Paul Simon and the Mystery of a Sinful Church

In 1937 a series of sexual abuse cases in Catholic institutions rocked Germany. The Nazis cleverly used these trials for their propaganda. Goebbel’s propaganda machinery attempted to portray the entire Catholic clergy as either homosexual (then still a criminal offense) or pedophiles or as financially hostile to the state, instrumentalizing for this purpose the court cases against a number of religious. By painting the clergy as a band of abusers, the Nazis tried to undermine the faithful’s trust in their pastors and bishops, and ultimately their faith. Some bishops protested in public with sobering numbers, demonstrating that 99.9 % of clergy were never involved in any such crimes, but the theology professor Paul Simon (1882–1946) adopted a different strategy.

The former Tübingen professor published[1] a little, yet profound book, The Human Element in the Church of Christ. Within a short time, the publisher wanted to issue a second edition. The Nazis were furious! While the first edition had appeared without reprisals although it had attracted a lot of attention, the second edition was banned by the Gestapo as “harmful.” It is important to note that the book did not contain a single word about National Socialism, but it served the purpose of the Catholic German strategy of inoculating the faithful with good theology against the Nazi propaganda.

Simon's book showed in simple yet profound words that the Catholic Church was the alternative worldview to the brutally racist ideology of Nazism. Moreover, he did not whitewash the seriousness of sin and moral failure within the Church, but tackled it head-on. Also some of his other theological and catechetical writings were banned, such as his books Weltanschauung (1935) and Mythos oder Religion (2nd ed. 1936), both of which sought to refute the main Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg (1893-1946).

Surprisingly, historians of Nazi Germany do not read the many catechetical and theological books the Nazis banned, and more disturbingly, do not ask the question why the Nazis went through the trouble of proscribing them. They must have seen in them a powerful inoculation against their own worldview—otherwise, they would have hardly prohibited them. Thus, it should not surprise that one does not find Simon’s The Human in the Church of Christ quoted in many books about Nazi Germany, despite its enormous impact and dissemination. It is worth a close reading, because it accurately maps out the strategy of Catholic opposition in the Third Reich: Through exemplary catechesis, Catholics were to be strengthened in their faith and thus immunized against Nazi propaganda.[2]

Paul Simon was no insignificant player in the German Church of the 1930s. Not only was he a close friend of the last democratic Chancellor of the Reich, Heinrich Brüning, whom he affectionately called Harry, but he also held the chair of scholastic philosophy and apologetics at the University of Tübingen since 1925. As a theologian, he had made a name for himself, especially in the field of ecumenism. Protestantism and modernity cannot be dealt with by polemics, he said, “The positive presentation and living reality of the Catholic life of faith . . . is much more effective than polemics.”[3]

Simon was accordingly in close contact with all departments in Tübingen, and maintained friendships with Protestant colleagues, such as Theodor Häring. It was therefore not surprising that Simon was appointed president of the university. In 1933, however, he resigned from office, probably under pressure from the Nazi government, and moved back to Paderborn to take up the position of dean of the cathedral there. In the printed farewell address as university president, entitled “The Idea of the Medieval University and its History,“[4] Simon skillfully contrasted the vision of the Nazi view of humanity with Christian individualism, and insisted on the ideological neutrality of science, defending it against partisan political narrow-mindedness.

Continuing to engage in ecumenical work, he increasingly became the subject of Nazi observation, especially when in 1938 the government recognized the ecumenical movement as a movement dangerous to National Socialism: According to the Security Service, the churches would increasingly unite in an ideological front against Nazi ideology.[5] However, he saw no justification for the Church to openly resist the system beyond what the papal encyclical “With Burning Concern” (1937) outlined.[6] He died in Paderborn in 1946.

The Temptations of Jesus

Interestingly, The Human Element in the Church of Christ begins with an analysis of the temptations of Jesus (Mt 4:1-3). Since these temptations are at the beginning of Jesus's public ministry, they are not to be understood as temptations of an individual, “they apply to the Savior and his ministry” and aim at distracting the Messiah from his real task.[7] The first temptation, in which the devil offers to turn stones into bread for the fasting Jesus, consists in abusing the power associated with the office “for the satisfaction of one's own bodily, earthly needs” and giving more space to the material than to the spiritual. However, the rejection of temptation does not take place “with reference to the office of Messiah; rather, the Messiah tells the tempter that he is mistaking the true nature of human life and overestimating the power of earthly needs in the one who is aware of his true profession.”[8] Everything material must therefore take the back seat when God calls! For the Church in her following of Christ, there is equally the temptation to place her mission at the service of an earthly cause. In this, of course, there is an implicit rejection of the National Socialist appropriation of the churches:

Religion must never become a means to an end; it is rather the last and highest end . . . It was not founded by Christ to satisfy the cultural needs of men, but to preach the Gospel and save souls. The cultural institutions she uses for her mission must never take on the character of ends and goals; they must remain means to fulfill the higher end.[9]

The second temptation, in which the devil places Jesus on the pinnacle of the Temple and asks him to throw himself down, is also directed at his ministry, namely, not to proclaim the faith by means that are inappropriate to the gospel. This would be the case if Jesus were to be miraculously caught by angels before hitting the ground. People would come to faith then in a kind of “mass psychosis.” Simon cleverly compares this with the emotionality which the Nazis arouse at their large-scale events, but without calling them by name:

The Kingdom of God does arrive like political enthusiasm which seizes the masses with one blow, but it wants to take possession of hearts and minds. It wants to convince, it wants to grasp the individual, and therefore it wants real conversion (repentance!) and not quickly fading external enthusiasm.[10]

Applied to the Church, this means that she must avoid means that appeal to instinct and credulity. The Church is not in the business of advertising and influencing. her sole purpose is to lead people to Christ. All means, which “aim at overwhelming people, forcing them under a spell, carrying them away without real, genuine conviction,” are therefore to be rejected. [11] Finally, the third temptation is Satan's demand to worship him. In the life of the Church, this refers to the adaptation of the Church and her message to “the principles of the ruler of this world,” turning the Gospel into political domination.[12] Simon makes it clear that while there have always been and will always be individuals who succumb to these temptations, the Church as a whole, has never yielded to them.

Clericalism and Supermen

In the second chapter, the sinfulness of the Church is analyzed in more detail. For the theologian from Paderborn, it is clear that the humanity of Jesus has always offended some, and it must therefore be expected that the same will happen to his Church. Relying on the scholarship of his time, Simon argues that the Judaism of Antiquity had the expectation of a Messiah fulfilling Israel’s political needs. As a consequence, ancient Jews imagined a political superman, who would take revenge on the Romans. However time bound these remarks are, Simon’s remarks about Jesus's radical rejection of any political ideals and means is timelessly true. It is precisely this aspect that Simon, again gently alluding the Nazi pressure, encourages the Church to follow.[13]

This, however, requires taking the human side of the Church more seriously. For Simon, it is precisely the humanity of the Church that becomes the touchstone of faith. After all, when the outside observer sees the Church as a “finely formed and so ingeniously devised system,” faith is no longer “grace and free decision, but the natural product of the unfolding of earthly means.”[14] Thus, if Church is no longer about the encounter with Jesus, but about political agendas, it betrays her very mission, betrays her bridegroom and her head.

Simon deals with the human failings in the early days of the Church in the third chapter. For all its earnest pursuit of holiness, the New Testament, as Simon rightly points out, has always taught “that becoming a Christian is no guarantee that the vices of this world cannot recur in the Church.”[15] Nevertheless, perhaps the most interesting chapter is the fourth, which takes a closer look at what is actually human about the Church. Here the theologian lays out quite forcefully that Jesus called vulnerable and fragile people to discipleship, “At no place in his Gospel did Jesus promise his followers that they should become superhuman, not even that they would be exceptional human beings.”[16]

Clearly, Simon rejects here Nietzsche's idea of the superhuman, but at the same time reminds us of the mystery that Church consists of ordinary, vulnerable and broken people. She is painfully visible to the world just like the wounds of Christ, who hung on the cross like an ordinary criminal.

Catholics, however, must not only deal with defeat and invisible spiritual growth, but also the temptation of compartmentalizing religion to a sphere of feeling. With astuteness, Simon sums up that this has led to the privatization of religion and to the abandonment of what makes the Church the Church, namely its embodied humanity. For if religion is merely an individual’s feeling of dependency on a higher power or “spirituality”, free from any external commitment, one cannot believe any longer “in the Church.” As a consequence, the Church disappears from the Creed.[17]

The Church is the way to spiritual perfection, and since all humans are imperfect, she is the universal way to salvation. Because of the imperfection of her human members, however, the Church “must be in constant revolution, since the ideal of perfection always calls for reconsideration and conversion.”[18] The acuity with which Simon addresses the need for constant reform is surprising. He does not even shy away from openly admitting that the Church at times gave in to the temptations for earthly power and prestige. However, against the propaganda of the Nazis, who cited the Renaissance popes as examples of the moral bankruptcy of Catholicism, he contends that “the Holy Spirit of Christ who guides the Church is not represented in the particular person of the Roman pontiff alone, because he only guides the universal Church.”[19]

Thus, Simon made clear that even in the case of a morally corrupt pope, the Church herself is governed by the Holy Spirit, but this does not spare anyone to make up one’s conscience for or against Christ.[20] The Church is more than the pope. The responsibility of each individual, even in the present situation of National Socialism, is duly emphasized here.

Simon even confronts the common accusation of clericalism. He sees the origin of this phenomenon in a changed understanding of the “people of God,” who no longer understand the separation of priest and layman. According to the Catholic understanding, the Christian community is supposed to form a unity, which is “not earthly, not grounded in blood and language, but in the invisible spiritual.”[21] “People” must therefore be understood analogously and thus differently from Nazi propaganda. God's people are one, but such unity is an object of faith because it is not empirical:

It is therefore an object of faith because it surpasses all we can imagine about earthly unity and community. On the other hand, this unity also strives for visibility, because the Church is, after all, made up of people.[22]

This idea of the people, however, has been redefined since the Enlightenment into an idea that pretends to accomplish a “great unity of blood, culture, and state.”[23] To the spirit of liberal, democratic sovereignty, then, the concept of the people of God must seem utterly contradictory. This is especially the case in today's world, where Catholics are no longer shaped by the idea of the people of God, but rather by worldly concepts of community and only occasionally through the liturgy get a glimpse of what the Church thinks.

Our Coming Church

Simultaneously with Simon, another gifted German theologian, Georg Feuerer (1900–1940), thought about evil in the Church in his book Our Coming Church. Shaped by Karl Barth and Heidegger, as Edith Stein astutely remarked, he was praised by Yves Congar and Hans Urs von Balthasar, who put his books next to the works of Erik Peterson and Oskar Bauhofer.[24] Feuerer had become aware that theology had to go beyond apologetics and explain better that the Church was not an “institution” but “the great sacrament of salvation for all of humanity.” Since sinfulness is the condition of every human being, sin becomes, as he explains, entangled with the life the Church, but must never “her principle,” “because she harbors the whole human person . . . the Church always stands close to the abyss of evil.”[25]

All holiness of the Church is Christ’s and Christ’s alone, which reminds us that within her earthly life even the demonic can take root in the Church. One can see, Feuerer remarks, that sometimes “the evil enemy walks side by side with Christ—even within the Church.”[26] The Christian, therefore, does not only stand under the cross of Christ, but also carries the cross of his Church, to which he contributes through his own sinfulness. It is therefore here, where his fate is decided:

In our own, sinful weakness we begin to understand the mystery of evil within the Church. A faith “despite the evil” is needed. Then it will become apparent how deeply I stand within the Church and how deeply I believe in her . . . Because of the evil, I am forced to look for a deeper, better side in the Church, for underneath the evil is always a layer of goodness. But evil itself can only be overcome through a deeper life in Christ.[27]

Both, Feuerer and Simon encourage Catholics to faithfully follow Christ and to realize their own roles within the Church. Moreover, both make clear that whitewashing of scandals downplays the fact that the Church was founded for sinful humanity, and that romanticizing the clergy only leads to a clericalism, which enables worldliness and betrayal.

A realistic ecclesiology takes the failures of all members of the Church, including popes, bishops, priests, and nuns, seriously and points to the holiness of Christ, the Church’s head, instead of “canonizing” ecclesial offices and positions and thereby allowing the anti-Christic demonic to grow. Such a realist approach has helped German Catholics in the 1940s to endure in their faith, including the teenager Joseph Ratzinger. It helped them to walk with Christ on the frontier between time and eternity:

How the Church walks toward Christ and comes from Christ, shows the way how the Divine and the Human . . . are moving toward each other. The Human always must always stretch toward the Divine . . . and can never say: It is enough . . . Moreover, the work of such a great God can never be fixed merely to a point in time, but must entail the whole, and therefore the future. The Divine must be present in a way that it also is also always in the process of “coming.” Thereby a dynamic enters the Church: the walking of the Church toward God . . . At this frontier stands the Church, because she is immersed in eschatological time. This way the Divine is brought into the world, or it is no longer the Divine.[28]

[1] J. Ernesti, “Paul Simon (1882–1946)—Humanist und Pionier der Ökumene,” in: Catholica 58 (2004) 296–313.

[2] Cf. R. Baumgärtner, Weltanschauungskampf im Dritten Reich: Die Auseinandersetzung der Kirchen mit Alfred Rosenberg, Mainz: 1977; D. Burkard, “Gebundene Hände? Oder: Wie dem Nationalsozialismus begegnen?,” in Theologie und Glaube 104 (2014) 3–31.

[3] J. Höfer, “Erinnerungen an Domprobst Prof. Dr. Paul Simon,” in P. W. Scheele / L. Jaeger (Hg.), Paderbornensis Ecclesia, Paderborn 1972, 631–688, at 647.

[4] Paul Simon, Die Idee der mittelalterlichen Universität und ihre Geschichte, Tübingen 1932.

[5] J. Ernesti, Ökumene im Dritten Reich, Paderborn 2007; Idem, “Paderborn und die Ökumene im Dritten Reich, Annäherungen der Kirchen unter dem Druck des Regimes,” in Theologie und Glaube 104 (2014) 82-104.

[6] Ernesti, “Paul Simon,” 303.

[7] Paul Simon, Das Menschliche in der Kirche Christi, Freiburg: 2nd ed. 1936, 1. An English translation was published under the title The Human Element in the Church of Christ by Wipf and Stock.

[8] Simon, Das Menschliche, 3.

[9] Ibid., 4.

[10] Ibid., 7.

[11] Ibid., 8.

[12] Ibid., 8.

[13] Ibid., 20.

[14] Ibid., 22.

[15] Ibid., 33.

[16] Ibid., 38.

[17] Ibid., 61.

[18] Ibid., 68.

[19] Ibid., 86-87.

[20] Ibid., 90.

[21] Ibid., 112.

[22] Ibid., 113.

[23] Ibid., 114.

[24] G. Feuerer, Unsere Kirche im Kommen. Freiburg: 1937.

[25] Ibid., 149.

[26] Ibid., 152.

[27] Ibid., 153.

[28] Ibid., 221.

Featured Image: Michael Pacher, St. Augustine and the Devil, 1471; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


Ulrich L. Lehner

Ulrich L. Lehner is William K. Warren Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author and editor of thirty books, most notably: The Catholic Enlightenment, the bestseller God Is Not Nice (translated into five languages), and Think Better: Rediscovering the Power of Reason.

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