At Large

Rebutting the Professor

In defense of what Pope Benedict said during his visit to Auschwitz.

By 6.9.06

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UNC law professor and blogger Eric Muller took strong exception to what the Pope said at Auschwitz on May 28.

Muller's argument, which earned a collegial link from InstaPundit, is interesting if not always informed, so I thought I'd present its salient points, together with my own observations and the more astute comments from people who visited his essay and took time to observe what he did not.

Muller starts with an ad hominem gambit, which to a guy like me is tantamount to shouting "en garde!"

His jibe:

When the white smoke told the world that Josef Ratzinger had been elected pope, it took some of us a moment or two to get our minds around the idea that the College of Cardinals had elevated a childhood member of the Hitler Youth to one of the world's leading positions of moral leadership.

That Muller in the next sentence acknowledges that Ratzinger had been "no teenaged Nazi" does not dilute the weapons-grade disdain of that opening salvo. You'd never know from Muller's essay that young Ratzinger had been an unwilling Hitler Youth, or that he later deserted from the German army into which he had been conscripted.

Muller's main disappointment with the Pope's Auschwitz statement is that for him (and, to be fair, for a few others as well), it implies that Benedict's understanding of the Nazi chapter of modern German history "does not even rise to the level of the ordinary," and this because (Muller says) "Ratzinger is out at the self-absolving fringes of his generation on the question of German responsibility for the crimes of the Third Reich."

Ignorant fecklessness is an especially provocative charge to level at a moral and spiritual leader whom more than a billion people esteem as a shepherd of souls and successor to Peter, but there's more. Muller also claims that the Pope "proved himself incapable of understanding the Holocaust as a crime against the Jews."

Muller knows how to build an argument, and in support of his main thesis, he goes on to assert that Benedict wrongly sees Nazi motivation as essentially theological rather than grounded in bogus racial "science." Certainly Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels were not theologians (they weren't scientists, either), but that does not mean that their National Socialism cannot be viewed theologically. That a scholarly Pope might view history through a theological lens, or that bogus science is frequently justified by appeals to equally bogus metaphysics, seems not to have occurred to Muller.

The law professor took particular umbrage at this statement of the Pope's, reading it as a gross misappropriation: "By destroying Israel, they [the Nazis] ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful."

By "Israel," of course, the Pope meant not the country, which did not then exist, but the Jewish people.

PHILOSEMITIC CHRISTIANS UNDERSTAND those words as an acknowledgement of the importance of the Jews as God's chosen people, from whom came not only Divine (Mosaic) Law but also and ultimately Jesus as well. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus once put it this way: "In the shadow of the Holocaust, it is both morally imperative and good manners to emphasize the linkage between Judaism and Christianity. But much more is involved than a moral imperative, and certainly much more than good manners. It simply is not possible to understand the Christian story apart from its placement in the Jewish story."

Muller, however, sees insult where none was intended, lamenting the alleged "degradation" of identifying Judaism as the taproot of Christianity, as though the effort to eliminate Judaism from the world were not "a complete crime in itself."

That the Pope also had the temerity to mention Edith Stein, aka Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, gave Muller fits. Benedict's notice of the apparent serenity with which Stein went to the gas chamber is interpreted by Muller as disrespectful of the many Jews who died along with her without first converting to Christianity.

It was John Paul II who asserted that Sister Benedicta belonged in the canon of Christian saints, but Muller gives that beloved son of Poland a victims' pass, drawing his rhetorical sword only because John Paul's German (oppressor) successor had the "effrontery" to remember Stein where she was killed, and then echo centuries of Christian teaching on the meaning of a sacrificial death. This, for Miller, is beyond the pale. One can't help but wonder what he makes of the equally problematic spiritual journey undertaken by a first-century Pharisee named Paul of Tarsus.

Muller's overheated rhetoric is as much to be giggled at as rebutted. In this as in so many other contexts, some of us think fondly of William Goldman's script for The Princess Bride. Pope Benedict does not by any chance have six fingers on his right hand, which is why I and others must play Dread Pirate Roberts to Muller's Inigo Montoya. The law professor is a skilled polemicist, but to his gleeful cry of "You're using Bonetti's defense against me, eh?" the rejoinder from the rest of us is that it's not Bonetti's defense, it's Benedetto's, and it's fitting, "considering the rocky terrain."

MULLER'S REACTION DOES NOT HAVE the sobriety or depth of, for example, Christopher Blosser's must-read post on the same subject. Blosser gets even the little things right, citing one European report from Deutsche-Welle noting that "Pope Benedict 'shattered a taboo in the often-blighted relationship between Christians and Jews by using his native German language' to pray for Jewish-Christian reconciliation."

Some of the comments left by others on Muller's blog were equally deft. There was snark ("Ratzinger got a rainbow at his speech -- what happened when you typed this?") and substance:

The Nazis did, in fact, intend to replace all religion with a divine devotion to the State, the Volk, and the Fuhrer. Whether the Pope is correct in his assertion that this was the ultimate reason for the Nazis' oppression of Jews is debatable (and certainly incorrect if offered as an a priori reason), but it does not appear to me that your characterization is a fair one.

A Jewish reader offered this thoughtful perspective:
I read the Pope's remarks as trying to clarify what an affront to the Christian religion the Holocaust was, in Christian terms. This necessitates a Christian-centric view of, well, everything, but so what? This is a Christian talking to other Christians. They have as much right to struggle with what the Holocaust means in terms of their religion as we Jews do.

One person chastised Muller for the narrowness of his empathy by pointing to pastoral reasons that probably guided the pope's thought:
If, as he says, reconciliation is a goal (and I have little cause to doubt this), then perhaps he's thinking it will be easier to obtain reconciliation with the German people when he's not concentrating on whipping them, again, with the sins of their fathers.

A reader named Dwight was impatient with Muller's sneering at "the touch of anger and disappointment that lingers in Ratzinger's account of the Nazis' rise to power." Dwight's piquant rejoinder implies a potent mixture of self-awareness and common sense: "If I had watched my entire nation thrown down into madness, despotism, and fire by a group of lying bastards, I suspect I'd be pretty angry and disappointed, too."

Not to be outdone, a reader named Jason offered a summary of this contretemps that I cannot myself improve upon:

I think the pope may have spoken inartfully at times to the Jewish ear -- but the Jewish ear listens for very different things than the devout Catholic ear. This difference is especially huge when it's a secular Jew listening to a decidedly unsecular Pope.

Amen to that.

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.