Politics & Policy

Sin’s The Thing

What Benedict XVI learned in the shadows of the Nazis.

In the media coverage of the election of Pope Benedict XVI, a number of commentators have mentioned that the young Josef Ratzinger grew up in Nazi Germany. It was a motif of John Paul II’s biography that growing up under the Nazis and the Communists influenced his theology and outlook, encouraging him, for example, to place the dignity of the human person at the center of his theological agenda. So it is natural to ask of the new pope whether his experience under the Nazis affected his theological outlook. Not to suggest that his experience with fascism taught him how to be a hard-line enforcer of Catholic orthodoxy–that line of thinking is beneath contempt. But whether having seen totalitarianism as a youth gave him an intellectual agenda comparable to that of his predecessor.

On PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Gwen Ifill asked just this question of Bernd Schaefer, a research fellow at the German Historical Institute. Amazingly, Schaefer denied that Ratzinger was influenced by his experience with the Nazis in any serious way. Instead, in Schaefer’s narrative, Ratzinger’s life was determined by a rejection of the reforms of Vatican II and horror at the reaction to the turmoil in the Church that followed it:

He had an extraordinary career as an academic theologian in the ’60s when he was pro-Vatican II; he was one of the experts at the council, and later on in the late ’60s he got really turned off by the ‘68 movement, social movement but also by the theology and all the problems it brought to the church. And I think from then on he really developed a rather pessimistic view of the reforms of the Vatican, Second Vatican Council and all the implications.

This finally led him to a rather doctrinal narrow path, which shaped his career for the second half of his biography, particularly when he went to Rome in ‘81. And it’s not surprising when you look at the Ratzinger of the late ’60s, that the experiences he had there I think shaped basically his entire life and brought him to that point where he is now.

Thus the standard liberal biography will probably be that, unlike his predecessor–who courageously stood up to totalitarianism and was a champion of the open Church of the Council–Ratzinger went from being a pro-Vatican II liberal, a colleague of Hans Küng at Tübingen, to being an anti-Vatican II reactionary, who brought Küng under Vatican discipline.

In a follow-up, Ifill tried to get Schaefer to answer the original question, but he wouldn’t deviate from his biography:

GWEN IFILL: And both he and Pope John Paul were also shaped by their experience there in World War II in some ways?

BERND SCHAEFER: Maybe yes, because they are basically, they had some experience on the world, but I wouldn’t say that actually shaped them to this extent. It’s quite different if you look at the Polish pope and at young Ratzinger during World War II in Germany.

And he goes on to repeat his story about the former liberal who became a pessimist after the Council.

There’s a deeper answer to this question, however–one that touches on what has already become a theme of Benedict XVI’s papacy. That answer is that the ills of western Europe today have the same cause, and the same solution, as during World War II. It seems crazy to think that a man who heard the call to the priesthood during the heart of World War II did not see in his vocation at least the beginnings of an answer to the problems of his day.

A Wall Street Journal editorial Wednesday quotes Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977, in which the future pope recounts how the Church seemed to him to be the antidote to the poisons corrupting Europe: “Despite many human failings, the Church was the alternative to the destructive ideology of the Nazis. In the inferno that had swallowed up the powerful, she had stood firm with a force coming to her from eternity. It had been demonstrated: The gates of hell will not prevail against her.” What was it about the Church that offered a young German boy such hope? I want to suggest that, ironically enough, it was in large part the Church’s teaching about sin.

In a radio address in 1940, Pius XII claimed that “the sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin.” This diagnosis has been repeated and emphasized by all the popes of the late 20th century, none more forcefully than John Paul II. The sense of sin, argued John Paul II in his 1984 apostolic exhortation Reconciliation and Penance, is related to the sense of God; likewise, the secular humanist attempt to develop a morality and way of life that makes no reference to God will also force man to lose his sense of sin.

The new pope was a teenager when Pius gave his radio address (he expressed his desire to enter the priesthood the following year). He was also a collaborator with John Paul II on Reconciliation and Penance. In an interview with the German journalist Peter Seewald, published in 2000 as God and the World, then Cardinal Ratzinger repeated this theme: “Being incapable of acknowledging guilt is the most dangerous form of spiritually arrested development one can imagine, because this in particular makes people incapable of improvement.”

But then the future pope connected this by-now-familiar observation with his firsthand knowledge of the Nazi agenda. Psychologists remind us that it can be bad to feel overburdened with guilt, of course, “but it is worse to extinguish the capacity for recognizing guilt, because man then becomes inwardly hardened and sick…That was what was intended by Nazi education. They thought they were even able to commit murder, as Himmler expressed it, and still remain respectable–and thereby they were deliberately trampling on human conscience and mutilating man himself.”

What Pius XII diagnosed as the sin of the 20th century–the loss of a sense of personal guilt and sin–Benedict XVI thinks helped make great evil seem so ordinary. This is the theological solution to Hannah Arendt’s puzzle about how such boring bureaucrats as Himmler and Eichmann could bring about the Holocaust. The Nazis taught, repeatedly and in numerous different ways, that there is no God, no sin, and no personal guilt. Relentless propaganda made it easy for people to avoid feeling guilty, and, since everyone was complicit, nobody was made to answer for his sins.

In this regard, the consumerism and relativism of the West can be just as dangerous as the totalitarianism of the East: It’s just as easy to forget about God while dancing to an iPod as while marching in a Hitler Youth rally. There’s a difference, to be sure, but hardly anyone would contest the observation that in elite Western society, as in totalitarian Germany, the moral vocabulary has been purged of the idea of sin. And if there’s no sense of sin, then there’s no need for a Redeemer, or for the Church.

I think that, for the new pope, the 1968 protests in Europe and the sharp decline in those partaking of the sacrament of confession in the Church after Vatican II made it clear that the sense of sin was breaking down among Western liberal Christians just as it had for Western liberal Germans between the wars. If there’s going to be a theological key to this papacy, I would locate it here.

Much of the chatter before the conclave suggested that the cardinals ought to elect a third-world pope, because the future of the Church was not in a secularized Europe but in the growing regions of Latin America and Africa. In his two homilies before the conclave, the future Pope Benedict XVI seemed to agree that the secularization of Europe was a real problem for the Church, that “a dictatorship of relativism” has taken control of Catholicism’s historic home. In so quickly rallying around the man who, more than any other in the Church, is identified with a developed and public critique of Western European mores, the College of Cardinals were sending a message: The Church is not giving up on the modern West. It seems fair to read this message too in the name taken by the new pope: that of St. Benedict, the patron saint of Europe, the founder of Western monasticism, whose followers preserved classical culture through the Dark Ages after the decadence and fall of Rome. Having seen the long shadows that a guilt-free Europe once cast, the new Pope Benedict can be expected to remind us all of the great responsibilities that accompany the historic freedoms we in the West enjoy.

Daniel P. Moloney is a lecturer in the Politics Department at Princeton University and a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute.

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