Pope Benedict XVI will soon arrive in the United States, prompting reflections of many sorts, including a renewed discussion of his history with the German military. In the past, such discussions have centered on two issues: whether the young Ratzinger embraced Nazi ideology and whether it is fair to criticize him for mistakes of his youth. But these questions miss the important moral issue, one that is crucial to understanding the nature of morality in the face of injustice.

The Pope insists that he and his family never embraced Nazi ideology, and there is a good deal of evidence to confirm this. But such a lack of active endorsement is hardly a full defense, for what remains is the issue of collaboration, of complicity.

And collaborate the young Ratzinger did. He not only accepted membership in the Hitler Youth but, far more seriously, a post in the army. Much has been made of the claim that he never fired his weapon, but he did lay anti-tank mines near the Hungarian border and watched Jews being herded to death camps. That is, he collaborated materially, not only in the German war effort, but also in the Holocaust.

In later years, both Ratzinger and his brother have claimed that they had no choice, that resistance was impossible. Taken literally, this is false. Thousands of brave Germans resisted. To mention just one example, Sophie Scholl was no older than the young soldier Ratzinger, with his unloaded gun and anti-tank mines, when she and others members of the White Rose made the choice to distribute anti-Nazi literature, a choice that they paid for with their lives. Others, some from young Ratzinger’s hometown, refused the draft and were sent to concentration camps. Others went underground, fled Germany or organized resistance.

But perhaps the Ratzinger brothers mean that there was no route to effective resistance, no way that refusing would have changed the course of history. Perhaps this is true. One can hardly know, but I have to believe that those who did resist would have welcomed the presence of another soul on the side of justice, particularly one with the intellectual and rhetorical skills that later led Ratzinger to the highest position in the Catholic Church. And in any event, the issue of complicity is not exhausted by that of efficacy.

But for all this, the crimes of the young Ratzinger should not be our focus. Crimes they were. And hard though it might be to hear, one’s duty in such a situation is, in my view, to accept death over complicity with the most evil project of the most evil regime ever to exist on this earth. Yet despite all that, I remain keenly aware of the difficulty of such a moral demand. No one from the comfort of a university office is in any position to predict what he or she would have done if faced with a choice between defending death camps and being sent to one. I hope that I would have been strong, but I do not know. And if a scared teenager pressured by his community and his people makes the wrong choice, I would not cast the first stone.

Imagine that, later in life, as a mature priest, as leader of a moral community, Cardinal Ratzinger had taken responsibility. Imagine him saying something like the following:

“In my youth, I collaborated with the greatest evil in the history of this world. I participated in defense of the Holocaust. I did so out of fear, out of moral confusion, out of the fragility and fallibility of my youth and human weakness. This sin is one that I will live with my entire life, that will haunt me. It is one for which I humbly ask forgiveness of the people of the world, and one that will forever incline me toward forgiveness of weakness in others.”

I think that one could not only forgive a man who said something such as this, but also admire him as one who found a route to moral growth and wisdom from his earlier failings. But nothing like this has been said. Instead, we hear that resistance was impossible, that his gun was not loaded, that the young Ratzinger did no wrong. We hear, indeed, comments that disgrace the memory of those who did resist, that erase from history the war resisters tortured at Dachau, the fighters murdered, the nonviolent opposition that, however inadequate, slowed the Nazi machine.

I am no more than an ordinary, fallible human who tries to be thoughtful, who keeps his eyes open and his mind active in pursuit of moral truth. So I might be wrong about any of this, but as I see it, these brave people deserve more than protestations of impotence from one who claims to speak authoritatively about the eternal truths of morality. Far more importantly, so do the masses of ordinary people today who look to Pope Benedict XVI for moral leadership. The idea that they can do nothing in the face of organized evil – that resistance is impossible, that it is acceptable to respond to threats with collaboration – is a lesson that flies in the face of all that is noblest and best in human history. It teaches a lesson of despair.

This Pope is not a Nazi. Neither must he be condemned for the crimes of his youth. But the words of his maturity, the response to those crimes that he stands behind to this day, call out for challenge in the clearest possible terms.

ark Lance is a professor in the philosophy department and a professor and program director in the Program on Justice and Peace. He can be reached at lancethehoya.com. COGNITIVE DISSIDENT appears every other Friday.

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