A Troublesome History? The Pope's Past with the Right Wing

By Gunther Latsch

Pope Benedict XVI admitted that he made mistakes in his handling of the far-right Society of St. Pius X and the Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson. But the pope has a history of being used by the extreme right.

For weeks, one heard relatively little from him. Pope Benedict XVI seemed to have little to say about the ultra-conservative brothers of the Society of St. Pius X -- about their Bishop, Richard Williamson, about is appalling denial of the Holocaust, and about the storm of criticism launched by many Catholics against the Vatican. Last Tuesday, Pope Benedict XVI finally issued a statement in a letter addressed to the "Dear Brothers in the Episcopal Ministry."

Pope Benedict XVI has a history with the far right.
DPA

Pope Benedict XVI has a history with the far right.

Since then, the world has known that the pope is indeed fallible. That is, of course, a human quality, but it isn't necessarily good for the office of the papacy. According to church doctrine, the pope's preaching of dogma is infallible -- but even errors unrelated to dogma can tarnish his reputation.

"An unforeseen mishap," wrote the pope, "was the fact that the Williamson case came on top of the remission of the excommunication (eds. note: of four Pius brothers)." This created the unfortunate impression that this "discreet gesture of mercy" was the "repudiation of reconciliation between Christians and Jews," which was something that he could "only deeply regret."

But the Williamson affair is not the first case where the theologian Joseph Ratzinger has allowed himself, with inexplicable nonchalance, to be used by right-wing extremists, as previously unpublished documents now show.

In 1997, Ratzinger -- who at the time was head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- allowed Austrian publisher Aula-Verlag to use a text that he had written for a collection of essays to mark the 150th anniversary of 1848, a year of revolution in Germany as elsewhere. The editors of this book entitled "1848 -- Erbe und Auftrag" (1848 -- Heritage and Mission) were Otto Scrinzi and Jürgen Schwab, two well-known leading figures among German-speaking right-wing extremists who have never made a secret of their political beliefs.

In early February 2009, Karl Öllinger, a Green Party member of Austrian parliament, criticized Ratzinger for the publication at Aula-Verlag and urged that Benedict's role in the debate over the ultra-conservative Pius brotherhood be re-evaluated. The spokesman of the archdiocese of Vienna declined to accept the invitation.

According to Kathpress, an Austrian Catholic news agency, Ratzinger was "evidently not asked for his permission to publish the article." According to correspondence between then Aula magazine editor Gerhoch Reisegger and the Vatican -- and seen by SPIEGEL -- that claim is incorrect.

On Sept. 18, 1997 Reisegger asked "His Eminence Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger" for "permission to reprint" the article that was published in the magazine Communio in 1995. "The monthly magazine Aula of the Libertarian Academic Associations of Austria " wanted to comment on Ratzinger's "exceptional thoughts" on the "confusion" surrounding the 150th anniversary of the Revolution of 1848.

Only 12 days later, Ratzinger's secretary, Monsignore Josef Clemens, gave Reisegger the green light: "In response to your friendly letter … I may on behalf of Cardinal Ratzinger inform you that he has approved the printing of his essay … in the monthly magazine Aula of the Libertarian Academic Associations of Austria."

Initially, there was no discussion of a book project, but Reisegger informed Monsignore Clemens on Oct. 6, 1997 that instead of printing the essay in the monthly magazine, it was possible that a "special issue on the topic of 1848" would be printed in order to take a "critical look at liberalism, freemasonry," and "the Revolution of 1848." Reisegger made no mention of who would edit this book.

Nevertheless, the mere mention of the name of this Austrian publishing house alone should have set off alarm bells throughout the Vatican. Only three years earlier, Aula had made headlines well beyond the borders of Austria. The magazine's editor, Herwig Nachtmann, had come out in support of Holocaust denier Walter Lüftl. In his article "The Laws of Nature Apply to both Nazis and Anti-Fascists," the head of Aula praised Lüftl's report -- called "Holocaust, Belief and Facts," published in 1992 -- as a "milestone on the road to truth." The resulting bad publicity even prompted Jörg Haider's far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) -- which had until then used Aula as a party organ -- to distance itself from the magazine and its publisher, and to discontinue all financial support.

Whether this went unnoticed in the Vatican is, however, not the decisive question. The fact is that the Ratzinger text itself contains disturbing passages. Under the headline "Criticism of Democracy," the cardinal writes: "The feeling that democracy is not yet the right form of freedom is fairly common and is increasingly widespread…. How free are elections? … Is there not an oligarchy of those who decide what is modern and progressive, what an enlightened individual should think? … And what of the decision-making process in the bodies of democratic representation? … Who could doubt the power of interest groups, whose dirty hands are increasingly visible? And is the system of a majority and a minority really a system of freedom in the first place?"

In the eyes of the Aula staff, so much mistrust of democracy apparently marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship. When the cardinal was elected as pope, they rejoiced: "Hail to your arrival, protector of the devout. As a Hitler Youth and a member of the anti-aircraft corps, he protected his people against the Anglo-American bomb holocaust! Is the Holy Father now fighting with determination against the baby holocaust?"

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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