- The Sexcentenary Commemoration of Dante’s Death and the German Re-Confessionalization of DanteFriedrich Muckermann and der Gral
In October 1921, the German Catholic literary monthly der Gral, under the editorship of Friedrich Muckermann, S.J., published a special issue devoted to the sexcentenary commemoration of the death of Dante. This special number is a microcosm of the issues surrounding the German Dante revival that followed the disastrous conclusion of World War I. German intellectuals of varying political and religious persuasions, especially those outside the university, were vying in the popular press to define Dante’s relationship to Germany and his meaning for the contemporary crisis. The importance assigned to Dante in German postwar reconstruction illustrates the cultural power that literature was thought to have. Discussions swirling around Dante during the sexcentenary were fraught with questions about the nature of national identity and the shape of post-war recovery. The sexcentenary coincided with the still-novel claims, especially in Germany (where Dante was often considered a precursor of Luther), that Dante was a loyal Catholic, that he should be read in relation to traditional Catholic teaching, and that, as such, his Catholic worldview supplied the undergirding of the path toward German revival in the wake of the war. The tussle between Catholics and Protestants over Dante is one of the most remarkable examples of the transmigration of a monumental literary work across religious denominations in a process we might call “re-confessionalization,” or the revisionist transformation of religious identity.1 Muckermann intended his special Dante issue and his own essays in it to contribute in a major way not only to this Catholic re-confessionalization of Dante, but also, through it, to a larger literary program that would [End Page 129] influence artistic culture in the new Germany, against a background of the harmful forces of modern literature that he associated with the factional, feuding atmosphere of Weimar. The commemoration of a Catholic Dante perfectly suited Muckermann’s agenda for der Gral, which was to redress this fragmentation by creating cultural and political unity in Germany under Catholic auspices through the sponsorship of Catholic literature.
Benedict XV’s Encyclical: Dante as Catholic Poet
The motivating force behind Muckermann’s special issue was the papacy’s campaign for a Dante sexcentenary celebration. This campaign was itself the result of a reinterpretation of what for centuries had been considered Dante’s heretical attitude, expressed in his Monarchia, toward the political power of the pope. After the treatise had been on the Index of Prohibited Books for centuries, Dante’s rehabilitation in the Catholic Church began with Leo XIII, who removed the work from the Index in the 1880s, and under whose auspices Dante was redefined by the German Vatican theologian Franz Hettinger as orthodox by virtue of his putatively thorough Thomism. Benedict XV followed this policy, and he resumed his interrupted prewar plan for a Dante celebration on the occasion of the sexcentenary. On April 30, 1921, he delivered his encyclical on Dante, In praeclara summorum, calling for a commemoration of the poet and proclaiming Dante’s central position in disseminating Catholic teaching.2 The encyclical was addressed to Catholic intellectuals, especially Catholic teachers and students of literature. Benedict begins by asserting that Catholics should take the lead in civil celebrations because “the Church has special right to call Alighieri hers” (par. 2), and that Catholic intellectuals should declare “the intimate union of Dante with this Chair of Peter” (par. 3)—a very public announcement of the reversal of the centuries-long condemnation of Dante’s treatment of the papacy. Benedict stresses that, after the war, it is even more important to celebrate Dante under religious auspices, and to advance Dante, in his life and work, above all as an exemplary Catholic figure, and to make it known that to honor Dante is to honor the Catholic Church (par. 4). This characterization of Dante as the prototype of the Catholic poet, thinker, and man might seem unremarkable, except for the fact that it had been [End Page 130] only a few decades since Dante was on the Index as an enemy of the Church, and only a few decades...