As the patron saint of fence-sitters, I have been thinking of the concept of non-alignment for a while. The immediate context, of course, has been the just wrapped-up NAM summit in Havana. Of late, however, I have been wondering whether being non-aligned is a virtue at all. The doubt entered my mind when I recently re-read Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII by historian John Cornwell. Cornwell quotes a letter written by Francis Osborne, the British envoy to the Vatican (1936-47), to his friend, Bridget McEwan. Osborne was worried by Pope Pius XII’s silence over the Nazi atrocities that were being conducted against Europe’s Jews right under the papal nose. I quote from the letter quoted in Cornwell’s book:
“The fact that the moral authority of the Holy See, which Pius XI and his predecessors had built up into a world power, is now sadly reduced. I suspect that H.H. [His Holiness] hopes to play a great role as peace-maker and that it is partly at least for this reason that he tries to preserve a position of neutrality as between the belligerents. But, as you say, the German crimes have nothing to do with neutrality... and the fact is that the Pope’s silence is defeating its own purpose because it is destroying his prospects of contributing to peace.”
That this papal neutrality actually helped the Germans ‘morally’ in carrying out the Final Solution is made clear in a letter written by Baron Ernst von Weizsäcker, the German Ambassador to the Holy See, to his headquarters in Berlin. Cornwell quotes from Weizsäcker’s letter:
“The Pope, although under pressure from all sides, has not permitted himself to be pushed into a demonstrative censure of the deportation of the Jews of Rome. Although he must know that such an attitude will be used against him by our adversaries... he has nonetheless done everything possible even in this delicate matter in order to not strain relations with the German government and the German authorities in Rome.”
Thanks to the ‘non-alignment’ of Euginio Pacelli, the 262nd Pope, Catholicism was tainted with charges of Nazi collaboration. Sympathisers have since argued that Pius XII had little choice in the matter, or that his real fear of communists led to his silence. But it can be said with certainty that a papal denouncement of the pogroms would have made the Aryan Catholic element in the Nazi regime (Hitler included) just a bit reticent about the gusto it showed about implementing the Final Solution.
What holds true for the Catholic world has a bearing to the secular world, if not to the non-Catholic world. Christian faith, as the 265th Pope of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, Joseph Ratzinger, reminded his audience at the University of Regensburg last week, is intrinsically linked to reason. “Not to act reasonably (with logos) is contrary to the nature of God,” Pope Benedict XVI quoted Manuel II Paleologus, the 14th century Christian emperor of Byzantine and defender of Constantinople against the Ottomans.
So, if not opposing atrocities committed against people is immoral and thus against human reason, it stands to reason that such a non-action is contrary to the nature of God. The Christian faith, apart from being based on logos (reason), is also rooted in the concept of agape, “the love that accords each individual, irrespective of difference, equal respect as a child of God”.
But does agape extend only to people of the Catholic (or Christian) faith? St Paul, as good an interpreter of Christ’s teachings as any other Christian ideologue, does not discriminate between “Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all and in all”. So by staying mum against the extermination of Jews, Pope Pius XII failed not only in reason but also in faith. Thus non-alignment in a tussle between justice and injustice is no virtue.
There are those who have, of course, interpreted St Paul’s ‘Christian universality’ in a very different light, leading to criticism of the saint himself from the likes of Thomas Jefferson (“Paul was the first corrupter of the teachings of Jesus”) and Friedrich Nietzsche (“God as Paul created him is the negation of God”). So whether ‘agape’ — like other contentious words coined by other religions — has been corrupted by Christian elements to mean something else than ‘unrestricted love’, or contained the seed of exclusion from the very beginning, is something for theologians and sociologists and political scientists to argue about.
I haven’t read the book edited by the Lebanese-born theologian Theodore Khoury from which Pope Benedict quoted in his lecture on faith and reason. But it would be interesting to know what the ‘educated Persian’ said in his discussion with the cocky Christian emperor who is the author of the book, Dialogue With A Muslim, 7th Controversy (conversation) — if he did say anything at all — about the corruption of the Christian concept of agape either by St Paul or by the (mis)interpreters of the saint.
The earliest of the Christian Crusades were largely driven by the Pope’s attempt to channelise the violent anarchy that erupted after the breakdown of the Holy Roman Empire in the 9th century. In 1063, Pope Alexander II gave his blessings to Iberian Christians in their wars against the Muslims by granting a papal standard and an indulgence (the writing off of sins) to those who were killed in battle against the infidels. That was the first Crusade.
By the time we come to Manuel II’s time (1350-1425), even with the nine ‘major’ Crusades ended, papally-sanctified blood-letting of infidels had become part of established current affairs. So when Manuel II comes up with the central question on the relationship between religion and violence with, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached,” it is clear that he is non-aligning himself from his religion’s bloody past.
So the question of non-alignment to various interpretations of a faith — especially the one about the need to free the Holy Land of infidels with the sword — means to be non-committal to violence used for a religious or quasi-religious purpose. As Pope Benedict reminded us in an age that has already been reminded how “the Church had a deceitful and violent history... their brutal crusade to ‘re-educate’ the pagan and feminine-worshipping religions spanned three centuries, employing methods as inspired as they were horrific” (The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown, Chapter 28), not to take sides can be downright sinful.
The shortfalls of non-alignment, the subject of this piece, is of special relevance today when fence-sitters may not be even aware of the immorality of their (non-)act. While it may be easy to quote out of context what I have written here and present it as a simple critique of the Catholic faith, my intention, quite clearly, has been to highlight the dangers of non-alignment.
If I end up upsetting Catholics bent on misinterpreting what I have just written, all I can say is that I am very sorry. As for whether I agree with the quotes that I have used in this article, I am not saying a word.