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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Papal Fallibility

On April 19, 2005, I sat at table with professors and friends-of-professors after speaking at the Holocaust Lecture Series sponsored by Sonoma State University. I was still on an adrenaline high. The "lecture" had gone well, the students had asked really intelligent questions, I had gotten to meet Edith Stein's still-Jewish niece. And the people gathered at the Holocaust Lecture Series' Stammtisch at a Chinese restaurant were the best of the best. Conversation was that delicious combo platter of lighthearted and serious.

There was even an African-American woman who had grown up near Houston. Like me, she had left Texas as things became less and less pleasant. We commiserated over the loss of a truly great place to live, a place where integration was voluntary, where we knew and loved politicians like LBJ, Lloyd Bentsen, and Sissy Farenthold. We wondered what had happened, how Texas had become the land of hate crimes, a place where the state GOP declared that the United States was a Christian country, why schools that had been fully and voluntarily integrated in the 1960s were now places where the n-word is liberally used. The only liberal thing left in the state, except maybe Molly Ivins.

"Did you hear about the new pope?" her husband suddenly asked.

I had not, since part of my preparations for a lecture or conference include a pretty firm "no TV" rule the day of. Who? When?

My heart sank when he answered. It's not that I don't think German clerics should be pope. I just don't think this one has any business being involved in setting policy, procedure, doctrine, traditions, practice, or anything else within the Catholic church. Much less being installed as pope.

His whitewash of his days under Hitler not only represent severe distortion of the truth, but in cleaning up his own act, he dishonors the many Germans who did in fact stand up for justice and freedom. His claim that he joined Hitler Youth because he had to? Please.

To be sure, young boys (and girls) were under tremendous pressure to join that organization. And after a while, non-Hitler Youth clubs except for Catholic clubs organized for Bible study and prayer were outlawed. In fact, they were outlawed several times, and enforcement ranged from nonexistent to more severe crackdowns over time.

But here and there, boys and girls ~ mere children ~ did in fact have the backbone and courage of their convictions, and refused to join. Their refusal usually if not always brought them beatings. They were societal outcasts. My very first German teacher told us how she hated her father (who was part of the July 20, 1944 resistance), because he would not let her join BDM, the girls' version of Hitler Youth. As a non-member, she had no friends. Life was very, very hard indeed.

Among the White Rose members and those loosely affiliated with it, there are several brilliant examples of students who did not join Hitler Youth, and who paid dearly. Otl Aicher did not join, and because he was of small stature, he was the repeated target of HY bullies who often left him bloodied. But proud. His friend Lilli Holl did not join BDM at a time when Inge (and Hans and Sophie) Scholl tried to beef up membership through cruel and unusual measures. Lilli was beaten with a whip and attacked by a mob, and she did not join.

Nor did Willi Graf, whose father was a founding member of the NSDAP in the Saarland. Willi crossed out names of friends who did join HY and kept to those who would not back down. Heinrich Guter in Ulm applied for membership in Jungvolk (the younger boys' version of HY), but he was turned down because his attitudes were known to be too anti-Nazi. And Heinrich Guter ~ younger than most of the White Rose students by a good 8 - 10 years ~ was about the same age as this pope.

In reality, this pope was given an opportunity unlike any of his predecessors, bar none. His first (or second, or third) day in office, he could have said, Yes, I was part of the Third Reich, and I chose to be. But I repent of my actions and I solemnly pledge to do everything in my power to bring in unsurpassed openness, to bring about healing and restoration, to ensure that the Holocaust and my Church's role in it never happen again.

But he did not.

It's not too late. He can recant his earlier statements and start afresh. As I understand Catholic theology, papal infallibility applies solely to his rulings regarding church doctrine. He is not a deity, he is not a saint, he is not sinless. So he can indeed recant. If he chooses to.

To be effectual, such a recantation must be followed by an immediate opening of church archives, especially regarding documents pertaining to the Third Reich. It is shameful indeed when a religious organization (or any organization or individual, for that matter) claims innocence or purity in a specific matter, then refuses to grant access to documents that can prove or disprove those statements.

The new pope might want to start by reinstating the German texts of Mit brennender Sorge and the Christmas 1942 German speech ~ oft cited by sycophants of Pope Pius XII in faulty English translation ~ to the Vatican Web site. Both used to be there. Both are now gone. Because the original German made it clear that Pope Pius XII was most concerned with protecting church assets and Jews who had converted to Catholicism. To hell with everything and everyone else.

Sadly, this pope's refusal ~ along with his church's refusal in general ~ to address the church's incestuous relationship with Hitler and the NSDAP obfuscates the very real resistance that was carried out by many Catholic (and Lutheran) clerics. The ones like Pater Weiss in Ulm who taught their charges that Nazi hate was wrong? They are the ones who deserve beatification, who should be honored and revered among Catholics worldwide, indeed among all who cherish liberty and justice. Writers like Johannes Maassen who fruitlessly called his church to stop its whoring with the Nazis? His words should be studied in every parochial school and seminary.

But as long as church leaders pretend it didn't happen, pretend everyone did what was right, pretend that the pope then ~ and the pope now ~ had the courage everyone wishes they had had?

As long as that is the case, true heroes continue to go unrecognized, and young Germans, young Americans, young Catholics ~ young Jews ~ go on with nothing solid to hang their hats on. The problem of celebrity is hardly limited to sports. If religious leaders feast on celebrity and not real heroes, their disciples will die of starvation.

It's time that papal scholars faced the hard, cold truth. That is, if their religion is to have any meaning worth living for.

~ Ruth Hanna Sachs

July 28, 2005: Changed the name of this essay from "Papal Sycophancy" to "Papal Fallibility," since that better reflects its intent. I wish to stress, underline, and shout from the rooftops that this essay is not a diatribe against the Catholic church. (I would have reacted exactly the same way had the woman claimed that the Lutheran, Baptist, or Methodist churches had practiced resistance. The Holocaust was enabled by a colossal failure of organized "religion" to act.) It is, however, a call to more openness, more transparency, more honesty.

I would like to challenge the new Pope to be painfully candid about what he did during the Third Reich. Steps in that direction have been made without him, by (for example) the playwrights of Oberammergau who've taken extraordinary measures to rid the 300+ year-old Passion Play of its anti-Semitic overtones.

It's time for the Church to quit pretending that its leaders from 1933-1945 were saints. Honor those men and women of the church who did in fact die for the courage of their convictions.

Beatify them, the Franz Weisses and Johannes Maassens. Teach children about their heroism.
If that were to happen, can you imagine the wave of healing and peace that could sweep across the land?
~ RHS.

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