Friday, September 17, 2010

Atheists, Nazis, And The Perfect Society

The Queen Mother with the Holy Father.  Not exactly a traditionally complimentary relationship

British humanists are angered with certain assertions Pope Benedict made yesterday about Nazism and atheism.  Benedict appears to have a very relativistic view as to the true history of the rise of Nazi Germany and the Holy See's part in legitimizing the Third Reich:

"Even in our own lifetimes 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. (As were many other categories of 'sub humans', including gays and gypsies, who are still being persecuted by segments of traditionally Catholic Europe.)  

"As we reflect on the sobering lessons of 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 a reductive vision of a person and his destiny."


How can Pope Benedict overlook the fact that one of the first 'nation states' to recognize and legitimize Hitler's government was the Holy See?  How does he, a German who lived through this period, pretend Hitler came to power as if the Institutional Church opposed him?  Perhaps Benedict is counting on the fact most people aren't familiar with the Church's history with Germany during this period.  I'm not one of those people.  America Magazine ran an article by Robert A Krieg on this topic back in 2003.  It is well worth reading in it's entirety as it deals with a number of concepts which can give some history to all this 'dictatorship of relativism' which Benedict is so worried about.  It's the the very sort of thing his predecessors helped to create in Nazi Germany.  The article also shines some light on how the exact same hierarchical attitudes are still operating the abuse crisis of today.  The following extract deals with the immediate ramifications for Catholicism after the concordat between the Holy See and The Third Reich was ratified by both Hitler and Pius XI in September of 1933:

The Holy See’s concessions included the concordat’s requirement that clergy not engage in political activities and not hold political offices. Bishops were required to swear an oath of loyalty to the Reich and its legally constituted government. The bishops would sponsor only those lay organizations dedicated to charitable works and to social activities of a religious nature. Although it was agreed that a list would specify which organizations were protected under the concordat, this list was never completed. In addition, diocesan newspapers and church-affiliated publishers were left vulnerable to the state’s interference and suppression, because the concordat did not explicitly protect them.  (The concordat also resulted in the suppression of the Catholic Center Party which removed the last real opposition to the Nazi party.  For more interesting reading google Fr. Ludwig Kaas.)

The Concordat of 1933 embodied a problematic theology of the church, for it implicitly reduced the church to an organization concerned solely about a private, otherworldly realm unrelated to the social and political aspects of human life. It devalued the fuller reality of the church expressed in German Catholicism’s rich tradition of social and political activism, as realized in the Kolping Society, the programs of Mainz’s Bishop Wilhelm Ketteler (d. 1877) and the Catholic Center Party. As a result, it lost sight of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) and Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno (1931). Moreover, it cast ambiguity upon the church’s civil autonomy by requiring the bishops’ oath of loyalty to the Reich. 
The concordat was also flawed in its timing and implementation. Cardinal Pacelli signed the agreement too early in the regime’s history, for this treaty gave Hitler the international respectability he craved. The signing of the concordat also demoralized German Catholics, who had stood with their bishops in opposing National Socialism from the early 1920’s until March 28, 1933. On that date the bishops, relying on Hitler’s solemn pledge to make “the two churches [Catholic and Protestant] the cornerstone of our work of national renewal,” rescinded their bans against membership in the Nazi Party. Pius XI and Pacelli may have operated in the best interests of the church as an institution, but they implicitly diminished the church as an advocate of human rights and justice. Here was one of the ill effects of the ecclesiology of perfect society. The metaphor of the church as a medieval castle or a Gothic cathedral so dominated Catholic thought that it lessened the role of the church as a proponent of universal human values as embodied in natural law....

Analyzing the Concordat of 1933, the Rev. John Jay Hughes has rightly observed that “[t]oo much reliance was placed on diplomatic protests; and too little was done to acquaint rank and file Catholics in Germany with the existence and content of these protests and to mobilize them in support of church rights.” Fueling this inadequate implementation of the concordat was the theology of the church as a hierarchical institution. “The fundamental cause of this failure was theological: the view of the church as consisting of a more or less passive laity, an obedient body of pastoral clergy, and a hierarchy that directed and led both laity and clergy, making all decisions in lonely and splendid isolation.”

Kreig places great emphasis on the theology of the time which saw the Church as a perfect society.  As Fr. Hughes states, the institutional view this theology generates is hierarchical with a passive laity, obedient clergy, and a hierarchy that directed and led everyone else from it's lonely and splendid isolation. Their direction was supposed to lead everyone to the personal sanctity and holiness needed to enter the private Catholic heaven.  Vatican II was supposed to have done away with all this nonsense in it's theology of the Church as the People of God. 

I believe one of the driving motivations in the 'reform of the reform' movement, is the return of this theological notion of the Church as the perfect society.  It is the fundamental basis of all the 'new movements' as is perfectly illustrated in the cultic dysfunction in the Legion of Christ and other imitators.  It can also be seen in it's universal application in the hierarchical response to the clerical sexual abuse crisis--protect the instituion at all costs, even if that cost includes it's very reason for existence.  This is why Benedict routinely apologizes from the apex of his splendid isolation, while nothing changes down below him in the institutional aspect of the 'Perfect Society'.  I sometimes wonder if he really believes his papal apologies will magically blind us to the fact he is refusing to deal with the structures, personalities,  and attitudes which created the scandal.

I understand why British humanists are up in arms about these quotes.  These quotes should be challenged, and not just by secular atheists and agnostic humanists, but by Catholics who care about the true history of the Institution.  The theology of the perfect society is far far from perfect.  It's damaging to the laity, the clergy, and the isolated leaders who feel compelled to make one disastrous decision after another in order to protect themselves and their position in this perfect society. It actually promotes a theology of relativism with all things being relative to the hierarchy.  Hence the totality of the German Catholic Church and it's influence in the German culture could be negotiated away in order to protect some of the autonomy of the bishops and the Holy See.   Millions of people died while Catholic bishops wrote secret memos back and forth with the Vatican, their official silence giving the impression the Nazi's were all right by them. 

And yet after this history,  Benedict repeatedly states gay marriage is the biggest threat to civilization.  Maybe in his theological illusion of the mythical perfect clerical culture, but hardly to civilization in the real world. In the real world the Vatican illusion of the perfect society has proven to be the far bigger threat to civilization.  In too many respects it still is.


  1. The Pope appears able to overlook almost anything. He continues to respond in anguish to clerical sexual abuse as if he just found out about it last week, overlooking thirty years in which he had multiple, varied exposures to the Church's problem. This week, he reminded England of her Christian roots, apparently overlooking the blood-soaked ground in which they grew. The most charitable explanation is that no one briefs him or, after being suitably briefed, he overlooks whatever he's been told.

  2. The pope: Shredding logic in just 4 days!

    Another illogical comment is related to his view that people are marginalizing christianity - "even in nations which place a great emphasis on tolerance." (to quote the bbc)

    Hmmmm.... tolerance. The intolerant Vatican is complaining some states are betraying tolerance!

  3. A year or so ago I did a google search on the 1930s in Germany to get a sense of what happened back then politically so as to gain some understanding of what lead up to Hitler gaining power: who were the major players, the parties, the politicians? What were the topics being discussed? What was going on? I began with these basic questions and I ran across Fr. Ludwig Kaas in that brief study. It is a fascinating read.

    All hell really broke loose immediately after the signing of the Concordat and the RCC helped that to happen. It is a fact that a lot of Catholics want to deny. It is a fact that a lot of Catholics can't deny. Some woke up at that point, when the hell broke out in Germany, but it was too late. Democracy was over.

    The Church was more focused on getting deals from the powers in the world for the interest of the administration of the Vatican than in anything else during that period and prior. I wound up having to go further back in history to see what the Church was doing for 50-150 years before that. The Vatican was always bickering with some leader about losing the Papal States and getting properties back from previous wars. That stood out as their main concern, at least from the Vatican.

    From what I can gather about what Pope Benedict sees as the truth of that time is that he does not have the entire truth of that time. He's sort of blocked out major portions of it out. He is sort of stuck in a child-like view of the world. The truth is available to him, but he just doesn't get it yet. He's dead set against people who are pushed to the edge of extinction by economic policies and doesn't like to see them organize against any kind of authority he approves of.

    The Queen seems to get it by the look on her face in the photo. Pope Benedict should hold onto his hat because the winds of change do not wait for those who are late in reading the signs of the times.

    It certainly was not "atheist extremism" that helped Hitler get into power. Interesting he brings up "truncated vision of man and of society" - "a reductive vision of a person and his destiny" which is precisely where his vision is at currently in issues pertaining to gays and women.

    Great read Colleen. Thank you!!

    word verif: visess - vi regression

  4. The era of Hitler has been problematic for the church. The Church very much wants to make Pius XII a saint as he ruled in a time of paternalism that was pleasing to the curia and the bishops especially those recently appointed by the JPII -Ratzy rule. One of the reasons that Pius has not been canonized is that the curia knows that it will injure any friendly relationships with Jewish people and Israel. So Benedict seems to be eschewing much of history to make this era seem different. I wonder what the Jewish people will say to this attempt?

    This is much the same thing the Church does and did with science. This idea of infallibility gives them the means to say to the "faithful" lambs (real catholics) because we say it, it is true and must be believed. Belief becomes part of a faith mandate. People are supposed to adhere to whatever the Pope and the Bishops decree no matter how truthful it is. We are in an era of creeping infallibility (authoritarianism.) This mind set is one of fear and non tolerance. The very root is of these feeling come from the poor leadership of the Church(s).

    No matter what the Pope says as Colleen and Butterfly aptly point out, it doesn’t change history. Pius XII made decisions that were very poor and aided the formation of a stronger Nazism. No matter how much the Vatican disputes this, I’ll bet there will be Jewish and other historians that will speak out. When a Catholic Historian speaks out, will he no longer be Catholic? Many would and will say that she/ he is not a “real Catholic.” The same is true for scientists. This is one of the problems with authoritarian regimes. The Authoritarian deludes himself into believing that he is always correct and takes umbrage to those how do not believe him and then will accuse the historian or scientist of scandal, mistruth, or slander.

    The problem with authoritarianism is that it always decrease tolerance and often leads to violence in society. Let’s hope that the Irish priests and others that are standing up against this regime can be successful enough to change the tide. dennis

  5. Dennis, I have great faith that the Irish are quite capable of saving Western civilization once again, which is why I post on Irish Catholicism a great deal.

    The Polish part of me is quite content with what Polish Catholicism has already accomplished in the demise of communism. I guess this isn't too surprising since historically both cultures have been over run and over run by neighbors and other cultures. They have been through the crucible of history and managed to retain the best of their identities. They aren't the only ones, just the most prominent of the European ones.

  6. What scares me are the political parallels between Germany just before the Nazi takeover and the present state of the United States, and that many Americans are either politically passive or get politically active from swallowing the untruths they hear from Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Fox News. Butterfly is right about the political scene in Germany as a result of the Vatican concordat with Nazi Germany. The Vatican reached a similar concordat with Mussolini's Italy in 1929. Between 1870 and 1929, the Vatican demonstrated an unmitigated hostility toward the secular government of unified Italy and the popes during that period were aptly said to have "sulked in the Vatican." Pius XII became Pope in 1939 (after the concordat with Nazi Germany) and he was personally far more concerned about Communism than Fascism. Pius XII, while still Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, had a close relationship with Germany, as he had served as a Vatican diplomat there, and spoke fluent German. The Catholic clergy had some members who sided completely with the Nazi regime, like the priests documented in Kevin Spicer's "Hitler's Priests" and others like Father Bernard Lichtenberg, who spoke out against the Nazi persecution of Germany's Jews and found himself arrested and sent to Dachau. Fr. Lichtenberg died en route to imprisonment at Dachau.

    I think it would be an extremely bad move for the Church to canonize Pius XII or John Paul II.

  7. butterfly, that was an OUTSTANDING comment! Kudos!

    You are so hopeful... saying he hasn't recognized it "yet" - may your words become true... May the "yet" yet happen! (though honestly I am not so hopeful...) So, while I have little hope for the pope, I have faith in you!

  8. By the way, butterfly, I think the pope is unable to see what happened under Hitler because he is busy following the same "philosophy" of ruling. See here for a summary:

    (It's no longer at TPM, because the Cafe Reader blogs closed... but I've saved it at my "digest" of my TPM blogs.)

    Her Majesty, whose parents devoted their lives to resistance to Nazism and fascism, might well be thinking, "We are not amused!"

  10. That's funny, and maybe a little true.