Sunday, April 24, 2005

Passive Resistance 

The blogosphere is atwitter because the Observer "obtained" a letter, sent by Cardinal Ratzinger to Catholic bishops worldwide, asserting the right of the church to direct, in secret, all investigations pertaining to the sexual abuse of children by priests. Lawyers for abuse victims are already charging that the church policy constitutes obstruction of justice:
'Cases of this kind are subject to the pontifical secret,' Ratzinger's letter concludes. Breaching the pontifical secret at any time while the 10-year jurisdiction order is operating carries penalties, including the threat of excommunication.
The outrage is slightly belated, as loyal Zemblans who click through on the links already know, because the AP reported on Ratzinger's letter back in January of 2002, after it was published in the 2001 yearbook of Vatican documents.

But what's past is past, and now that Ratzinger is Benedict XVI, rehabilitation efforts are well underway: a column in tomorrow's New York Times suggests that the new pope's "approach to this issue may be evolving," although the argument is clearly based more on hope than on evidence. And an AP article released yesterday addresses another major P.R. concern by attempting to recast the former Hitler youth as a sort of resistance fighter manque, heroic in spirit, if not in word or deed. Given the tepid anecdotes they have to work with, writers David Rising and Matt Surman do their damnedest to make chicken salad:
Blinds drawn, windows closed, Joseph Ratzinger huddled with his father and older brother around a radio and listened to Allied radio broadcasts, volume on low.

It was a small and risky act of defiance in this conservative Bavarian village deep inside Adolf Hitler's Germany. But the father wanted his sons to know the truth about the Nazis and World War II, says Georg Ratzinger, who like his brother drew strength from the Catholic Church.

''It was strictly forbidden. Anyone who was caught would be sent to the concentration camps, so we did it secretively," Georg Ratzinger told The Associated Press. ''The German news was not true and he wanted to hear from the foreign services what was really happening" . . . .

''We weren't in it to start with, but with the beginning of the obligatory Hitler Youth in 1941 my brother was enrolled as was required," [Cardinal Ratzinger] recalled [in a memoir]. ''I was too young but later was enrolled into it from the seminary."

Benedict implies it was the school that did the enrolling, but he doesn't make it clear.

He said he tried to avoid Hitler Youth meetings, creating a dilemma. He needed proof of attendance to get a tuition discount, which his father -- a retired policeman -- badly needed. So he finessed it, according to his book.

''Thank God, there was a math teacher who understood. He was himself a Nazi party member, but an honest man who told me, 'Just go so we have it,"' he recalled. ''But when he saw that I simply didn't want to, he said: 'I understand, I'll take care of it.' And so I was free of it" . . . .

Being sent to a concentration camp for not joining the Hitler Youth would have been an ''extreme" punishment, but ''it was very difficult for youth who didn't join, and they could be ostracized," Muehldorfer said. ''It doesn't mean they were enthusiastic about the Nazis."

In 1943, at age 16, Joseph Ratzinger was called up along with his entire seminary class to work as a helper for anti-aircraft batteries, which defended a BMW plant and later an aircraft factory at Oberpfaffenhofen, where the first German jet fighters were produced.

In 1944, he was forced into the country's compulsory civil service and sent to dig anti-tank ditches on the Austrian-Hungarian border.

He recounts his work group being awakened in the middle of the night and pressured to join the Waffen SS, the combat units of the Nazi Party's elite guard. "An SS officer had each one come forward and tried, by parading each one in front of the group, to force 'volunteer' enlistments," he wrote in another autobiographical book, "Memoirs 1927-1977."

Some signed up in "this criminal group. I had the luck to be able to say that I had the intent to become a Catholic priest. We were sent away with scorn and insults" . . . .

With the German army collapsing and the end of the war just days away, he deserted in April or May of 1945 -- he said he can't remember the exact date. He knew he could be killed by SS fanatics, who continued to shoot or hang soldiers found out of uniform up until the end of the war.

Sneaking home by a roundabout way, he was stopped by two soldiers as he emerged from under a train overpass. ''For a moment, the situation was extremely critical for me," he remembered. But the soldiers ''were ones who, thank God, had had enough of war" and let him go, treating him as wounded because he had his arm in a sling.

Tuchel, the director of the German Resistance Memorial in Berlin, said that even in wartime Germany young men like Ratzinger could find quiet ways to defy authority.

''There is always a choice. You have to go into the Hitler Youth, but then it is your decision if you are going to be an active member," Tuchel said. ''You have to go into the labor service, but it's your decision if you're very active. ... You had no choice to go into the army, but it is your decision how long you stay."
So, to recap the article, young Ratzinger:
And that's basically it. The less-than-stirring items above, plus a couple of reminiscences from elderly neighbors ("very industrious," "certainly not for Hitler"), are all they could slap together to justify the ludicrous headline:

"New Pope Defied Nazis As Teen During WWII."

Now Yr. Mst. Bnvlnt. Dspt., despite his other sterling qualities (and they are legion), possesses but the teeeeeeninesiest of heroic streaks, and fully recognizes that the young pope-to-be was caught up in circumstances that were not of his own making. His early years do not exactly rate a Profile in Moral Courage, but then neither do ours, and we would never presume to judge him on that basis.

There is, however, something we must judge him for, and Roz Kaveny (in a piece recommended by O.R.C. Avedon Carol) explains what it is:
Apologists are rightly saying that membership [in the Hitler youth] was compulsory at the time and to have refused would have been to condemn himself at thirteen to serious consequences. No one can retrospectively ask that of a person, his apologists say.

And the simple answer is, of course not. And the more complicated answer is that, when you let someone off the hook like this, you have to ask certain other questions about what that implies. Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict, is a man with a lot of intransigent positions about faith and morals which he believes to be absolute and non-negotiable truths. Many of those positions have real world consequences which condemn a lot of thirteen-year-olds male and female to various sorts of misery and death. If, say, the use of condoms or the absolute wrongness of homosexuality or quietism in the face of oppressive fascist regimes, rather than forming political alliances with Communists, are non-negotiable positions, then so is giving passive consent to the rule of the Nazi party at a point when it was engaged in the Holocaust. As he is so fond of pointing out to the rest of us, we cannot pick and choose and the duty to bear witness to absolute truth is incumbent on all of us at all times.
UPDATE (via our distinguished colleague Jerome Doolittle of Bad Attitudes): From an NYT report on the Vatican inquiry into charges of abuse by Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, quashed by Ratzinger in 1999, reopened by Ratzinger in 2004:
Mr. Barba and seven other former members of the Rome-based Legion, most of them Mexicans, first lodged a formal complaint with the Vatican in 1998, maintaining that Father Maciel had sexually abused them when they were students ages 10 to 16. Some said Father Maciel, a charismatic man who was highly successful at fund-raising, contended that he had permission from Pope Pius XII to engage in sex acts in order to relieve stomach pain.

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