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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear