Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict XVI, aka Papa Ratzi has stumbled from one gaffe to the next during his misbegotten five-year reign. His mandate is considered from heaven, but for those critical of the Vatican his error-prone pontificate is manna from heaven. Let’s count the snafus.
In a 2006 lecture, there was Benedict’s ill-advised citing of a 14th century Byzantine emperor who said Muhammad had brought the world only “evil,” provoking widespread criticism, particularly from Muslims. Then there was his reinstatement, later reversed, of an excommunicated bishop who questioned the historical validity of the Holocaust. And, of course, a host of questions surround Benedict’s role dating back decades relating to the Church’s child abuse scandal.
Now comes this: while visiting the United Kingdom, Benedict said that atheism led to the Holocaust. Speaking before the Queen and a host of dignitaries at an ornate palace in Edinburgh, the Pontiff pontificated, “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.”
Putting aside the callousness of his indictment of secularism in one of the world’s most secular countries, which, as Benedict noted, bravely fought Nazi aggression (at great cost), is there any truth to his linking anthiesm with the crimes of the Third Reich?
The allegation is not new. Critics of atheism occasionally point out that three of the last century’s most brutal autocrats, Hitler, Mao, and Stalin, did not believe in God, as if their lack of religious faith was somehow responsible for their tyranny. It’s a curious charge given that it is likely that more people have been slaughtered in the name of God than any other cause in the last few millennia. A causal link between religiosity and violence is rarely made, however.
As problematic is the notion of Nazi atheism, a gross simplification. The Nazi regime sought to control the church, not eradicate it. Indeed, Hitler, a baptized Catholic like much of the Nazi brass, once said, “My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter…As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice.” He meant it. The phrase “Gott Mit Uns” (God is with us) appeared on the belt buckles of Nazi soldiers.
The Nazi Party platform also affirmed Christianity as a positive source of traditional values, in contrast to secular ones that were seen as flourishing under the Weimar Republic in the interwar years. As such, many devout Germans embraced Nazism. So did much of the church hierarchy, a fact that the Catholic Church, Benedict included, has never come clean on. But there is more to the story.
Nazism’s hateful harvest was made possible precisely because it had been fertilized by two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism. The compulsory wearing of yellow identification, confiscation of property, forced ghettoization, and outright extermination of Jews all had Christian antecedents. Nazi anti-Semitism, therefore, piggybacked on Christian anti-Semitism. The latter is by no means ancient history, either. The Catholic Church officially repudiated the charge of Jewish responsibility for Christ’s death (could there be a worse crime than killing God?) belatedly in 1965!
Blaming the Holocaust on atheism, then, should be seen for what it is: a diversionary tactic that allows questions about the Catholic Church’s role during the Third Reich to go unexamined. That the Vatican has not allowed records from the period to be seen by outside experts, particularly those relating to Pope Pius XII, who never explicitly spoke out against Hitler or excommunicated any Nazi (though some like genocide architect Adolf Eichmann were even given the Church’s last rights) only raises suspicions. In one way, though, Papa Ratzi’s actions make sense.
The Catholic Church offers its adherents salvation. But because salvation is not tangible, unlike, say, a toaster, its value depends on the reputation of its provider. So reputation must be preserved at all cost. Which is why that which undermines the brand, including complicity in genocide and sexual abuse, must be denied to the end. And so they are.
Unfortunately, the Vatican chose a serial blunderer as its head instead of a leader who, following Catholic tradition, confessed the Church’s sins. As a result, little light is shed on areas of embarrassment before Papa Ratzi coughs up another howler. Catholics deserve better.