'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Mendacious Pope, Revisited 

After his death, people, when asked to describe the essential characteristics of Pope Benedict, will emphasize his dishonesty:

The Vatican played down Pope Benedict's teenage membership of the Hitler Youth Tuesday after it was highlighted by Jewish critics of remarks he made about the Holocaust during his continuing visit to Israel.

An official spokesman withdrew an initial statement that the German-born pope had "never, never, never" been in the Hitler Youth after reporters pointed out that Benedict himself had said he was -- in a 1996 book on the then cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger.

Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, revised his statement to say that the pope had been signed up against his will and did not take an active part in the Nazi Youth movement.

"He was enrolled involuntarily into the Hitler Youth but he had no active participation," Lombardi said. "The Hitler Youth is not a significant experience in his life because he was not an active participant. It was just something that was done."

You'd think that the Vatican would have figured out how to deal with this by now, after all, the notion that resistance to Nazis was impossible, as asserted by Benedict's brother, has never been very persuasive:

There is absolutely no reason to think that Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, is now or has ever been secretly a Nazi. Nothing he has ever said or done even remotely suggests the slightest sympathy with any of the basic Nazi ideas or goals. Any claim that he is a Nazi is implausible at best. However, that is not the end of the story.

While Ratzinger was not a Nazi in the past and Benedict XVI is not a Nazi now, there is more than enough reason to question his handling of his past. It appears that he hasn’t been honest with others — and probably not honest with himself — about what he did and what he could have done.

It’s simply not true that resistance was impossible at the time. Difficult, yes; dangerous, yes. But not impossible. John Paul II participated in anti-Nazi theater performances in Poland, yet there is no evidence of Joseph Ratzinger even doing this much.

Ratzinger may have done more than many others to resist, but he also did far less that some. It’s certainly understandable that he wouldn’t have had the courage to do more and, were he any average person, that would be the end of the story. But he isn’t an average person, is he? He’s the pope, a person who is supposed to be the successor of Peter, head of the Christian Church, and symbol of unity for all Christendom.

You don’t have to be morally perfect to hold such a position, but it’s not unreasonable to expect such a person to have come to terms with their moral failings, even the moral failings that occurred in youth when we don’t usually expect a great deal. It was an understandable mistake or failing not to do more against the Nazis, but still a failing that he hasn’t come to terms with — it sounds rather like he is in denial. In a sense, he has yet to repent; yet he was still considered the best of all the candidates for the papacy.

Through the selection of Benedict, the Church highlighted obedience to authority instead of a willingness to challenge injustice. Someone like Benedict, someone who acquiesced to the power of those bent upon the most horrific atrocities, was considered a superior candidate for Pope than someone who had displayed a willingness to confront it at great personal risk.

Not surprisingly, Benedict, despite his professed opposition to the war in Iraq, received Bush at the Vatican, taking him on an unprecendented tour of the Vatican Gardens. By making deference to authority a primary consideration in the selection of a Pope, the Church now finds itself embroiled in one embarassment after another, embarrassments frequently associated, as here, with a deliberate misrepresentation of the historical record. Or even worse, attempts to show the Church off to advantage by playing upon bigotry against the practitioners of other religions.

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