration was either the “predictable consequence of a broader liberalization in postwar Christian thought and politics” (511) or a response to the pressures of the Cold War, Greenberg argues that it was in fact driven by two political upheavals between the 1930s and the 1960s. The first was the Nazi attempt to unite the two confessions into a single racial church marked by anticommunism and antisemitism, while the second was decolonization in Africa and Asia, which produced an inter-Christian alliance to preserve missionary work and combat Islam. This history, he contends, helps explain why contemporary European politics and law support a form of religious pluralism that benefits Christianity but discriminates against non-Christians.

Greenberg makes his case by examining leaders of postwar ecumenism and exploring their links to two ideological projects. The first attempt to overcome the confessional divide was driven by pro-Nazi Christians inspired by “the Third Reich’s vision of a unified anti-liberal and anti-Jewish European order. For these thinkers and leaders, interconfessionalism was not meant to promote liberal equality. Rather, it was designed to secure Christian supremacy in the public sphere, and it often coexisted smoothly with blatant antisemitism” (512). Ironically, after the war, these pro-Nazi ecumenists were joined by their erstwhile opponents, who helped them form new intellectual associations and political parties designed to bolster Christian hegemony in Europe.

Still, as Greenberg notes, both Catholic and Protestant church leaders remained opposed to formal cooperation—that is, until the crisis of decolonization threatened the existence of missionary churches and Christian communities in former colonies. Only a pan-Christian alliance would ward off religious enemies (especially Muslims), while only the ecumenical model of interreligious peace and cooperation could teach Asians and Africans the lessons they would need to reach European standards of civilization. Ecumenism, as Greenberg notes, was a tool to “revamp imperial logic” (512).

As Greenberg explains, this Catholic-Protestant collaboration both promoted and undermined religious pluralism:

What these two moments of European ecumenical flourishing shared was a key goal: dismantling some hierarchies in order to bolster others. Calls for interconfessional cooperation often differed from calls for universal equality; most notably, several influential ecumenists were antisemites and Islamophobes, and hoped to reverse tolerance for Jews or Muslims. What is more, in both time periods, Catholic-Protestant talk of peace was often laced with visions of struggle. The language and visions of the Nazi era were transferable to the era of decolonization in part because ecumenical activists conceived of these two moments as similar: periods of combat in which European culture and Christianity (which they often conflated) faced existential danger. (512)

Referencing the contradictory use of religious liberty in the contemporary era, with secular regimes banning supposedly inappropriate expressions of religion like Muslim clothing or circumcision, Greenberg observes:

It may be, then, that religious liberty is best understood not as a stable concept that emerged from liberal and secular governance; rather, as the story of European ecumenism shows, its meaning constantly shifts, enabling both increased equality and the denial of rights to the very minorities that religious liberty claims to protect. (514)

Having established his argument, Greenberg devotes the balance of his article to describing the depth of late-nineteenth-century animosity between the two confessions and to detailing the networks of people and organizations devoted to Catholic-Protestant collaboration from the 1930s to the 1960s. Readers are reminded of ultranationalist Catholics (Charles Maurras) and Protestant nationalists (leaders of the German Kulturkampf), and the way that members of each confession blamed the ills of modernity on the other. Pope Pius X’s 1910 description of Protestants as “enemies of the cross of Christ” and “corrupters” who “paved the way for … modern rebellions and apostacy” is just one example of this antagonism. (515) Across Europe, each confession lobbied for political and legal discrimination against the other. Globally, competition between Catholics and Protestants was played out on the mission field.

Ecumenical collaboration began in response to the threat of atheistic Communism. While the Vatican established the Jesuit Secretariat on Atheism in 1932, Protestants established the Swiss International Anti-Communist Alliance and the Campaign against Alienation from God and Anti-Divine Forces in Germany. But it was the Nazi campaign to politically mobilize Christians into “positive Christianity” for non-Jews and non-Communists that really brought leaders from the two confessions together, making Germany a “launching pad for systematic ecumenical writing and organization” (520). Catholic theologians Robert Grosche and Damasus Winzen launched the journal Catholica to explore connections to Protestantism and express their desire to participate in a Germanic, racially-based spiritual community, while Protestants like Wilhelm Stählin and others promoted the idea of a national body of Christ. Publications, mutual visits between seminaries, and various conferences bringing Catholics and Protestants together soon followed. Notably, Catholic historian Joseph Lortz reimagined the Reformation sympathetically, and added a series of ecumenical pamphlets and discussion guides, too. Greenberg observes that these interconfessional advocates were mostly not fanatical Nazis, but adds that they were profoundly anti-liberal and opposed to universal equality. As examples of ecumenically-minded antisemites, Greenberg offers names like Catholics Albert Mirgeler and Otto Schilling, though there were surely many on the Protestant side as well.

In the postwar era, these same figures participated in the growing European ecumenical movement—a movement that almost never included Jewish participants and that pursued a largely anti-liberal agenda. Fixation on the threat of Communism was, rather, the animating issue bringing Catholics and Protestants together in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The formation of the Christian Democratic Union, under Catholic politician Konrad Adenauer, is perhaps the most notable example of this collaboration, but leaders from across the continent “shared Adenauer’s clamor that Marxism’s ‘materialist philosophy’ was a ‘moral disease’ and ‘the root of all disorder,’ and the era’s principal task was ‘saving Occidental Christian Europe’” (525).

That said, Protestant leaders remained antipathetic to Catholicism. For example, the formation of the World Council of Churches in 1948 launched a decade of studies on religious freedom, which routinely blamed Catholic-led countries as oppressors. Similarly, the fact that Catholics led in the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community aroused grave suspicions among Protestant politicians (526).

The dynamic that changed all this was decolonization. As European countries abandoned their formal empires, both Catholic and Protestant elites worried that the loss of imperial protection, the rise of anti-Western sentiments in Asia and Africa, and the surge of nationalisms, pan-Islam, and Communism would potentially eradicate Christianity in large parts of the world. In response, “leading writers proclaimed that Europe still had a Christian civilizing mission,” which could now “be achieved only through confessional collaboration, which would inspire appropriate religious behavior for the rest of the world” (527).

For these European Christians, the Chinese Cultural Revolution was but one example of the disaster that could befall the Church. People like Joseph Blomjous, the Dutch Catholic bishop of Mwanza, Tanzania; Hans Burgman, a German missionary in Uganda; and John Jordan, a British missionary writer in Nigeria, called for interconfessional schools and medical facilities, along with other forms of ecumenical cooperation. Scottish Presbyterian bishop Lesslie Newbigin, General Secretary of the International Missionary Council, also called for overcoming confessional obstacles in his 1961 work Is Christ Divided? A Plea for Christian Unity in a Revolutionary Age. He was only one of many such voices. Indeed, Blomjous and Newbigin led a Vatican-WCC study of European mission work, then established the Committee on Society, Development and Peace (SODEPAX) to support a wide range of interconfessional collaboration.

Greenberg shows how these 1960s ecumenists drew on the work of their 1930s predecessors, thus blending “talk of diversity and tolerance with an overwhelming sense of conflict” with Communism and Islam. Examples include the work of French Dominican writer Marie-Joseph Le Guillou and Fridtjor Birkeli, the former director of the Norwegian missions and bishop of Stavanger, who feared for the extermination of European Christianity overseas. As he summed it up:

It was exactly this blend of forging peace between Christians while waging struggle with “anti-Christian” forces that made ecumenism an appealing response to decolonization even beyond missionary circles. For Christians ambivalent or even despondent about Europe’s collapsing political power, unity offered a new spiritual mission, a novel teaching for Europeans to take overseas. Indeed, for all their talk about the need to “indigenize” the churches, many European commentators continued to assume that it was Europe’s role to provide the template. Catholic and Protestant peace, they paternalistically proclaimed, was Europe’s new global “responsibility,” which would show Africans and Asians the direction of the future. (532)

Ecumenism thus became a new kind of civilizing mission, linking European Catholics and Protestants in a shared global project. This trend culminated in the Second Vatican Council, which reimagined Protestants as brethren in the faith rather than heretics—a sentiment reciprocated by the WCC. The result was an expansion of Protestant rights in Catholic countries. As in the 1930s, however, while interconfessional collaboration in the 1950s and 1960s overcame historic conflicts that had divided European Christians since the Reformation, it produced less a liberal vision of universal equality than an exclusivist version of religious liberty in which Christian unity was marked by antisemitic, anti-Communist, and anti-Islamic sentiments. Ironically, while a newly ecumenical Christianity in Europe soon declined sharply, Christianity exploded in the former colonial world. Still, in an increasingly secular twenty-first-century Europe, political and legal privileges for Christianity are coupled with ongoing limits to the religious freedom of non-Christians.