Rorate Caeli

The Liturgists and the Fascists

By James Baresel

In a 1964 letter to the editor of the Catholic Herald, Evelyn Waugh concluded: “Finally, a word about liturgy. It is natural to the Germans to make a row. The torchlit, vociferous assemblies of the Hitler Youth expressed a national passion. It is well that it should be canalized into the life of the Church. But it is essentially un-English…We pray in silence. ‘Participation’ in the Mass does not mean hearing our own voice. It means God hearing our voices. Only He knows who is ‘participating’ at Mass…Anyone who has taken part in a play knows that he can rant on stage with his mind elsewhere. If the Germans want to be noisy, let them. But why should they disturb our devotions?” 

Even to those who recognize that the (largely German-led) Liturgical Movement deviated from traditional Catholic spirituality, that might seem excessively ad hominem. Surely, one might assume, similarities must have been so superficial as to render such comparisons grossly exaggerated and unfair. Yet Waugh’s comparison is mild when placed beside the words of a German Benedictine abbot who decisively shaped the Liturgical Movement, and who insisted that “What the liturgical movement is in the religious field, fascism is in the political field…Let us say ‘yes’ wholeheartedly to the new form of the total state.” 

That Benedictine was Ildefons Herwegen. A dominant figure in German Catholic life between the world wars, he turned his abbey of Maria Laach into a center both of the Liturgical Movement and of Catholic support for Nazism. One of the Liturgical Movement’s greatest luminaries, Dom Odo Casel, was one of his monks and disciples. Another, Romano Guardini, was among his closest liturgical collaborators. Political associates included Franz von Papen, Emil Ritter and Carl Schmitt. 

Defenders of Maria Laach’s liturgical ideology will stress that Nazism was contentious among Maria Laach’s monks and associates (with Guardini prominent on the anti-Nazi side) or that the monks who supported it changed their tune soon after Hitler gained power. But what had attracted them was the Nazis’ collectivism and authoritarianism, not their full ideology. For Herwegen, “In the religious sphere… it has been the so-called liturgical movement that acted as a counterweight to individualism…in the political sphere it is Fascism.” 

Guardini and other anti-Nazis shared that collectivism, which tends to centralization and authoritarianism, while opposing its Nazi variant. Nazis insisted all females within a certain age range join the League of German Girls and practice gymnastics together in order to “overcome individualism” in favor of a “feeling of racial solidarity among Aryans.” Guardini, like Herwegen, was not content with Catholics praying for each other while at Mass—reading their missals, saying the rosary, engaging in some form of mental prayer, etc.—but insisted they must “overcome individualism” by “praying together and participating [i.e. making the responses] at Mass with a sense of communal solidarity.” 

Such an approach led to a desire for at least parts of the Mass to be commonly said in vernacular languages. But the Maria Laach circle often went beyond that, taking a critical attitude towards the growth and enhancement which had taken place during at least half of church history. The abbey and its associates were among the first to promote a simplified rite and the aesthetic minimalism—particularly favored by Guardini—which became a major influence on the liturgical “reform” and the architecture often associated with it. Annibale Bugnini’s thinking on liturgical matters developed during his seminarian days under the influence of a Maria Laach monk stationed in Rome. In his career as a liturgical reformer, he would radicalize these tendencies. 

Predictably, preferences for both minimalism and collectivism were shared by expatriates from the Maria Laach circle who shaped the Liturgical Movement in the United States. One, Father Damasus Winzen, was a monk of the abbey and later founded New York’s Mount Savior Monastery. American sources stress that he left Germany to find Maria Laach a new home as tensions with the Nazis increased. Curiously enough, they ignore the fact that he originally advocated using the Nazi regime to “restore the Christian unity of the Middle Ages through basing imperial power on the mystery of Christ as king of the world and on the Church as the mystical body of Christ.” Another, Father Hans Reinhold, was a diocesan priest and a Maria Laach oblate (more or less a third order member) who had once been a novice there. Anti-Nazi from the start, he preferred leftist collectivism and became closely associated with Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement. 

In none of this was Maria Laach an isolated, aberrant case. The stories of three French cardinals paint a similar picture. Pierre-Marie Gerlier was among the French prelates most committed to the Liturgical Movement. In the years before the Second Vatican Council, he made the then-radical argument that all Mass prayers prior to the offertory should be in the vernacular. Less focused on liturgical questions, but later a leading 1960s “reformist,” was Achille Lienart. Emmanuel Celestin Suhard died in 1949, but parallels with his two fellow cardinals are instructive. 

Upon its creation in 1940, all three churchmen welcomed the collaborationist French Vichy regime and its collectivistic, centralized, authoritarian and pseudo-Catholic “national revolution.” Behind the façade, the regime’s head, Marshall Phillipe Petain, was a favorite of leftist politicians with no previous record for piety or for supporting the Church. Petain’s deputy, Pierre Laval, was a former socialist who believed France should embrace the German totalitarian model. Few of its leading figures had credentials as serious Catholics. 

To their credit, Gerlier and Lienart soon saw Vichy’s thuggish reality and went into opposition, while Suhard remained friendly. Not one, however, embraced the traditionally conservative, anti-collectivist orientations of such Catholic Free French leaders as General Philippe LeClerc, Admiral Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu (who had entered the Carmelite order after distinguishing himself in World War I and was permitted to serve as a World War II combat officer while remaining a priest), François Charles-Roux (whose son, the Rosminian Father Jean-Marie, celebrated the Tridentine Mass almost exclusively in the years between Vatican II and his death in 2014) and, indeed, Charles de Gaulle himself. Instead, all three cardinals turned to the left-leaning and collectivistic Worker-Priest movement. 

None of this will surprise students of political history and theory, for whom it is a truism that fascism (opposed to both the old order and to leftist views), socialism and communism all embrace modern collectivism as part of the new societies they seek to fabricate through authoritarianism and centralization. 

From its earliest beginnings under the leadership of one-time leftist activist Dom Lambert Beauduin, the Liturgical Movement claimed to return to older tradition while (in practice) developing a collectivist spirituality for a new collectivist age. The collectivist tendency at the Liturgical Movement’s root help explain its totalizing tendency—the attempt to impose a new form of the Mass while strictly controlling public use of the traditional Roman Rite being a prime example.