Monday, April 25, 2005

JEANNE AT BODY AND SOUL has written a substantive, thoughtful, highly nuanced piece on the new Pope's much-publicized ties to the Nazi regime in his youth. Her basic point is that the things Ratzinger did as a teenager that involved him in Hitler's genocidal policies -- like joining the Hitler Youth -- cannot and should not be held against him now. What he should and must be held to account for is his refusal now, still, to acknowledge that he could have resisted, but chose not to. It's not the choices in and of itself that bother Jeanne; it's the denial that those moral choices existed.

In his biography of Ratzinger, John Allen, National Catholic Reporter's Vatican correspondent, notes that Ratzinger has said that resistance to Nazism was "impossible," a word echoed by his brother in the recent Times of London article that revived the issue of the then cardinal's wartime experiences.

Resistance was impossible. I'm sorry, but that's a blatant falsehood. The Times follows with the comments of a woman from Ratzinger's home town:

Some locals in Traunstein, like Elizabeth Lohner, 84, whose brother-in-law was sent to Dachau as a conscientious objector, dismiss such suggestions. “It was possible to resist, and those people set an example for others,” she said. “The Ratzingers were young and had made a different choice.”

John Allen adds that within Ratzinger's "immediate orbit" there were several models of resistance, including Communists, Jehovah's Witnesses and even some Catholics.

Clearly, when Ratzinger and his brother (who is also a priest) say that anti-Nazi resistance was "impossible," they're lying. And it's not an insignificant or harmless lie. Denying the option of resistance insults, indeed, denies the existence of, a lot of people who made far braver and more difficult decisions than the Ratzingers. Failing to exhibit extraordinary courage is human and understandable. Denying the extraordinarily courageous their due is shameful. Denying moral agency is surely unworthy of a man who would be pope.

The Ratzingers lie about this because if they admit that moral choices were involved, they'd have to explain their choice. In fact, I would suggest that anyone who cared about moral agency would recognize the need for self-reflection, for either admitting moral failure, or asserting moral principles. I can think of many possible explanations, but none of them fit well into black and white morality.
My problem with the newly minted pope on this issue is that by lying -- lying, I suspect, as much to himself as to the rest of us -- he cut himself off from understanding the difficult moral choices people face. By lying about it now, he shows that he's still unwilling to face the complexity of moral choice. Whatever understandable lack of physical courage he displayed as a teenager is trumped a thousand times over by moral cowardice today.

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