Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Church of Rome and the Nazis

What is my point in beating this dead horse? First and foremost, the horse isn't dead. In the End of Faith, Sam Harris pointed out the incredible fact that not a single person was excommunicated from the Catholic Church as a result of the Holocaust. Not a single one! That there exists this pattern of behavior is far worse than one person (Hitler) having been Catholic, though my recent observations thereon have yielded the usual quibbling; e.g., Hitler wasn't Catholic because he hadn't gone to church much since 1934 (I guess bin Laden isn't Muslim then either). There were also the usual outcries that atheists are fundamentalists. Yes, I'm fundamentally against innocent people being executed en masse. I'm willing to condemn that categorically. You got me there!

The point is this: any organization which claims that it is the office of God on Earth, and therefore the source for true morality, should not be surprised that its actions are held up to close scrutiny. To that end, I'm not even making an argument that there was institutional support for fascism in the Church - though, it bears pointing out, John Paul II and Benedict both admitted (a little too late) at least to sins of omission in this regard. That the Vatican disliked this or that particular aspect of Naziism is not quite enough to restore moral confidence in the Church. The point is that the highest-ranking representatives of God on this planet - that is, Popes Pius XI and XII - clearly knew of the positions and later the deliberate actions of some of their high officials, and reacted in ways that might be called morally inadequate.

How so? To take one example: Austrian bishop Alois Hudal was not just a Nazi sympathizer - after the war he actively helped Nazis escape. Granted, Pius XI found his vocal support for the Nazis problematic. So what did the Pope do to Hudal? Did he fire him, excommunicate him, condemn his crimes? No - he even let him stay in the Vatican! Ah - but he isolated him.



Bishop Alois Hudal.


Remember mid-September 2001, when the United States demanded that the Taliban government of Afghanistan turn over Osama bin Laden? Not surprisingly, the Taliban leader Mullah Omar refused. But do you remember what he said? Clumsily playing a game of not selling out the man who supported his theocratic government while simultaneously trying to placate the country whose bombers were fueling up at that very moment, Omar said he had taken bin Laden's fax machine away. Yes, really.

Now this kind of political equivocating might make sense in an organization about to be pulverized by the U.S. Air Force, or surrounded by Axis powers. Unless of course that organization was headed by the most powerful being in the universe, against whose might cruise missiles and Panzers are useless. Right? Even ignoring that particular problem for the moment, in the case of the Hudal, the church had many opportunities to correct the 1938 oversight by more forcefully ejecting him from their ranks - and by "many" opportunities, I mean "one for every goddamn day for the next 14 years". And of course, after the war didn't go his way, Hudal went from advocating for the Nazis to actively organization Nazi escapes along the ratline. One of the escapees was a banal fellow you may have heard of named Eichmann. Hudal's ratline activities were made public by a Catholic publication in 1947, and finally Hudal abdicated in 1952.

Now stop to think for a second how that would play out today. Let's say that tomorrow the press discovers that the head of the Department of the Interior had helped Nazis escape - and all the President does is give him a lateral transfer into a dead end job in some out-of-the-way obscure branch of the Federal bureacracy, to keep him out of the sun and away from the media. Would you not be outraged? I sure as hell would be. I would start to wonder what kind of country I was living in - and (critical difference) the Federal government does not even claim to be divinely sanctioned.


The Nuremberg trials. Somehow the Allies knew what to do with Nazis.


Well, that's not a fair comparison, you might chime in. You're comparing apples and oranges; things were different in 1945 than they are today, and it's easy to see after the fact imposing a modern viewpoint that the handling of the ratliners was wrong. Ah, I see - now morality shifts with the times, huh? You mean the ten bullet points on that Bronze Age Powerpoint slide you claim to live your life by are NOT really the end-all be-all of morality? It is here that, as a patriotic American, I am pleased to report that my government had no problem figuring out who the bad guys were back then, and what to do with them. The same can be said for the other governments with whom we joined in the effort.

You might object that I don't understand European culture, or the customs of the Church; the Church couldn't just fire or excommunicate him, because that's not how they do things, he had to save face, to understand their actions I must respect the traditions of the organization, etc. And these are all excellent points - if we were talking about secular, worldly organizations like the government of Hungary or General Motors. I would think that if you really believe your institution is invested with the supernatural might and moral clarity of the most powerful being in the universe, you would hold it to better standards. Even leaving aside the question of whether there is a God, He doesn't seem to have much to do with this particular religion. In fact, this kind of politicking is exactly what we should expect to see if the organization in question is a wordly, godless enterprise devoid of any interest except self-perpetuation. And once again let's bring it back into focus: we're not just talking about a guy who embezzled funds. Hudal was helping Nazis escape justice. If that's not wrong, what is? So save your newfound moral relativism for the next discussion of gay marriage or stem cell research.

But maybe deciding on a real punishment for Hudal got stuck in Pius XII's inbox (although again, as he was the representative of God on Earth and so presumably has divine office management skills, I fail to see how such a thing could happen). So let's forget about Hudal - what about the at least thousands of other lay Catholics who participated directly in the Holocaust - and who the Church didn't see a need to excommunicate? If Hell exists, can there possibly be a better ticket in than being a guard at a death camp? Notice, I'm not arguing that being Catholic made SS guards evil - I'm just wondering what went through Pius XII's mind that kept him from noticing, or caring.

Right now, the mullahs in Iran are going through the same political maneuvering and interpretations of the Qu'ran that, surprisingly, justify their own grip on power, just like you would expect of a not-supernatural-at-all, worldly institution that survives on rhetoric and oppression rather than creating value. Sound familiar? I don't think there's anything special about the Church of Rome, except its size and its long, exceptionally well-documented history. (Of course if you ask the Thomas More Law Center; just daring to say out loud that you disagree with Vatican policy is hate speech. Someone should tell them it's not 1400.) If indeed the Church is just a big, rich, old, wordly institution that claims to be the source of morality, we should expect that occasionally its desire to perpetuate itself would conflict with its claims to represent absolute moral truth. (Of course, I'm assuming here that readers share my assumption that helping Nazis escape is bad.) In those cases, the Church would occasionally issue indirect, mumbling apologies for moral issues on which the civilized world had come to agreement decades ago, of how really the whole time unbaptized babies weren't in hell, or really the whole time slavery and anti-Semitism were bad even though they had been saying otherwise. In that vein, in a few decades I expect some doubletalk about about how they never really meant to imply that, for example, condoms don't protect against AIDS.

So what? You say. If you're Catholic, you might even be a cafeteria Catholic; you might keep going to church because you like the rituals, the churches are pretty, it reminds you of childhood, or your family will be disappointed; even if you don't actually believe in God, as some attending Catholics have confided in me. Even if you're willing to grant that it's all a big exercise in make-believe, ask yourself if you want to be part of the same organization that couldn't bother to excommunicate Alois Hudal.

11 comments:

Joseph Scaliger said...

What is the purpose of excommunication, anyway? I don't think Catholics use it just to kick out "bad people," but for specific offenses and situations.

Alphonsus said...

"The point is this: any organization which claims that it is the office of God on Earth, and therefore the source for true morality, should not be surprised that its actions are held up to close scrutiny."

What Catholic claimed that non-Catholics had no access to morality? Ever hear of St. Thomas Aquinas and natural law? St. Paul in the Letter to the Romans?

Furthermore, who claimed impeccability for either the pope or bishops? Can you give me a quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church? You're pointing out real failings of moral integrity, but you're granting them a significance Catholic Theology wouldn't. It makes no sense to attack a claim which one's opponent never made. Statements like:

"I would think that if you really believe your institution is invested with the supernatural might and moral clarity of the most powerful being in the universe, you would hold it to better standards."

and

"If indeed the Church is just a big, rich, old, wordly institution that claims to be the source of morality, we should expect that occasionally its desire to perpetuate itself would conflict with its claims to represent absolute moral truth."

only make sense if they actually connect with what the Catholic Church teaches about itself.

Go check out Michael Burleigh's book "Sacred Causes" for more on the Catholic Church and WWII
http://www.amazon.com/Sacred-Causes-Religion-Politics-Terror/dp/0060580968/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1245859023&sr=1-1

Ever hear of Mit Brennender Sorge or the "Conspiracy of Silence"?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mit_brennender_Sorge
http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xi/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_14031937_mit-brennender-sorge_en.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conspiracy_of_Silence_(Church_persecutions)

Alphonsus said...

By the way, are you familiar with this editorial?
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/27/AR2009032702825.html

Michael Caton said...

Joseph - I'm not sure about the letter of the excommunication law. Is there something worse the Church can do to members/officials, and did they do it to Hudal or other Nazi sympathisers (or active Nazis)?

Michael Caton said...

Alphonsus: first, responding to the link. I have no reason to doubt the results of the UNAIDS study. Unfortunately there are holes in this editorial you could drive a truck through ("quietly disowned")? So: 1) You have to use condoms for them to be effective, and it takes a massive education effort to get people to start. This dramatically improved the effectiveness of condoms in two countries that I can name off the top of my head, the U.S. and Thailand. 2) More importantly - was the Vatican's issuance of these statements influenced at all by this (or any) study, or is it pre-existing Church dogma? And in countries where condoms clearly prevent the spread of HIV, does the Vatican support their use?

Michael Caton said...

Alphonsus: responding to your longer post (though we disagree, I appreciate your taking the time to read and comment). First - in what way does the church not claim to be the office on Earth of the most powerful being in the universe? Otherwise, what is Christ but a guy with a few ideas worth paying attention to, kind of like Plato? Second, I don't think the Church's message is "we promote moral goodness, but everyone else is equally morally okay; so don't expect anything morally better or more upright from us." The take-home is that it would be bad enough if a secular institution had engaged in patterns of behavior like this, much less one that claims to be the arbiter of morality, whatever language they happen to use.

Alphonsus said...

"The take-home is that it would be bad enough if a secular institution had engaged in patterns of behavior like this, much less one that claims to be the arbiter of morality, whatever language they happen to use."

Could you find me a quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church where the Church "claims to be the arbiter of morality"? Again, Aquinas (and St. Paul) believed that morality was accessible to all people, Christian or not.

Secondly, I don't think anyone would hold up Catholics who act immorally or in contradiction to Catholic teachings as good examples of Catholic behavior, anymore than a Marxist who advocated free market economics would be a good example of Marxist principles. Individuals like Frederic Ozanam, Teresa of Avila, Vincent de Paul, or Miguel Pro are much closer to the ideal.

Michael Caton said...

So let me make sure I understand what you're saying Alphonsus: there's no relationship between morality and the Catholic Church? I'm just as moral being an atheist as you are being a Catholic (I presume)?

Even on that understanding - which I don't think many Catholics share (let's go to a service on Sunday and announce that and see how it goes over), let's look at another example. I also don't think there's a relationship between my alma mater Penn State and morality, but if I learned that Joe Paterno keeps assistant coaches on his staff even after he found out they helped Nazis escaped justice, you bet that's the end of my trips back to State College to see the Nittany Lions play. PSU doesn't have to claim any special role in morality for me to get the ick and dissociate myself if they pulled something like that.

In any event, we seem to be in agreement that the Church is a worldly organization run by human beings, both of which show all the moral failings (and more) that we expect of human beings and their institutions. The next question is why there is any special reason to associate yourself with the teachings of this organization or think that it's any different than (say) Penn State in describing the universe and guiding us in living our lives.

Alphonsus said...

"The next question is why there is any special reason to associate yourself with the teachings of this organization or think that it's any different than (say) Penn State in describing the universe and guiding us in living our lives."

People aren't fully satisfied by natural but good things like basic morality (just think about all the wealthy people who "have it all" but still feel like they're missing something). St. Augustine put it this way at the beginning of his Confessions:

"God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you."

I think we might soon be getting into some pretty heavy issues of what's called fundamental theology. If you want to understand how the Church understands itself (and why people remain in it despite its bad apples), I would start with the most recent universal Catechism. You can read it free online at the link below. I'll just say this: any group can have sinners in its midst who commit human failings, but only the church has saints who, through God's grace, surpass the mere natural law. Justice is wonderful and necessary, but charity (as a theological virtue) goes beyond it. I trust that decent chaps, even heroes, can come out of any religion (or lack thereof), but I don't think one can produce a Francis of Assisi, Vincent de Paul, or Teresa of Avila without the grace of God. In any case, it's been pleasant discussing this with you. Most online conversations about religion quickly degenerate into snark and nastiness, but ours has been polite and genial.
http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/ccc_toc.htm

Michael Caton said...

Alphonsus: thanks for your discussion - stop back any time. Like most religious people, I have no doubt that you're trying to lead a good life and make the world a better place. Perhaps predictably, I would pick different heroes who've made the world better for me and my family (physicians and engineers), and we are all of us subject to the same natural laws, no matter how benevolent or productive we are.

Alphonsus said...

"Perhaps predictably, I would pick different heroes who've made the world better for me and my family (physicians and engineers), and we are all of us subject to the same natural laws, no matter how benevolent or productive we are."

I was referring to Natural Law in the ethical/moral sense, not the metaphysical sense.