10A026 Joe Ratzinger by Jim Davies, 9/18/2010

Brits have a couple of things against him. Older ones note that he is German, and speaks English with an accent no caricaturist could possibly thicken, and of course that as a young boy he wore a uniform with a swastika. Those accusations are true but unfair; he can hardly help them. Then everyone (except the faithful in his flock) resents him because he's, well, papist; and the younger generations know that that has to do with sexual repression and perversion in various forms. So this week he's had a cool welcome and a tough sell.

He rose to the challenge rather well, I thought; noting that Britain has grown increasingly impatient with religion, he equated atheism with Nazism. Now, that's feisty! Seriously inaccurate, but feisty. The tables were nicely turned. Turn from your godlessness, or you'll turn into the folk who put that uniform on me and liquidated my Down's-Syndrome cousin.

Here's why he was wrong. The Nazi leaders were, I think, pretty well atheist by the time they acquired power but Hitler was baptized Roman Catholic and sang in the boys' choir at the Roman church in Lambach, Austria. Himmler had a very devout Roman Catholic mother and swore as a teenager he would never turn away from that religion. In any case what made the Nazis so repulsive was that they held so much power, as a government; some of it they were supposedly "given" by voters, much as US politicians can claim to have been given it in elections, and some they took by leveraging what they already had. The whole notion that a voter can give (or delegate) a power (forcibly to take money from his neighbor, for instance, or to direct his children what to learn in school, or to deprive him of work on the basis of his origin) which he absolutely does not own in the first place, is wholly false and fraudulent - yet it prevails, here, today. Not one of those evident facts made it into the Pope's Holyrood speech.

The trouble with the Nazis was not that they were atheist, but that they held the power to govern - along with some particularly nasty ideas about how to do so. Joe said "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" but he was dead wrong; a vision of man as sovereign individual - free, responsible and self-governed, comes not from the self-abnegation of religion but from the freedom to own and operate his own life, soaring to all the heights of achievement of which he is capable.

There's no negative correlation either, between the two. The Nazi defeat in WW-II resulted from Soviet participation, and the Soviets were as atheist as they come. Today there are some decidedly non-atheist rulers in Iran who are weighing whether to execute (or merely to thrash) a woman who two-timed her husband and appeared in public without a hat. Ratzinger's own church, when it had the political power, expelled Jews from Spain much as the Nazis expelled them from Germany, and tortured those who declined to believe what they were told to believe; some of that was done in the very country he is visiting, yet the beliefs his predecessors strove to impose are still held, verbatim, by the present Pope.

We are very fortunate that such bigots no longer hold political power. The day will soon come when nobody holds political power, and human history will enter a new and glorious phase of unprecedented progress.

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