Today is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. For religious Jews, this is a critically important time of the year, and even many secular Jews use this as a time of increased self-scrutiny. The religious purpose is to ask forgiveness: forgiveness of others for having wronged them, and forgiveness of God for having wronged Him. But being truly contrite, and directly asking someone for forgiveness is difficult. Setting aside a day (or week, really) to focus on the task highlights its difficulty and prevents us from hiding from the task. This is a day focused on apology, on real introspection, a real attempt to contact those you’ve wronged and ask forgiveness—and to grant forgiveness to others. This is not a time for “non-pologies”, statements like, “I’m sorry you were offended by what I did.” This is a time for empathy, to wonder what it would be like to be the person you’ve wronged, and to apologize in a way meant not to make yourself feel better, but to comfort the ones you’ve wronged.
Yom Kippur is one of only a few days of the year when Jews light Yahrzeit (remembrance) candles for those who have died. Perhaps at a time when Jews feel particularly close to God, and particularly in peril, they ask God not only to forgive them, but to take special care of those we can no longer care for. And there can be no apologies and no forgiveness without memory. We strive to remember our transgressions of the last year, but we cannot control the gates of memory once they have opened, so as we search ourselves, we also honor those who are left only as memories.
As we remember those who have died, many of us cannot help but think about the Shoah, the murder and destruction of Europe’s Jewish community. It’s an unavoidable fact for many of us, especially as we see the diminishing numbers of survivors in our communities and wonder who will tell their stories when they are all gone.
This made some of the comments given by Joseph Ratzinger even more painful. They were offensive to memory, and offensive to the idea of forgiveness. They also injure us by making harder to grant forgiveness to a man who makes such hurtful public statements.
While it would be convenient to ignore the rantings of the head of a particular religious group, Ratzinger is a powerful and influential world leader. Ignoring his pronouncements would be giving silent assent to his dangerous misreadings of a history that is still burnt into our minds and hearts.
Upon landing in the UK during the Days of Awe—the time between the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur—this former head of the Inquisition (yes, those guys are still around) blamed all the woes of the world (including the Holocaust) on atheism, and somehow arrived at the conclusion that we’d all be better if we were religious.
The profoundly idiotic words that came from Josef Ratzinger are his. I know that many Catholics believe what he says, many do not. Given the autocratic nature of the Church, it would be terribly unfair to blame millions of Catholics for the demented utterances of their appointed—not elected—leader.
One of his UK speeches opens with the usual historical background, which as far as I know is correct, but then loses it.
The evangelisation of culture is all the more important in our times, when a ‘dictatorship of relativism’ threatens to obscure the unchanging truth about man’s nature, his destiny and his ultimate good.
There are some who now seek to exclude religious belief from public discourse, to privatise it or even to paint it as a threat to equality and liberty.
Yet religion is in fact a guarantee of authentic liberty and respect, leading us to look upon every person as a brother or sister.
I understand that this dribbling old ex- (“reluctant”) Hitler Youth may be starting to lose it, but I’m sure he can see the inherent contradictions in these ridiculous statements. Every religion thinks that their path is the only true path. That Ratzinger could believe that religion is some sort of “guarantee of authentic liberty and respect” makes him either an idiot or a raving loon of a zealot. Religion itself has never guaranteed any such thing. People have used the language of religions to justify all sorts of action, good and bad, so it is de facto a guarantee of nothing. The “evangelisation of culture” is inherently anti-humanistic, as it assumes that J. Ratzinger and those who agree with him have the only correct answers. It is anti-equality and anti-liberty, as it sets up a dichotomy of those-who-agree-with-Joe, and everyone else.
Given that Ratzinger certainly picked out every word carefully, I’m guessing he actually means this stuff. It’s also reasonable to assume that he chose the phrase “dictatorship of relativism” very carefully. The word “dictatorship” is meant to evoke specific images: jack-booted Nazis, goose-stepping Communists, and other godless atrocities. It is certainly not meant to evoke the beneficent dictatorship of the fatherly Pope (or the fires and racks of his Inquisition).
Ratzinger goes on to explain why we need religion:
Society today needs clear voices which propose our right to live, not in a jungle of self-destructive and arbitrary freedoms, but in a society which works for the true welfare of its citizens and offers them guidance and protection in the face of their weakness and fragility.
I see no reason why secular voices which propose a “right to live” are “arbitrary”. The Declaration of Independence is no more or less arbitrary than a Papal Bull, and doesn’t rely on adhering to a single creed. That’s part of the genius of it.
But the real offense to memory comes in another proximate speech. The Holocaust was perpetrated by Europeans, led by German Nazis. It was not an act inflicted upon them by a Nazi state that suddenly arose, creating its own values and beliefs. Nazism worked in part because it affirmed the darker angels of European nature, allowing them—requiring them—to act on their generations of hatred. To ignore these catholic (small “c”) origins of the European murder of Jews is to be blind to history.
Ratzinger cannot claim ignorance, so statements like this one must have some purpose:
Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live.
Ratzinger uses this to frame his argument for religion in Europe. He tells us that if we had been sufficiently religious (and by “we” he presumably means not me and my people, but everyone else), the Holocaust could not have happened. But Nazis were not an “atheist” force. They were the violent id of European history unfettered. The systematic murder of Jews had been perpetrated by Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians for centuries. The Nazis allowed this to flourish, and put their industrial might behind it. They did not create it. This makes his next comments more ridiculous:
“I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives.
“As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a ‘reductive vision of the person and his destiny’
The attitude of the Nazis to Christians who spoke out was similar to their reactions to others who spoke out, except sometimes less extreme. There was, unfortunately, no large religious or secular movement in opposition of the Holocaust, and to claim otherwise is offensive. To use this false history as an argument against “atheist extremism” (whatever that may mean) is a crime against memory. But the crime continues:
“Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society.
“In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate.
“Let it not obscure the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms; and may that patrimony, which has always served the nation well, constantly inform the example your Government and people set before the two billion members of the Commonwealth and the great family of English-speaking nations throughout the world.
To tell the world that religion is a shield against intolerance, and that secularism and atheism is the cause of intolerance is insane. But unlike true insanity, Ratzinger bears true culpability for his statements.
Today is the Jewish Day of Atonement, a time of memory, introspection, and forgiveness. Discovering and correcting my own faults and asking for forgiveness will be difficult, but I will try. But I’m not ready to forgive those who commit dangerous offenses against against history and memory. I’m just not that good a person, and for that, I ask forgiveness.