It's so unusual to have a German come to Britain to lecture us on the lessons to be learned from the Second World War, but Benedict XVI has wasted no time in getting straight to the point of his visit by condemning "atheist extremism" and "aggressive secularism", and even going as far as to tie atheism to Nazism.
"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," he said.So that's what the Nazis were about. I thought they were for a form of ultra-nationalism, that they suffered from the delusion that they represented the master race, but Benedict seems to take a very different lesson from history.
The atheist tyrannies of the 20th century did kill millions of people, many of them for their Christian beliefs. For Benedict, that is one of the main lessons of modern history. He seems never to have appreciated the horrors of Spanish-speaking and notionally Catholic fascisms in the same visceral way. The restoration of decent government in Germany was accomplished in his lifetime by Christian Democrat politicians; the fall of the Berlin Wall might not have happened so quickly without the pressure exerted by Pope John Paul II.
The slow civilising of the barbarians after the fall of the Roman empire was, he believes, accomplished by the church: "Your forefathers' respect for truth and justice, for mercy and charity, come to you from a faith that remains a mighty force for good in your kingdom, to the great benefit of Christians and non-Christians alike."
For him, a nation that turns away from God entirely has nothing to keep it from treating people as disposable means, rather than ends in themselves. The liberal appeal to reason, to choice, and to human rights doesn't go far enough. He believes in all three, but he thinks they must be derived from something else. That something else was once generally understood to be Christianity. If that is no longer true, Benedict believes we are all shrunken and impoverished: "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'."
Benedict sees secularism itself as the problem, and thinks that history backs his extraordinary reading of events. Unsurprisingly, there has been a backlash.
At a time when the United States is enduring a war on terror, there are many ways to define "extremism", but I think most of us would imagine "extremism" is currently a religious phenomenon rather than a plague brought about by secularists. But that's not how Benedict sees it.
His pronouncements brought immediate condemnation from humanists and secularists, and some other religious groups. Terry Sanderson, the president of the National Secular Society, said the pope had hardly waited to get off the plane before attacking secularism.
He added: "The British people have embraced a secular identity of their own free will, perhaps as a reaction to the ultra-conservatism of this recent papacy and the extremism that has been manifested by some forms of Islam. The secular identity of the British people is not something to criticise, but to celebrate."
70,000 people attended the mass Benedict XVI gave in Glasgow. In the eighties, some 300,000 attended a mass which John Paul II gave at the exact same location.
That hardly suggests that his ultra-conservatism is winning people over to his cause.
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