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May 28, 2006

Sunday Sermonette: Pope Ratz blames God for Holocaust

The pope blames God for the Holocaust:

Benedict said it was almost impossible, particularly for a German Pope, to speak at "the place of the Shoah." "In a place like this, words fail. In the end, there can only be a dread silence, a silence which is a heartfelt cry to God -- Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?"

Now that's what I call chutzpah.

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Comments


Thanks for stopping by & thanks for the hat tip!

one of the most confounding theological questions that exists... How can an all-powerful God allow bad things to happen?

Everything is confounding if you believe in this all powerful God that cares particularly about humanity. None of it makes any sense.

Nobody who was in the Hitlerjugend, or served in the German Army in WWII (as ratzinger also did) has the moral standing to become the pope, one of the world's most outstanding moral exemplars. Ratzinger lacks the moral fibre to be pope and in fact his history in the church shows this, what with his help in coverin up the children buggering priests scandals.

Martin, I agree with your last sentence, but totally disagree with your first. As mentioned, Hans Scholl of the White Rose was originally Hitlerjugend. And there are Righteous Gentiles who served in the German Army in WWII, but who were invited to plant trees in the Avenue of the Righteous in Israel.

Pope Ratzinger/Benedict may be no sort of moral exemplar, and may prove very evil, but the examples above, though they wore the wrong uniform, I consider fine moral exemplars. The uniform is not the whole of the man.

Why does the Pope need to be a moral exemplar? When you come right down to it, he's no different from any politician or activist, only that he heads an authoritarian organization and is not accountable to anyone.

Lindsay, the Pope is asking the question in a very Jewish way. The idea that God "remained silent" during the Holocaust is a variation on the concept of "hester panim," that God "hid his face" from mankind - that is, he removed himself from human history.
Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik, the leading modern Orthodox (non-Hasidic) theologian of the twentieth century, contended that the Holocaust was a return to the period before Creation, before God intervened in the workings of the universe. Why God allowed this to happen, he taught, is something we are not permitted to know. Similarly, Rabbi Eliezar Berkovits concluded that "the ultimate responsibility for this ultimate evil must be God's," and quoted a passage from Isaiah as a proof-text for God's indifference and inscrutability: "Verily Thou art a God that hidest Thyself, 0 God of Israel, the Savior."

Martin Buber, a non-Orthodox Jewish theologian, reached the same conclusion but was much angrier about it:

"How is a life with God still possible in a time in which there is an Auschwitz? The estrangement has become too cruel, the hiddenness too deep. One can still believe in the God who allowed those things to happen, but can one still speak to Him? Can one still hear His word?" There is an echo of Buber's fear that communication with God is at an end in the Pope's oxymoronic phrasing: a silence that is a cry.


If you don't believe that God was indifferent, and you are not inclined to become an atheist, then you must conclude either that God is not all-powerful, in which case he is not God, or that God wanted the Holocaust to happen. (Hasidic Jews are in the second camp - they believe that the Holocaust was an expression of God's will.) The Pope's question shows that he has concluded that the modern Orthodox are correct: that God withdrew his grace from humanity, that he was silent, that he hid his face.

For the Pope to put the question this way must be very difficult for him. The Pope is strongly predispositioned to believe that human events reflect God's will. For him to acknowledge that the Holocaust is a result of God's indifference is not easy. The question for a religious person is not merely one for the Jews- How could our God permit us to suffer so? It is also one for the Gentiles- How could our God permit us to become so evil?

And it is a question for Benedict personally: how is it that God has arranged things so that he, the first German Pope in 500 years, stands in Poland, the place of modern Catholicism's greatest triumph, to confront how utterly his faith failed his own nation at the moment of its greatest test? When he says that words fail him, I believe him.

There is another explanation, by the way, that was put forward by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, an American Orthodox rabbi now living in Israel:

"A woman once asked my neighbor Leib Rochman, a Holocaust survivor, 'Where was God during the Holocaust?' He replied, 'He was with us.'"

Rabbi Lichtenstein would deny it, but this story is almost Christian in the implication that God experiences the suffering of human beings. I don't think that this is an explanation that is open to Benedict. Although the Catholic Church has come very far in its relationship with Jews, I don't believe it is ready to conclude that Christ was in Auschwitz.

>Why does the Pope need to be a moral exemplar?

Actually, Alon, that's a good question, and I would consider it a colossal abdication of responsibility if that were all he was. A Pope can act. If a Pope wants humanitarian aid sent somewhere, and it's not getting there, he has only to pick up the phone and he's buzzed straight through to the White House, or to many of the capitals of the first world. That doesn't mean he gets his own way every time, but if he's judicious in the pressure he applies, he can get an awful lot of positive things done.

nonnymoose may be correct that the church is now a moral nullity; but it doesn't have to be. It's a huge organization of hundreds of millions of people, all of whom are generally happy to work for a good cause, if the potential of the church is applied to one. We may not like it that 1/7 of humanity is more or less directed by such an autocratic ruler, but if they are, then we can admit that they are. The British royal family may have become an anachronistic, similarly unelected institution--okay--but they nonetheless fulfilled very important diplomatic roles, well into the 20th century. Who knows, we may well see the Catholic Church cease to exist within our lifetimes (though I don't believe we will), but the fact is that they still have real power, right now. Perhaps they'll train that power on some good works.

So far, Pope Benedict still needs to prove himself. I don't view his visit to Auschwitz as either a failure or a "success" on his part. I view it as words. I'm watching for acts.

>similarly unelected institution

or excuse me, I misspoke: though not popularly elected, I think that a select group of cardinals do elect the Pope, whereas I'm unaware of an English king being elected since Harold in 1066. I may be wrong.

George Soros, as a teenager, unknowingly or thoughtlessly collaborated a single time with the Hungarian fascist (not Nazi) regime. His father explained things to him and from then on he just tried successfully to stay alive under fascist, Nazi, and finally communist rule. His one-day collaboration has been used against him by rightwing hacks who would certainly absolve Ratzinger.

I don't know enough about Ratzinger's specifics. It's possible that his explanation is valid. I think that Jews, seculars, and others are right to mistrust the institutional Catholic church, though, which has a number of skeletons in its closet.

Rhymes with Right is right: It's rather amazing that people here are so philosophically and theologically illiterate that they don't recognize that Benedict is giving voice to the *chief objection* made against the idea that there is a God -- namely, that if there is a good and all-powerful God, why doesn't he/she/it stop evil things from happening?

And to think that some people interpret that question as "blames God for Holocaust"! Staggeringly ignorant.

Ratzinger manned an anti-aircraft gun that protected a forced labor factory.

And then he goes to auschwitz to show how sorry he is about it all, aww.

Not doing anything to help curb the AIDS holocaust of course, or to do anything about the children who fight just as he did for mass murderers in africa, that turns them in turn into mass murderers.

Poor little ratzy, having to go to auschwitz.

Let's see what he does on june 16th. Where will he hide his face then?

whether the generic, impersonal evil of an earthquake or tsunami

i don't know how natural phenomena that have existed for eons before we were but a twinkle in a monkey's eye can be considered evil.

Niels jackson: It's rather amazing that people here are so philosophically and theologically illiterate that they don't recognize that Benedict is giving voice to the *chief objection* made against the idea that there is a God -- namely, that if there is a good and all-powerful God, why doesn't he/she/it stop evil things from happening?

It's not ignorance; what a presumptuous thing to say. It's that we (at least some of us; can't speak for everyone) aren't buying the premise. "Blames Holocaust on God" is easy shorthand for "denies human agency" -- particularly galling coming from someone who had a hand, however small, in the deed. And who has as far as I know never publicly said "This was a real screw-up on my part and I'm sorry, and here's what I propose to do by way of atonement. Is that enough? Or should I do more?" Let alone commit resources to open analysis of how a whole nation can be swayed to such evil, and then do something against that other than carrying on about "the will of God."

"Why didn't God stop us?" is a thoroughly dishonest question, however impersonally it's framed.

"Why didn't God stop us" wasn't a question that Benedict asked. It's your tendentious paraphrase.


Anyway, people were unaware of the obvious fact that Benedict was referring to the "Problem of Evil." I find this amazing. And it's even more amazing that you believe that to refer to the problem of evil "denies human agency." Part of the problem of evil is to ask why God doesn't prevent human beings from hurting each other. That doesn't deny human agency; it asks why an all-powerful God just sits back and lets it happen.

You claim that Benedict should have apologized. Well, guess what: It might be worth looking at what Benedict said before blaming him on this ground. Here's the full text. And here's a passage where he makes pretty clear that he feels a special responsibility to ask for "reconciliation" (technical term there; to Catholics, this means asking for forgiveness):

Pope John Paul II came here as a son of the Polish people. I come here today as a son of the German people. For this very reason, I can and must echo his words: I could not fail to come here.

I had to come. It is a duty before the truth and the just due of all who suffered here, a duty before God, for me to come here as the successor of Pope John Paul II and as a son of the German people -- a son of that people over which a ring of criminals rose to power by false promises of future greatness and the recovery of the nation's honor, prominence and prosperity, but also through terror and intimidation, with the result that our people was used and abused as an instrument of their thirst for destruction and power.

Yes, I could not fail to come here. On June 7, 1979, I came as the archbishop of Munich-Freising, along with many other bishops who accompanied the Pope, listened to his words and joined in his prayer. In 1980, I came back to this dreadful place with a delegation of German bishops, appalled by its evil, yet grateful for the fact that above its dark clouds the star of reconciliation had emerged.

This is the same reason why I have come here today: to implore the grace of reconciliation -- first of all from God, who alone can open and purify our hearts, from the men and women who suffered here, and finally the grace of reconciliation for all those who, at this hour of our history, are suffering in new ways from the power of hatred and the violence which hatred spawns.

None of this means shit if Joseph Ratzinger, as a 14 year old, never did anything to contribute to the German war effort. He manned a gun? Did he ever fire it? Do you know whether he would have fired it, if the occasion arose? Are you saying that he should have done more to undermine the Nazi war effort?

Can anyone be more precise about the culpable act that this kid performed?

And that guy who denied Jesus three freaking times...he too would have been unfit to become a pope. Oh, shit, never mind.

I think Eric Muller's take on Ratzinger's visit to Auschwitz sums up the queasiness for a lot of us...it does for me, anyway. And it's not nearly as much about what he did or didn't do when he was 14 than what he said at Auschwitz a few days ago.

"Why didn't God stop us" wasn't a question that Benedict asked. It's your tendentious paraphrase.

No, it's my impatient rendering of the carefully danced-around core of the question. What's wrong with the question -- ~The Problem of Evil~ -- is what I'm talking about, and impatient with.


Anyway, people were unaware of the obvious fact that Benedict was referring to the "Problem of Evil." I find this amazing. And it's even more amazing that you believe that to refer to the problem of evil "denies human agency." Part of the problem of evil is to ask why God doesn't prevent human beings from hurting each other. That doesn't deny human agency; it asks why an all-powerful God just sits back and lets it happen.

You seem to be assuming that people who don't agree with the importance of that way of naming the "problem" are therefore ignorant of it. I'm telling you otherwise.

Calling the collection of humanity's misdeeds (often lumped with the horrors caused by natural disasters and human misjudgment) "The Problem of Evil" is a way of conveniently making it all a little less personal. "...(T)o ask why God doesn't prevent human beings from hurting each other" while somehow not mentioning that one has been part of the group that's doing the hurting is precisely to ask "Why didn't God stop us?" -- robbed even of the admission that the actual doers of evil aren't some conveniently abstract or absent "ring of criminals" but the same people who later cry to Heaven (which of course never quite answers) about "The Problem of Evil." That ring of criminals couldn't have done much on its own; it needed the power lent willingly by thousands and thousands of followers to "use... our people as an instrument." And no, I'm not dismissing the effects of "terror and intimidation."

Anybody on the planet can be part of the evildoers, by being co-opted, by being bigoted, by talking about "intrinsic moral evils," or, in Church/Medspeak, "intrinsically disordered" sexual orientations involving consenting adults (grimly amusing from an institution that has historically made so little a fuss over actual consent for some of its members), by failing to make the state, the corporation, the kinship group, whatever has power accountable for its use. Including the church, any church. The one the Pope heads has a long, ugly, and frankly not-renounced history of antisemitism in Europe. He can talk of reconciliation all he wants (BTW, I was raised Catholic, was studious and quite devout and sincere about till I was maybe 20; I'm quite familiar with the uses of the word "reconciliation.") but how hard has he come down on pustules like that hideous Polish radio station? He wants the bishops to get it under control? Well good. "Potential harm to the Church"? Come on, where's your talk of "intrinsically disordered" when it comes to lies and dangerous slander? Where's the defense of the actual people that crap is directed against?

Like the head of any such oversized and overpowered organization, he's moving with all deliberate speed (or is that phrase unfamiliar?) and dainty little steps against the evil on the doorstep, behaving exactly like one who's afraid of squandering his power, or, worse, squandering his perceived dignity. He won't say that the problem is intertwined with coercive power because his institution has become intertwined with coercive power and he apparently can't imagine its existence without it. (Where would the Catholic Church be if its only power were that of persuasive example? You know, that one about "how they love one another"? Or does that work just fine when one can define "love" as including "oppressing you for your own conveniently undemonstrable eternal good" and "one another" more and more narrowly?)

And one tool he's using is that convenient abstraction disguised as philosophy, that set of protective tongs, that masterpiece of externalization, "The Problem of Evil."


If we eliminate all of the popes who did things as bad as not rebelling against the idea of joining the Hitler youth, we wouldn't have many left. Other than the first few and the last few, I don't think that morality has been a significant concern.

I don't hold his actions against him. He joined the Hitler youth when it would have taken exceptional courage not to do so. He was drafted and served when it would have been almost suicidal to refuse. He deserted at the first opportunity to do so safely. I don't see anything immoral in any of his actions.

He was lacking in courage, but that puts him in with most of humanity. Besides, a pope has no need for courage. It takes courage to risk being wrong, or to stand up to authority. Neither is applicable to popes.

He certainly had to go to a major death-camp and make some statement sometime in the first few years of his papacy. I would have hoped for a statement about the need for ordinary people to do more, but maybe that is implied. Maybe, "Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?", directly implies the question why did WE tolerate this.


Here is a Hasidic version of the G-d-before-the-rabbinical-court story that Wiesel may have used.
R. Aryeh Leib of Shpola, the "Shpolyer Zaide," d. 1812.

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