I wasn’t terribly concerned over Joseph Ratzinger’s election to pope simply because he had a Nazi past, having been part of the Hitler Youth. He was, after all, quite young at the time. That he didn’t make the hard choice to oppose the government of his time was not exceptional, a fact that undermined any claim to a particular inherent virtue in the new pope but didn’t make a case for inherent evil either.
That case was made by Ratzinger’s adult behavior. His regressive attitude toward his predecessor’s humanitarian gestures and his emphasis on authority over forgiveness on the subject of HIV and condoms told me all I needed to know about this new pope. Later revelations about his role as enforcer in keeping the church’s predatory scandals quiet weren’t a surprise. Not from Benny the Rat.
Now, however, Ratzinger seems to be reaching back to embrace his Nazi past.
Yes, I’m quite serious. What else can you call his recent statement about atheists?
“Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live,” he said.
“I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious people who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives.
“As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society …”
Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs rightly calls it revisionism. Beyond that, it is revisionism that parallels what Ratzinger has seen before, in his formative years.
Jews may not be acceptable targets in most of the civilized world at the moment (I wish I could say, “anymore”), but atheists are still subject to open and unapologetic religious discrimination even from sects and authority figures that consider themselves religiously liberal. It is perfectly fine to suggest that our moral character is inherently defective, despite evidence to the contrary. It’s almost trendy to characterize our open, unashamed, sometimes opinionated existence as an attack on others. Our very lack of invisibility is considered a problem.
Then there is the atmosphere in which the pope’s statements were made. It is not a mere coincidence that the Nazis came to power during a time of international economic turbulence and deep uncertainties about the future. I could say more about that, but Tom Levenson’s excellent post on what Albert Einstein has to tell us about the tea partiers says it more eloquently than I could. (Read also his take on the moral failure of Ratzinger’s remarks.)
Nor is the problem just that the pope is exploiting the uncertainty of our times. He is doing it as the head of an institution that bears direct responsibility for many of our global problems. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Turn away from your comfortable “First World” life for a moment and think about what the promotion of poverty, disease, overpopulation and submissiveness means to our world, both in general and specifically in building tensions between the have-littles and have-nones. This tension is a political force that should never be underestimated, particularly in its power to destroy.
Yet Ratzinger not only fails to take responsibility for the actions and policies of his institution, or for the power that gives them such far-reaching effects. He also deflects this responsibility onto atheists, an unorganized group without anything like the power to create the phenomena for which he blames them. Atheists, denied social influence by virtue of their atheism–and political power in many places, can no more be specially responsible for the world’s problems than the Jews of Germany could be responsible for the failures of the German government.
They can, however, serve as a scapegoat for a leader who wants power without the responsibility that should come with it. Of all the current political and religious leaders in our world, Ratzinger has the fewest excuses for claiming ignorance as to where that can lead.
Ratzinger was a child when he participated in the Hitler Youth. He shouldn’t be held responsible for what he supported then, although a truly moral man might claim that responsibility despite his immaturity at the time. We are, after all, none of us ever truly mature, and it’s the repercussions of our lingering immaturities of which we should be most aware.
Benny the Rat is no longer a child. He is an adult of an age to have seen the Holocaust first hand and remember its lessons. That he has said what he has said under the circumstances in which he said it strongly suggests that he is embracing those lessons. It is appalling that he can remain the head of an institution with any power at all when he is so clearly embracing the wrong ones.