To be Catholic is to speak truth to power

Speaking the truth is an incredibly brave and inspiring act, writes Ben Conroy

The first time I ever came across Archbishop Oscar Romero, it was through a quote that, it turns out, he didn’t even say.

It was Hélder Pessoa Câmara who said: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist”, but Romero lived out the “seamless garment” vision of Catholicism in a way that few others did, challenging individuals, governments and cultures to live the Gospel.

Romero’s house in El Salvador has been preserved as a place of pilgrimage, with a broken pair of his glasses still on the mantelpiece. I’m reminded of another of my heroes, another Catholic who spoke truth to power and who also left behind a pair of broken spectacles.

Fritz Gerlich was a German journalist and historian. Born in 1883, he would end his life as one of the only voices challenging Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.

Much as Romero was seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’, and ended up being a radical, Gerlich was once active in national socialist politics, and was a member of a sort of proto-Nazi group called the German Fatherland Party.

But as time went on, Gerlich became disenchanted, writing articles condemning anti-semitism. Early in 1923, he met Adolf Hitler, who promised that he would renounce violence and engage in the democratic process. After the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich later the same year, in which Hitler attempted a coup, Gerlich was outraged, and became one of the Nazi leader’s strongest critics.

That, to me, is one of the most inspiring things about the man – Fritz Gerlich changed his mind. His was a conversion of ideas before it was a conversion of actions.

What Romero, a bishop in 1970s El Salvador, and Gerlich, a layman in Hitler’s Germany, had in common is an absolute commitment to the truth. Neither flinched from saying things which they knew would put their lives in danger. Romero’s Catholic faith led him to his defence of the excluded and the marginalised – for Gerlich it was the other way around.

As Hitler grew more popular and increased in influence, Gerlich continued his fierce opposition, writing that "National Socialism means: Enmity with neighbouring nations, tyranny internally, civil war, world war, lies, hatred, fratricide and boundless want.”

He was involved with a group of thinkers who strongly opposed both Nazism and Communism, and it was through this group that Gerlich was introduced to a Catholic mystic named Therese Neumann, who claimed to have the stigmata, the wounds of Christ. A down-to-earth and thoroughly sceptical Calvinist, Gerlich was keen to debunk her experiences: instead, he converted to Catholicism. Neumann strongly supported Gerlich’s anti-Nazi work, and he set up a newspaper called The Straight Path in 1933.

Perhaps the most powerful thing he wrote in it was a satirical piece in which he employed the Nazi’s own bogus ‘racial science’ ideas to argue that, far from being an Aryan, Hitler was clearly “of Mongolian origin”, and that this “clearly explained” his “absolute despotism”. A picture accompanying the piece depicted Hitler marrying an African woman.

In a follow-up article, Gerlich wrote: "We can't understand how people who call themselves righteous Catholics could feel upset by the juxtaposition of Hitler and a Negro woman. What exactly bothers you, dear ladies and gentlemen? Didn't you learn, in the first principles of our religion's catechism, not only that all men have their souls bestowed on them by God but also that we are all descendants of one father and one mother, children of Adam and Eve: According to our own Catholic principles, Negroes are our brothers and sisters even by blood.

“It is totally impossible for those of us with Catholic world views to 'degrade' a Central European like Adolf Hitler by pairing him with a Negro woman. A Negro woman isn't a person of inferior race… We regard a Negro woman as our sister in blood.”

He defied the conventional wisdom of his time and place. He told the truth.

Gerlich could only get away with that for so long.

After Hitler became Fuhrer, he was taken to the concentration camp in Dachau and murdered on the Night of the Long Knives. The Gestapo sent his wife back his broken spectacles, spattered with blood.

Fritz Gerlich is a hero and more people should know his story (he was played by Matthew Modine in the ridiculously-named but very impressive mini-series Hitler: The Rise of Evil).

To be Catholic is to be the salt of the earth, to speak truth to power and to never relent. After decades, Oscar Romero is being fully recognised for the blessed man he was.

I hope that one day, Fritz Gerlich follows him.