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.

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage