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The Pope and totalitarian regimes

Pope Benedict XVI ignores the role of religion in the rise of the 20th century’s totalitarian regime

On the final day of his visit, which was also the anniversary of the Battle of Britain, the Pope talked as someone "who lived and suffered through the dark days of the Nazi regime in Germany". Earlier during his visit, in his address at Westminster Abbey, he touched on the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century and argued that what gave rise to them (and to the slave trade) was a "misuse of reason".

There was no mention of the contribution of the Christian Church to the rise of Hitler, or the acceptance by all religions, at least in their sacred texts, of slavery.

If we take Pope Benedict's remarks regarding the Holocaust as an example, there is little doubt that he views it as one of the darkest moments in European history. At the Cologne Synagogue, earlier this year, he said, "I bow my head before all those who experienced this manifestation of the mysterium iniquitatis [mystery of sin]."

Yet, as far as his views on the origins of the Holocaust are concerned, there are serious problems. Benedict XVI presents it as primarily, even exclusively, a neo-pagan phenomenon that had no roots in Christianity but instead constituted a fundamental challenge to all religious belief, including Christianity. Certainly, for Hitler and his Nazi Party, race and not religion was the dominant motive for destroying Jews, but the Holocaust took place in a Christian culture and much of the Nazi anti-Semitic legislation replicated laws against Jews which were created in medieval Christendom.

In other words, if race provided the mythology and motivation for anti-Semitism, secularised religious language provided the justification. In Mein Kampf, Hitler did not hesitate to use overtly Christian language to appeal to a pious audience. Thus he could affirm, "I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the word of the Lord."

Many Christians came to agree with him and many more stood by as the Nazis enacted policies that built on the widespread racist and religious attitudes towards Jews in Europe that helped pave the way to Auschwitz.

Christianity provided an indispensable seedbed for the widespread support, or at least acquiescence, on the part of large numbers of baptised Christians during attacks on Jews and other marginalised groups, such as the disabled, the Roma and gay people. Christian anti-Semitism definitely had a major role, and Pope Benedict XVI's remarks can leave the impression, intended or not, that the Holocaust was simply the result of secularising modern forces in Europe at the time of the Nazis. He fails to deal forthrightly with Christian culpability.

Some liberal commentators, such as the American Catholic scholar John Pawlikowski, explain it as a result of the Pope's tendency to regard the Church as primarily an eternal and heavenly reality, basically unaffected by human history. This would explain Benedict's great reluctance to deal directly with the Church as a reality in human history.

The central problem for Pope Benedict resides in his fundamental vision of the Church. His ecclesiological perspective is one that sees the Catholic Church as a totally completed institution, incapable of any major redefinition, and without any need in the end to learn anything new theologically from a dialogue with other Christians, Jews or any other religious group.

This visit has been positive in many respects. Following his meeting with interfaith leaders, I certainly appreciated the pontiff's encouragement of the interfaith dialogue and his invocation of "abundant divine blessings" on all faiths.

His calls for respect and understanding, and his desire to raise religious and moral questions in Britain's diverse society, exceeded expectations. But this refusal to accept the Church's responsibility for this or other examples of mysterium iniquitatis will remain a major obstacle as it seeks to engage in wider society, with its mosaic of all faiths and none.