The Pope’s Sales Pitch

September 19, 2010

Give credit where credit is due. Pope Benedict recognizes that the Catholic Church, along with religion in general, has been losing many of its supporters, particularly in Europe. He knows it’s critical for the Church to regain market share. So he goes on the road—this time in the United Kingdom—to make a sale pitch. He’s also savvy enough to know that dated approaches that are heavy on metaphysics are not going to work well. The public isn’t buying angels anymore. So what is he to do?

His speeches in the UK indicate he’s using a combination that other salesmen peddling shoddy products have often used: subtly slander the competition and invoke brand loyalty, relying on what’s left of the product’s reputation.

Benedict sees the competition as secularism and he correctly sees the best selling point of the Church to be the belief, still widely held, that religion is the foundation for morality. Accordingly, he insinuates, without saying so expressly, that rejection of religion will lead to horrors. Don’t trust your future to secularism! The Christian brand has been good for humanity—stick with it!

Specifically, the Pope said in one of his speeches :

“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.  … As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth 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.’”

Equating Nazis with atheists, even atheist extremists, is an outrageous smear of religious sceptics—made doubly despicable by the fact that Nazism was not an atheist movement. But the Pope knows that the “Nazis were atheists” myth has become popular and more difficult to refute with each retelling. Moreover, who’s going to bother to check the facts?

For those interested in the facts, Nazism was not an atheist movement, either officially or unofficially. The Nazi party program expressly endorsed a generic Christianity , the overwhelming majority of Germans, including Nazis, remained Christians throughout the Third Reich, German troops—including Benedict himself—went to war with the slogan “Gott mit uns” [God is with us] on their belt buckles, and there is no evidence Hitler was an atheist. He wanted to subordinate religious institutions to the State, and privately he ridiculed Christian beliefs, but he believed in Providence until the end.

And as for the Holocaust, the Church is hardly blameless. Hitler did not invent anti-Semitism. It was endemic in Europe for centuries, lovingly fostered by the Church at intervals whenever it was deemed advantageous to do so. What the Nazis brought to a pre-existing anti-Semitism was a pseudo-scientific racial theory mixed in with rabid nationalism (and efficiency in killing). Religious scepticism played no causal role in the Holocaust and it is a blood libel for Benedict to suggest it did.

What makes the Pope’s observations even more repugnant is his shameless attempt to cloak the Church, and religion generally, with the mantle of the guardian of human dignity and fundamental freedoms. Does he take us all for dupes? (Sadly, some do have a short historical memory.) The Church has tenaciously resisted throughout the modern era every right we hold dear, including freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of press, universal suffrage, and gender equality. It has endorsed torture and censorship. And even if its relations with Hitler were rocky, it has warmly embraced many a dictator, including fascist dictators such as Franco. Granted, post-Vatican II, the Church has struggled to catch up with modern thought—so it no longer supports the divine right of kings—but its dogmatism is still on display with its adamant opposition to gay and lesbian rights and reproductive freedom.

Truth-in-advertising has never been a principle followed by the Church, but Benedict takes deceptive marketing to a new level. We can only hope his claims will be examined critically—and that the Church will continue to contract.