Wednesday 5 October 2011

Against the anti-papists

(Note: this is an English paraphrase of an earlier post.)

The Left Party took a clear position on the pope's recent visit to Germany: half its MPs were to leave the room during the pope's speech before the Bundestag. I believe this attitude, widespread among the German Left both within and without parliament, is wrong both theoretically and strategically. The following is intended as a kick-off to a left-wing response to no-to-popery rhetoric in Germany: a critique of the critique of the pope, if you will.

Last year's papal visit to Britain, until recently my home, was similarly contested. At the time, Simon Hewitt outlined why hostility to the pope was suspect, but his argument, rooted as it is in historical materialism, applies mostly to a British context. But just as in Britain, German anti-Catholicism would do well to understand its own history.

Germany, almost uniquely among the European states, is divided into two denominations of roughly equal size.* The religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries ended in a draw. The decline of imperial authority left no power above the princes, who proceeded to enforce uniform religious observance among their subjects. (It may have been for this reason that my Protestant ancestors left Upper Austria for Pomerania in the early eighteenth century.) After Prussia expelled Austria from the German Confederation, sixteen million Catholics remained in the newly unified German state: mostly in the south and west, in Ermland, Upper Silesia and the Polish border regions - beside twenty-eight million Protestants.

The Hohenzollern emperors were none too fond of these Catholics. They suspected them, the 'inner France', of conspiring with foreign powers and branded them 'enemies of the Reich'. Bismarck waged a protracted war of position - the Kulturkampf of the 1870s - against the Catholic Church. In short, Catholicism served the rulers of the Junker State as an imaginary enemy to secure their own power. Catholics fought back in the political arena through the Centre Party; many also joined the fledgling Social Democrats. At the same time, German nationalists in Austria-Hungary founded the 'Away from Rome' movement, combining virulent anti-Catholicism with antisemitism; protofascists like Georg von Schönerer converted to Protestantism.

Though officially neutral with respect to religion, Nazism was suspicious of the Catholic Church as a 'foreign' power from the beginning. In Catholic regions the Nazis never achieved the electoral breakthroughs that made the rural Protestant North their stronghold. In his infamous Myth of the Twentieth Century, Alfred Rosenberg claimed the Papacy descended from the haruspices - Etruscan soothsayers - and was thus of Asiatic, 'non-Aryan' origin. In western Germany, Catholicism only won equality and the capacity to contribute equally to public life after 1945.

Of course most latter-day anti-papists will be appalled at the unsavoury history of German anti-Catholicism: many, indeed, will not be familiar with it. Most of those hostile to the papal visit are of a generally secular frame of mind rather than hailing from a traditionally Protestant backgrounds. Either way hostility to the Catholic Church is not neutral terrain: any critique of the pope must formulate a response to the historical persecution of Catholics and unequivocally defend Catholics' enduring right to practise their faith in Germany.

Rejecting simplistic criticisms of the pope does not, of course, mean a blithe acceptance of the Vatican's teachings. Critics are right to lambaste Rome's stance on gender and sexuality as well as its treatment of the abuse scandal. As a Protestant, I also have fairly wide-ranging disagreements with Catholic teachings, from salvation to ecclesiology, the Eucharist and the use of images. None of that means, however, that one shouldn't invite the pope and hear him out. Not to mention that anyone who rejects the pope must be consistent: will he or she show the same zeal protesting President Obama, who is responsible for the deaths of thousands through drone attacks - which, however hostile, no-one could quite claim of the pope?

Liberal secularists opposing Protestants and Catholics as well as Muslims and religious Jews must be prepared to be self-critical and accept that, just like the Christianity of yore, their agitation has frequently been exploited in the cause of imperial aggression in recent years. Western Crusaders like Henryk Broder and Christopher Hitchens use a critique of religion to justify the invasion of Muslim countries as well as the continuing occupation and colonisation of Palestine. Secularism must be as wary of its false friends as it is of its supposed or real enemies. It must be critical of its own vocabulary and accept that it is counter-productive to stereotype Christians as, in the admirable words of Professor Dawkins, 'dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads'. Painting Joseph Ratzinger, a highly intelligent theologian, as an out-of-touch fuddy-duddy won't do much for anyone's credibility.

Most varieties of secularism find their origin not in Marxism but in a - particular and arguably wrong - interpretation of the Enlightenment, and the Left should be wary of applying them uncritically. Marx's real critique of religion cannot be separated from his critique of the social order, as a quick glance at the Introduction to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right will show:
The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realisation of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Unlike Marx I do not believe 'religion' - which Marx rather unacceptably generalises as a universal phenomenon - to be an illusion, but the main thrust of Marx's argument is hard to argue with. Proclaiming the end of religion without at the same time fighting for the end of a state of affairs that leads people to long for a less terrible Beyond is not just an admission of impotence, but apologetics for the vale of tears. Unlike liberal atheism Marxism dissolves superstition into history, not vice versa: it seeks to overthrow the present society rather than pointlessly demand that people should bear it without illusions.

But left-wing anti-papism is wrong not only in theory but also in practice. The Left Party has struggled for years to overcome its own east-west division: a mass party in eastern Germany but often the weakest of five parliamentary parties in the West, it is faced by the task of establishing itself among the West German working class. The most industrialised regions of the West (the Ruhr and the Rhineland), however, are also among the country's most strongly Catholic. Spicing up democratic socialism with God-is-dead sloganeering is self-sabotage. Left-wing politics must approach workers without prejudice, not condemn their beliefs, whatever they may be, as antediluvian.** It must engage real human beings, not the sort it would like in a perfect world. The party oddly has no problem grasping this when it comes to Iraq or Palestine, which should make one at least a little uneasy.

In other news, the decline of Christianity in Germany has led to strange side-effects. When the pope declined to advance the ecumenical integration of the churches, the press considered this a 'disappointment' to Protestants, whose hopes were apparently 'dashed' by the Pontiff. It would appear that when he said he felt closer to the Orthodox than to the Protestant churches, the pope made Protestant bishops cry. One might imagine the Eastern and Lutheran churches as prodigal sons competing for the approval of a displeased father and eager to move back into his house at the earliest opportunity. Well, I must announce my disappointment is somewhat limited: the Protestant tradition, be it Lutheran or Calvinist, has long been sufficiently strong to survive without a papal blessing. We'll live.

*Yugoslavia and Ireland are somewhat similar in this respect.
** Of course there are limits: the Left must always be a force against racism and sexism among workers, for example, which are morally unacceptable and weaken the working class.

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