One would not expect a steadfast German Lutheran intellectual in the 1920s to take kindly to the sights and sounds of Catholicism in Italy, but for Dietrich Bonhoeffer these concrete manifestations of lived faith were enthralling. One church that impressed him deeply was the Gesù, the Jesuit mother-church in Rome.
According to his biographer Charles Marsh, “Bonhoeffer marveled at the multitude of ‘white-robed Jesuits,’ swaying like a ‘sea of flowers’ who read passages from Lamentations, while large families waited their turn at the confessionals, ‘illuminated by slowly darkening altar candles’.” He was also deeply impressed by the presence of enrobed clerics from many nationalities “united under the church”. It was these, and similar experiences in other Roman churches, that opened Bonhoeffer’s eyes to “the universality of faith”. In his Italian Diary (1924), he wrote: “It has been a magnificent day; the first in which I gained some real understanding of Catholicism; no romanticism or anything of the sort, but I believe I am beginning to understand the concept of the Church.”
The concept of ‘church’, and in particular the sense of its universality, stayed with Bonhoeffer through the many turns his theology took in the following two decades. While in Rome it even prompted him to entertain – only momentarily – the thought of conversion to Catholicism. Arguably, Catholicism would never have sat well with him. He never really lost his Lutheran objections to the Catholic understanding of rationality in the praeambula fidei, nor to what he saw as a quid-pro-quo attitude to the reception of God’s grace – in other words, a diminution of its gratuitousness.
Still, however, he clung to his discovery of the meaning of Church. Years later, he urged his fellow-Lutherans to recover their sense of belonging to a universal Church – not easy, he thought, on account of their provincialism and excessive German nationalism. The Catholic Church, he wrote in 1927, “is a world in itself”. In it, “infinite diversity flows together”, giving it “irresistable charm”. Protestants ought to admire it, he continued, because “it has understood how to maintain unity in diversity, to gain the love and respect of the masses, and to foster a strong sense of community”.
In his biography of Bonhoeffer, Eberhard Bethge, a former student of his, summed up Bonhoeffer’s theological attitude to Catholicism as “critical affection and affectionate criticism”. That affection – unusual for a Lutheran theologian of that time – began with his experience of the Gesù, St Peter’s and the other great churches of Rome.