Ratzinger's day of non-atonement

Sep 18 2010 Published by under Politics

Today is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.  For religious Jews, this is a critically important time of the year, and even many secular Jews use this as a time of increased self-scrutiny.  The religious purpose is to ask forgiveness: forgiveness of others for having wronged them, and forgiveness of God for having wronged Him.   But being truly contrite, and directly asking someone for forgiveness is difficult.   Setting aside a day (or week, really) to focus on the task highlights its difficulty and prevents us from hiding from the task.  This is a day focused on apology, on real introspection, a real attempt to contact those you've wronged and ask forgiveness---and to grant forgiveness to others.  This is not a time for "non-pologies", statements like, "I'm sorry you were offended by what I did."  This is a time for empathy, to wonder what it would be like to be the person you've wronged, and to apologize in a way meant not to make yourself feel better, but to comfort the ones you've wronged.

Yom Kippur is one of only a few days of the year when Jews light Yahrzeit (remembrance) candles for those who have died.  Perhaps at a time when Jews feel particularly close to God, and particularly in peril, they ask God not only to forgive them, but to take special care of those we can no longer care for.  And there can be no apologies and no forgiveness without memory.  We strive to remember our transgressions of the last year, but we cannot control the gates of memory once they have opened, so as we search ourselves, we also honor those who are left only as memories.

As we remember those who have died, many of us cannot help but think about the Shoah, the murder and destruction of Europe's Jewish community.  It's an unavoidable fact for many of us, especially as we see the diminishing numbers of survivors in our communities and wonder who will tell their stories when they are all gone.

This made some of the comments given by Joseph Ratzinger even more painful.  They were offensive to memory, and offensive to the idea of forgiveness.  They also injure us by making harder to grant forgiveness to a man who makes such hurtful public statements.

While it would be convenient to ignore the rantings of the head of a particular religious group, Ratzinger is a powerful and influential world leader.  Ignoring his pronouncements would be giving silent assent to his dangerous misreadings of a history that is still burnt into our minds and hearts.

Upon landing in the UK during the Days of Awe---the time between the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur---this former head of the Inquisition (yes, those guys are still around) blamed all the woes of the world (including the Holocaust) on atheism, and somehow arrived at the conclusion that we'd all be better if we were religious.

The profoundly idiotic words that came from Josef Ratzinger are his. I know that many Catholics believe what he says, many do not. Given the autocratic nature of the Church, it would be terribly unfair to blame millions of Catholics for the demented utterances of their appointed---not elected---leader.

One of his UK speeches opens with the usual historical background, which as far as I know is correct, but then loses it.

The evangelisation of culture is all the more important in our times, when a ‘dictatorship of relativism’ threatens to obscure the unchanging truth about man’s nature, his destiny and his ultimate good.

There are some who now seek to exclude religious belief from public discourse, to privatise it or even to paint it as a threat to equality and liberty.

Yet religion is in fact a guarantee of authentic liberty and respect, leading us to look upon every person as a brother or sister.

I understand that this dribbling old ex- ("reluctant") Hitler Youth may be starting to lose it, but I'm sure he can see the inherent contradictions in these ridiculous statements.  Every religion thinks that their path is the only true path.  That Ratzinger could believe that religion is some sort of "guarantee of authentic liberty and respect" makes him either an idiot or a raving loon of a zealot.   Religion itself has never guaranteed any such thing.  People have used the language of religions to justify all sorts of action, good and bad, so it is de facto a guarantee of nothing.  The "evangelisation of culture" is inherently anti-humanistic, as it assumes that J. Ratzinger and those who agree with him have the only correct answers.  It is anti-equality and anti-liberty, as it sets up a dichotomy of those-who-agree-with-Joe, and everyone else.

Given that Ratzinger certainly picked out every word carefully, I'm guessing he actually means this stuff.  It's also reasonable to assume that he chose the phrase "dictatorship of relativism" very carefully. The word "dictatorship" is meant to evoke specific images: jack-booted Nazis, goose-stepping Communists, and other godless atrocities.  It is certainly not meant to evoke the beneficent dictatorship of the fatherly Pope (or the fires and racks of his Inquisition).

Ratzinger goes on to explain why we need religion:

Society today needs clear voices which propose our right to live, not in a jungle of self-destructive and arbitrary freedoms, but in a society which works for the true welfare of its citizens and offers them guidance and protection in the face of their weakness and fragility.

I see no reason why secular voices which propose a "right to live" are "arbitrary".  The Declaration of Independence is no more or less arbitrary than a Papal Bull, and doesn't rely on adhering to a single creed.  That's part of the genius of it.

But the real offense to memory comes in another proximate speech.  The Holocaust was perpetrated by Europeans, led by German Nazis.  It was not an act inflicted upon them by a Nazi state that suddenly arose, creating its own values and beliefs.  Nazism worked in part because it affirmed the darker angels of European nature, allowing them---requiring them---to act on their generations of hatred.  To ignore these catholic (small "c") origins of the European murder of Jews is to be blind to history.

Ratzinger cannot claim ignorance, so statements like this one must have some purpose:

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.

Ratzinger uses this to frame his argument for religion in Europe.  He tells us that if we had been sufficiently religious (and by "we" he presumably means not me and my people, but everyone else), the Holocaust could not have happened.  But Nazis were not an "atheist" force.  They were the violent id of European history unfettered.  The systematic murder of Jews had been perpetrated by Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians for centuries.  The Nazis allowed this to flourish, and put their industrial might behind it.  They did not create it.  This makes his next comments more ridiculous:

"I also recall the regime's attitude to Christian pastors and religious 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 and thus to a 'reductive vision of the person and his destiny'

The attitude of the Nazis to Christians who spoke out was similar to their reactions to others who spoke out, except sometimes less extreme. There was, unfortunately, no large religious or secular movement in opposition of the Holocaust, and to claim otherwise is offensive. To use this false history as an argument against "atheist extremism" (whatever that may mean) is a crime against memory. But the crime continues:

"Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society.

"In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate.

"Let it not obscure the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms; and may that patrimony, which has always served the nation well, constantly inform the example your Government and people set before the two billion members of the Commonwealth and the great family of English-speaking nations throughout the world.

To tell the world that religion is a shield against intolerance, and that secularism and atheism is the cause of intolerance is insane. But unlike true insanity, Ratzinger bears true culpability for his statements.

Today is the Jewish Day of Atonement, a time of memory, introspection, and forgiveness.  Discovering and correcting my own faults and asking for forgiveness will be difficult, but I will try.  But I'm not ready to forgive those who commit dangerous offenses against against history and memory.  I'm just not that good a person, and for that, I ask forgiveness.

25 responses so far

  • Dan J says:

    Excellent, as always, Pal. Ratzinger shows himself to be a lying politician (at best) with his words. Let's hope that more and more people are willing to take the time to see through his lies.

  • makarios says:

    "and for that I ask forgiveness"--from whom are you asking forgiveness?

    Makarios

  • The Blind Watchmaker says:

    The Pope has a revisionist's view of history. He is using the memory of his youth to make broad claims about the Nazi's and their motives. He holds up the popular myth that Hitler was an atheist and that the Holocaust was a direct result.

    The 'Hitler was an atheist" myth is easily falsified by Hitler himself. He was a Roman Catholic. Mein Kampf has many references to Hitler's belief in God.
    http://nobeliefs.com/hitler.htm

    Hitler spoke openly about his faith.
    http://nobeliefs.com/speeches.htm

    He had celebrated visits with Germany's Bishop and clergy.
    http://nobeliefs.com/nazis.htm

    Hitler's Third Reich had support from the Church back in the day.
    http://nobeliefs.com/ChurchesWWII.htm#anchor2a

    The Pope likely has a high degree of cognitive dissonance when it comes to these facts. The two thoughts, "Hitler was Catholic and had Catholic support", and "I am the head of the Catholics", must create a great deal of conflict. This underlying dissonance may be causing him to cherry pick bits of history and ignore the above glaring facts. This does not make the Pope a bad guy, but one wonders if someone with such a biased and revisioned view of history should be in a position of such influence.

    One could go on to argue that, "well, ok, Hitler wasn't an atheist, but Stalin was!" or "Mao was!"

    Truth be told, they likely were. However, their power came from creating a sense of religious fanaticism toward themselves and their country. It is absurd to think that nations follow a leader blindly "in the name of atheism". This takes us to another long argument, one that has been argued out elsewhere at length.
    http://wiki.ironchariots.org/index.php?title=20th_century_atrocities

  • Luna_the_cat says:

    "Let it not obscure the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms" -- hah. I live in the UK; there is not a "Christian foundation" to freedom here -- freedom has been gained only with progressive limitations placed on the power of the Church. At the time that the Church was ascendant even over the Royals (who, lets face it, have never been prizes either), they were famously in control of more property (as in land and resources) than any secular nobility, and were even more complicit in maintaining the serfdom of tenants -- I don't think that having set up charity hospitals entirely excuses everything.

    It wasn't just the king, it was also normal people who gained rights when the Catholic Church was ousted in favour of Protestantism, which at least has less emphasis on rigid heirarchy; and then, it was a number of revolutions against "high authority" which carved out explicit rights and privileges for non-royal nobility and working classes both over the years, which in almost every case was roundly condemned by the religious authorities for upsetting the "natural order of things." Generally the attitude has been one that people should stay to their place, and rely on charity and the Church's largess rather than uncivilly insist on taking things for themselves.

    Religion has occasionally been useful, such as when campaigners appealed to it in order to condemn slavery, but considering that religion was also used as a justification for slavery in a number of places the real credit can only be placed at the feet of the people who chose how to use it, not in the institution itself.

    ...Overall, I find this Pope not only offensive, but profoundly dishonest. And I have to admit, I'm not sure why I'm supposed to be contrite about that, or forgive him for it. After all, forgiving someone is also, at least in a way, granting them license to continue doing something.

  • boboh says:

    Let it not obscure the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms; and may that patrimony, which has always served the nation well, constantly inform the example your Government and people set before the two billion members of the Commonwealth and the great family of English-speaking nations throughout the world.

    Worth pointing out, I think that this Christian foundation is Protestant, and the Catholics have been cat odds with the CofE, even to the point of poaching vicars to be priests (married vicars at that!). oh, and the guy who was liasing with the Church of England called the UK a "third world country". This was explained away by the Vatican as referring to British multi-culturalism. I'll let you think about what that means.

  • Caro says:

    I hadn't even thought of it being the Days of Awe now. I try to keep track of holidays in general (always fun to give relevant greetings), and now that you mention it, the timing's pretty tasteless.

    I don't like this Pope much, pretty much for all the reasons stated, and because I think the Church would be served better by a more liberal and progressive Pope. There are many reasons why I left Catholicism, but I still feel a strong cultural connection, so I feel entitled to dislike him. You're just giving me more reasons to do so. In addition to the health consequences on his condom attitude, and so on. I'm just glad a majority of Catholics don't take everything he says to heart.

  • David says:

    Great post. Thank you.

    I'll also point out recent efforts to beautify Pius XII, failure to open the Vatican's war archives, and the the prior pope's beautification of Stepanic. Churches throughout Germany willingly turned over birth records to identify Mischlings after the Neremburg Laws were passed. And after the war, when the entire world knew how evil the Nazis were, the Franciscans helped Nazis fleeing justice with money, travel papers, and safe havens. The catholic church, with just a few exceptions, was an enthusiastic collaborator in the war against the jews.

  • Zuska says:

    Ratzinger was certainly an awful, awful choice as leader of the Catholic Church. But he's not the first or only church leader to put this mythology out there for the Catholic masses to swallow. From my teenage years, I can recall my earliest encounters in learning about the Holocaust involved hearing/reading stories of humble priests and nuns who stood up bravely to the evil Nazis and died saintly deaths in concentration camps alongside...some other prisoners...who were...I guess...these people...who the Nazis had there. But the humble priests and nuns! So saintly! You should strive to emulate their saintliness! And join the campaign to beatify this or that one! Never forget how the evil Nazis tried to stamp out religion, and these modern day martyrs stood up for their faith! In the extremely christian community of my growing up, there was no other discussion, no other narrative or talk, to counter this. I was well into my college years when I at last discovered a different, real, narrative.

    In the hands of church leaders, the Holocaust serves as one more bit of propaganda about How We Catholics Are Persecuted, and that is beyond shameful. Ratzinger's remarks are also calculated to bring Catholic leaders in closer rapprochement with fundamentalist non-Catholic christian groups throughout the world.

  • Janice Haigh says:

    Excellent post!
    We should also remember that the Vatican only acquired its pretensions to being a state through a deal with Mussolini.

  • theshortearedowl says:

    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.

    No, they were standing up against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate Jews from society. Because the Nazis were Christian, you see.

    And, incidentally, up until the war a lot of people in Britain thought the Nazis broadly had the right idea, dontchew know? About time some started doing something about these Jews... They didn't know exactly whatthey were doing at the time of course...

    • James Sweet says:

      And, incidentally, up until the war a lot of people in Britain thought the Nazis broadly had the right idea, dontchew know?

      Yeah, this particular distortion of history paled in comparison to Ratzy's other comments, but since you mention it... I would argue that it wasn't even, as you say, Britain "standing up against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate Jews from society", but rather Britain standing up against a Nazi tyranny that wished to conquer Europe and eventually Britain.

      It's a nice fairy tale to imagine the Allies were motivated primarily by a desire to combat the genocidal and fascist policies of Germany and Italy respectively, and that America's beef with Japan didn't exist until December 7, 1941. But in reality, the primary motivation for the Allies was self-preservation in the face of three rapidly expanding military powers with ambitions of conquest. (And in the case of Japan, it is not entirely clear to what extent Japan's "ambition" was a response to their own desire for self-preservation in the face of expanding American military influence in the Pacific...)

      Not that any of this detracts from the fact that a) the Axis were ultimately the aggressors, and that b) Germany turned out to also be orchestrating genocide on an unprecedented scale. But the Pope's representation of Britain "standing up" against Nazi oppression is just not really accurate. Birtain was standing up against Nazi conquest.

      • "(And in the case of Japan, it is not entirely clear to what extent Japan’s “ambition” was a response to their own desire for self-preservation in the face of expanding American military influence in the Pacific…)"

        I'm going to have to disagree with you there a little. Japan was already engaged in a near genocidal war of aggression & conquest against China that started in 1937 (or 1931 depending on how you look at it) in which at least 20 million Chinese ended up dying.

        Unit 731 can hardly be considered part of a reasonable self preservation plan.

        It wasn't expanding American military influence in the Pacific that caused Japan to start the Second Sino-Japanese war in 1937 (which later merged into WWII in the Pacific), and it wasn't expanding US military influence that caused Japan to invade Manchuria in 1931 either.

    • Dianne says:

      And, incidentally, up until the war a lot of people in Britain thought the Nazis broadly had the right idea, dontchew know?

      I remember reading a short story by a 19th century British author which treated the idea of a massive pogrom against British Jews as an enormous joke. In the story, it turned out all to be a practical joke, no one actually died, but the fact that no one thought the idea implausible and that it could be used as a joke give one an idea of where Britain's stand on rights for people of minority religions (and possibly minority races) was at that time.

  • Claudia says:

    ---Overall, I find this Pope not only offensive, but profoundly dishonest. And I have to admit, I’m not sure why I’m supposed to be contrite about that, or forgive him for it. After all, forgiving someone is also, at least in a way, granting them license to continue doing something.---

    My willingness to forgive someone assumes their willingness to stop being an asshole.

    • Luna_the_cat says:

      Yes, quite.

      There is forgiveness when the person involved has faced up to the fact that they did something wrong, and are willing to take whatever steps necessary to rectify or atone or at least keep from f***ing up again. I don't have a problem with forgiveness in that circumstance, it's probably a lot better than trying to hold onto a grievance, there. But when the person you're "supposed" to forgive shows no signs of understanding, or for that matter caring, that they've done something wrong, then there is no reason to grant them forgiveness and in that way, excuse them.

  • daedalus2u says:

    In the 1960's, I was told by a Catholic boy the Blood Libel against the Jews. I knew it couldn't possibly be true because Passover predated Christianity and there couldn't possibly be a tradition of using Christian blood from before there were any Christians.

    I didn't believe it, but he did. He didn't make it up himself, he was taught it in his Catholic school by people who knew or should have known it was a lie and that it was always a lie.

    Why was the Catholic Church still preaching the Blood Libel against the Jews in the 1960's? I know, because they could.

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  • Udo says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post!

    As a German atheist, I've been struggling the whole day with how to put the rage and disappointment that I felt over Ratzinger's speech into words.

    One other thing that struck me was how remarkably in-line the Pope's words are with recent American christian-fundamentalist rhetoric.

  • pascal says:

    A catholic teacher of mine used to call Hitler "der Ver-Führer" [the seducer], which is also a synonym for Satan. He, like many Germans (and he's not that old, maybe 55) of the first post-war generation have the same mindset as Ratzinger about the Nazis, seeing them as some kind of outside force that "took Power" (history lessons usually teach the Hitler-Putsch and Machtergreifung in great detail, but are awfully quiet about his great popular support and the fact that he had actually been democratically elected, before abolishing democracy).

    And in the same way 99% of the people were just victims of the nazis (who apparently grossly misrepresented themselves, causing good non-jew-hating folk to elect them or something), so the churches stylize themselves as victims, which still sticks in public opinion because despite the overwhelming evidence of public church support for the nazis, or at least quietness, a small number of priests were murdered in concentration camps (often without any effort from the church to prevent that), and these two people our teachers knew by name nowadays represent the whole catholic church during nazi times. (at least in my bavarian school)

    • Dianne says:

      are awfully quiet about his great popular support and the fact that he had actually been democratically elected, before abolishing democracy).

      Sort of. If I understand correctly, the Nazi party never got more than about 30% of the popular vote in any election. That was, at the time, a plurality, which led to their being in control of the government and being able to abolish democracy, etc. But that's not the same as being elected by the majority.

  • Happy Camper says:

    Lets not forget that some priests in the catholic church also aided and abetted in the escape of many Nazi war criminals. The RCC is not without blood on its hands in this matter.

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  • Jacabsolute says:

    That Ratzinger: he thinks he's the only troll in the global village.

    (A Little Britain reference for all non UK readers - but please do not complete the line; my imagination does not want to go there, and I hope yours doesn't either.)

    Stigmatizing a group who are capable of critical thinking; now when has that approach been used before?