Posted Sunday May 28, 2006 at 11:07 a.m. CDT
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Attempting to slay God was Auschwitz's greatest evil, pope says
Benedict prayed that love would prevail over 'a spurious and godless reason'
By John L. Allen Jr.
Editor's Note: Read NCRonline.org daily for John Allen's reports on Pope Benedict XVI's trip to Poland May 25-28.
Since the close of the Second World War, the dominant reading of Auschwitz, the most terrifying expression of the horrors of the Holocaust, has been as an object lesson in man's inhumanity to man.
Today, standing in Auschwitz as both a "son of the German people" and a Christian, Pope Benedict XVI offered an alternative interpretation -- Auschwitz as the most stark realization of man's inhumanity, not just to man, but ultimately to God.
The final aim of the Nazi rampage of death, the pope argued, was not just the extermination of the Jews, but the annihilation of any force higher than the human will to power.
"Deep down," Benedict said, "those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are eternally valid."
"If this people, by its very existence, was a witness to the God who spoke to humanity and took us to himself, then that God finally had to die and power had to belong to man alone -- to those men, who thought that by force they had made themselves masters of the world," he said.
"By destroying Israel," Benedict said, "they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and replace it with a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful."
In a sense, Benedict's Auschwitz speech marks a turning point in post-Auschwitz Christian theology, which in the last 60 years has tended to take Christian guilt for complicity in the Holocaust as its point of departure.
Jurgen Moltmann, for example, famously argued for a theology of "divine vulnerability," in part because he felt earlier triumphal understandings of God did not adequately predispose Christians to solidarity with victims of the Nazis; Johann Baptist Metz urged a new spirit of discipleship, based on the observation that too many Christians failed to follow the example of Christ during the war.
Without denying that the Holocaust was often implemented by professed Christians, Benedict argued that at a deeper level, Christianity and Judaism both represented systems of thought that the Nazis instinctively understood must be destroyed, because without God and God's moral law there is no bulwark against totalitarianism, or against evil.
Benedict thus offered a new touchstone for Christian reflection on Auschwitz -- not guilt, but a profound sense of the starkness of the choice facing humanity: God or the abyss.
"Let us cry out to God, with all our hearts, at the present hour ... when all the forces of darkness seem to issue anew from human hearts: whether it is the abuse of God's name as a means of justifying senseless violence against innocent persons, or the cynicism which refuses to acknowledge God and ridicules faith in him," Benedict said.
"The God in whom we believe is a God of reason -- a reason, to be sure, which is not a kind of cold mathematics of the universe, but is one with love and with goodness," the pope said.
Benedict prayed that "the logic of love and the recognition of the power of reconciliation and peace, may prevail over the threats arising from irrationalism or from a spurious and godless reason."
In a Saturday press conference in Krakow, Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls confirmed that the Auschwitz speech was written "from beginning to end entirely by the pope."
Once again, Benedict XVI proved himself a figure stubbornly indifferent to the canons of political correctness. From the point of view of public relations, what one might have expected from a prominent German visiting Auschwitz would be an expression of national remorse, and an appeal against contemporary anti-Semitism. A "PC" Catholic would have steered clear of any reference to subjects that have been flashpoints for Catholic/Jewish controversy.
In fact, Benedict did no such thing.
He opened by acknowledging that Auschwitz is "particularly difficult and troubling for a Christian, for a pope from Germany."
"I could not fail to come here," he said.
Benedict went on, however, to call himself "a son of that people over which a ring of criminals rose to power," and said that Germans were "used and abused" by the Nazis. He praised Germans who resisted, calling them "witnesses to the truth and goodness which even among our people were not eclipsed."
There was no sense of collective national guilt in his remarks.
Benedict likewise did not make any reference to modern anti-Semitism, though his opening words included a strong plea "to the living God never to let this happen again." Yet hopes that Benedict would say something direct about the embers of anti-Semitism in Europe, perhaps even about recent controversies over the Polish Catholic broadcaster Radio Maryja, were not realized.
It is as if Benedict wanted to avoid exploiting Auschwitz as a backdrop for any contemporary cause, however noble, and instead wanted to penetrate to what he considers its deepest roots -- the primitive human instinct to slay God as the final limit on earthly power.
|More Trip Coverage|
John Allen's preview of the papal trip: Benedict's concerns for Poland trip:.
May 25, The trip is launched: Benedict sets about reawakening Europe's Christian roots.
May 26, A social survey of Poland: Poles are staunchly Catholic but also independent.
May 26, The Pope's message in Victory Square and at Czestochowa: Faith is a gift but also a task.
May 26, Subtext to the pope's visit: Some interesting nuggets.
May 27, A great trip for pilgrims: Benedict offers spiritual and pastoral basics.
May 27, Exploring John Paul's roots: Benedict's visit to the Divine Mercy Sanctuary.
May 27, A look at the issues: Examining the trip thus far.
May 28, The pope's take on death camps: Attempting to slay God was Auschwitz's greatest evil.
May 28, The Poles' speical vocation: Pope tells Poles 'share the treasure of your faith'.
May 28, U.S.-Polish ties: Knights of Columbus opening Polish councils.
This vision is not new in the thought of Joseph Ratzinger. In his mid-1970s work Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, Ratzinger argued that by insisting upon eternal and objective truth, ultimately guaranteed by the mind of God, Plato had identified the only effective limit to human authority.
Finally, Pope Benedict deliberately touched upon two subjects that have at times been sore spots between Catholics and Jews: Edith Stein, a German Jew who converted to Catholicism, became a nun, and perished in Auschwitz; and the Carmelite convent near Auschwitz, which some Jews have criticized as inappropriate given what they see as the ambiguous record of the church in the Holocaust.
Benedict praised the Carmelite presence, which, he said, "declares that God himself descended into the hell of suffering and suffers with us."
In general, Vatican sources speaking on background said the speech demonstrates the great "spiritual freedom" of Benedict XVI, who at 79, and as pope, does not have to concern himself with public relations or poll numbers, and is free to cut to the core of what he sees as the universal lessons of Auschwitz.
Early reaction to the speech was mixed. While some observers praised its theological depth, one Jewish leader called the speech “lamentable,” and early comments in the German media suggested that Benedict had broken with a basic German consensus about the need to acknowledge national responsibility.
In deference to Jewish sensibilities, Benedict referred to Auschwitz as the place of the Shoah, the Hebrew term for the Holocaust.
While some Jewish leaders expressed concern that Benedict's remarks could be read to minimize German or Christian responsibility for the Holocaust, others were initially positive.
NCR read passages of the text to Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, Judaic Scholar at the Jewish Federation of Chicago. While Poupko stressed that he had not read the entire speech, he said that initially he was "deeply moved … I'm in tears."
"He uses the central psalms that we use in our own prayers in reference to the Holocaust," Poupko said, referring to the pope's citation of Psalm 44, "We are being killed, accounted as sheep for the slaughter."
More fundamentally, Poupko said, the pope treats an assault on the Jewish people as an assault on God, and also recognizes that "irrespective of Jesus, the Jews are witnesses to God."
Poupko said he agreed with Benedict that in attacking Jews, the Nazis were also attacking the roots of Christianity.
"The Nazis had a form of anti-Semitism that was also a kind of anti-Christianity," he said.
During the stop in Auschwitz, Benedict deliberately attempted to respect the gravity of the place.
When the papal motorcade arrived Sunday afternoon, it stopped at the entrance to the camp and Benedict entered on foot, described as a deliberate gesture of humility.
The pope met a group of Auschwitz survivors, and then stopped in front of the infamous "Wall of Death," where thousands were executed. He stopped in a museum at Auschwitz, where he signed a book of remembrance. He also visited the cell of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who died in the camp after volunteering to take the place of an inmate slated for execution and who was later canonized by John Paul II.
Benedict then visited the Center for Dialogue and Prayer, a church-run institution near the camp launched by several European cardinals and Jewish leaders. Its construction was funded in part by a grant from the Knights of Columbus, the largest lay Catholic organization in the United States.
Benedict's last stop was at the Birkenau camp for an inter-faith prayer service that featured a Jewish cantor. The pope recited a prayer for peace in his native German.
[John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is email@example.com.]
May 28, 2006, National Catholic Reporter