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Confusing Images

As he frequently does, Fr. Robert Imbelli had an admiring post last week about something Pope Benedict had recently said. Titled Images of Gratitude, the post linked to Benedicts remarks on the occasion of his being made an honorary citizen of Freising, Germany, where he had attended seminary in the years immediately after World War II. With a few exceptions, most of the comments on Fr. Imbellis post were positive reactions to the popes sentiments and his intensely parochial piety.I eventually read Benedicts address to the townspeople of Freising. I thought it unexceptional and thereby perfectly suited to the blandness of this particular civic ritual. Popes and other public figures have to say such things all the time. What I found surprising was the adulation the popes remarks elicited. His appreciative recollections concerned family, neighbors, Catholic feast days, walks in the countryside, the numinous aura of Freisings medieval cathedral, and cherished memories of his ordination. At the seminary we were one family, the pope recalls, and Freising became a real homeland to us, and as a homeland it lives on in my heart. The war and the crimes of Nazi Germany are mentioned, but seem vague and distant shadows in Benedicts telling of the hardships and joys, the cold dormitories, study halls, and so forth of his seminary training. Tellingly, he concludes by praising the real Bavarian culture of his youth.It was curious, at least to me, that Benedict spoke nostalgically of what was in fact a desperate and nightmarish time. One explanation for this, of course, must have been his relief that the war was over and the Nazis vanquished. Still, most of Germany lay in utter ruins, tens of millions of Germans were dead, and millions more forcibly displaced or imprisoned. Hundreds of thousands of German women had been raped. The Jews of Germany had been almost entirely exterminated. Yet the pope hints at little of this in his recollections of a somehow still pristine postwar Bavaria. Instead, and in familiar Ratzinger fashion, we get a paean to an idealized version of German village life--of being part of a whole--before the disruptions and depredations of our modern, technological age. Benedicts admirers cast him as forward-looking, but that is hard to square with his ardent longing for the old rite[s] and venerable homeland of his German youth, and his determination to leave unmentioned the poisonous ethnic, cultural, and political hatreds that destroyed the world he idealizes. (Freising is but a stones throw from Dachau.)Benedict is a formidable theologian from whom all of us have a great deal to learn. Yet as a cultural critic, he has his blind spots.Perplexed by Benedicts remarks, I asked a friend who lived in Germany for many years to explain to me what Benedict meant when he praised real Bavarian culture. His response follows.

The interesting and to me key moment, rhetorically and symbolically, is Benedicts evocation of the Munich airport, which he acknowledges is impressive, modern, and specifically cosmopolitan ("global and open to the world")--then goes on in effect to dismiss these qualities over against the abiding loftiness of faith and the immensity and beauty of the Bavarian alpine landscape. This trope is the key to the values underlying "Bavarian culture." It is profoundly rural, village-based, anti-urban and anti-cosmopolitan. Thus is Munich referred to by its residents--proudly--as "not a city, but the worlds biggest village." The Bavarian culture he refers to culminates annually in Christmas, which draws together the religious with the all-important village rituals, lavish festive cooking and baking, and handcrafts. The wood carvings. The endless elaborated crches. The caroling. Those immense horns they play. The festive garb. Its one of those cultural places where Christianity sits most happily and comfortably atop the prior pagan seasonal rituals.A fathomless sentimentality draws together these recollections for older Germans, and especially for Bavarians--a virtual cult of Heimat (ones home place) expressed through effusive feelings of Heimweh (longing for home). The walks through fields and along river banks are standard props of these pastoral Heimat nostalgia narratives. That they are a bit foggy and overly generic coming from Benedict may indicate either the brevity of that time in his life, or the competing clang and clamor of the wartime reality he seems intent on excludingor even perhaps something perfunctory in his rendering of them for this audience. It would be exactly what they expect and want to hear, after all; hes singing their song.What he needs, as antidote to this sentimentality, is a viewing of Austrian director Michael Hanekes new film The White Ribbon. Heimat and Heimweh are the reason such films are made.

As pope, Benedict has expended much of his energy promoting traditional markers of European Catholic identity. Unfortunately, there are some very dark threads running through the Bavarian culture Benedict remembers so partially. Few of us are reliable historians when it comes to understanding the world that surrounded us in our youth. Popes are no exception.

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Perhaps Paul Baumann is too hard on many of those commenting on Benedicts Freising remarks. Like me, most probably didnt read the full text but were simply touched by the image of the cathedral spires and what Benedict, who really has a gift for this kind of preaching, did with it. The point of the image could have been made with any cathedral spires, anywhere, and for many readers Freising and Bavaria probably didnt have much to do with it. Nonetheless, Pauls observation about Benedicts weakness for an uncritical nostalgia about the church and culture of his Bavarian boyhood is salutary. It also points to something else that has long puzzled me: the near obsession with celebrating the popewhatever popeon the part of some Catholic intellectuals. I can understand the place of this kind of hero-worship on the part of people who have neither the leisure nor the formation for the kind of critical reflection that is the responsibility (and curse) of intellectuals. In the simplest dwellings around the world, including those of many of my forebears, there have been honored pictures of Pius IX, Pius XII, FDR, JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., and now Obama. Fine. They are symbols of loyalty, gratitude, and hope, pure and simple. No more than the pictures of triumphant athletes that often hang alongside them does one expects them to call to mind the tragic failures, personal weaknesses, mixed political legacies, or aborted potential of such heroes. When I find the equivalent of such pictures hanging in the minds of first-rate intellectuals, however, I cannot help but wonder. I confess that a great deal of reading in the very spotted history of the Left in the twentieth century has forced me to ponder the resemblance of papal adulation by some Catholic intellectuals to that of various Great Leaders from Lenin to Fidel to Mao by some left-wing intellectuals. When I once suggested this parallel out loud, my friend Jean Bethke Elshtain was appalled. Was I suggesting that John Paul II resembled Stalin? Of course not. Those who sang Stalins praises had to willfully blind themselves to many of his deeds, while those who sang John Pauls praises had the very contrary at hand. Nonetheless, there seemed something disturbingly similar in this impulse, and not just in the case of John Paul the Great, to highlight and extol virtually every papal deed and statement while finding a way to deflect or ignore rebut almost all criticism. Since no popes in modern times compete with Stalin or Castro or Mao in perfidy, the effect of this papal adulation on the world at large is probably negligible. Its effect on the church may be otherwise. That has changed, of course, in the decades since Vatican II. The cult of papal adulation has been joined now with a kind of mirror cult of papal denigration, especially in the case of Benedict. Both cults spring from the same soil. And both are nourished by another reality, what might be called the tactical use of papalotry. No one with any close knowledge of how official statements and sometimes even personal theology are written can be unaware of the practice of plastering the underlying argument with a defensive layer of papal proof texts. No one with any close knowledge of the Catholic hierarchy is unaware that leading bishops can disagree strongly with papal actions. Yet they almost never say so, not even in the most charitable terms. What kind of freedom in Christ is that? But the practical effect of all this does not bother me, though perhaps it should, as much as the questions it raises about the Catholic intellect. Catholic thinkers are well aware that the guidance of the Holy Spirit has not worked straightforwardly in the history of the popes and, furthermore, that there has not even been a clear relationship between personal sanctity or theological acumen and institutional leadership. I pay attention when Benedict issues an encyclical. I welcome it as an occasion to reexamine my own thinking and choices. But knowing how many papal encyclicals are justly forgotten today, I do not feel the need to treat it as inspired or devise complicated excuses for why he should not be held responsible for the parts of it that seem to be wanting. Why should grown-up, well-educated Catholics indulge in this tendency to treat the pope like the Dalai Lama? (Or, on the other hand, like Torquemada?) It seems childish. It gives a bad witness to the maturity and the integrity of our faith.

Mr. Baumann --This reminds me of a remark a young German friend once made. She had sung some German folk songs for a group of us. I remarked how beautiful the songs were. She replied, "Ah, yes. We Germans are very clever. We write lovely songs and march armies into France".Doesn't this express the human half of the existential problem of evil -- that we are capable of producing both good and evil, beauty and horror? And why should a German ignore the good? Especially one who didn't know at the tilme the horrors being done at Dachau? It's the Pope's speech at Auschwitz that deserved criticism for what it didn't say. I agree with you that he does have cultural blinders on, and they unfortunately deform his view of what the Church ought to be. But I think he has a right to praise what was and is good about Germany.

Someone my father hired as a chemist in the mid to late 1950s had emigrated from Poland to the United States and rather quickly became somewhat prosperous working with my father and also buying apartment buildings. He and his wife, nevertheless, said of just about everything you could imagine, "It was so much better in the old country." My guess is that the United States was a much better place to live than 1950s Poland. Nostalgia is very powerful and sometimes and sometimes dramatically at variance for what the past was really like.

On the one hand, I do think we have to be careful not to demand that one have to say everything about everything upon every occasion, and particularly on such an occasion as the one described.On the other hand, Ratzinger has often displayed a real affection, bordering on nostalgia, for the simpler, more firmly rooted life evoked here. During the Council, in an essay describing four distinct meanings that might be given to the word world, he listed as the second the concrete world not only as created by God but as shaped and marked by man himself. To illustrate it, he referred to the biblical notion that the first city was founded by the fratricide Cain or by his son, symbolic of the world as marked by man, a judgment on technological realities. The biblical author sees it as marked by human pride, by the hubris of one who wants to manage without God. Jacques Ellul in our own time revived that biblical tradition about Cain building the first city.While on the subject, I note that Newman, in his description of the ethos typical of the Benedictine monk wrote this paragraph: The monk proposed to himself no great or systematic work, beyond that of saving his soul. What he did more than this was the accident of the hour, spontaneous acts of piety, the sparks of mercy or beneficence, struck off in the heat, as it were, of his solemn religious toil, and done and over almost as soon as they began to be. If to-day he cut down a tree, or relieved the famishing, or visited the sick, or taught the ignorant, or transcribed a page of Scripture, this was a good in itself, though nothing was added to it to-morrow. He cared little for knowledge, even theological, or for success, even it was religious. It is the character of such a man to be contented, resigned, patient, and incurious; to create or originate nothing; to live by tradition. He does not analyze, he marvels; his intellect attempts no comprehension of this multiform world, but on the contrary, it is hemmed in, and shut up within it. It recognizes but one cause in nature and in human affairs, and that is the First and Supreme; and why things happen day by day in this way, and not in that, it refers immediately to His will. It loves the country, because it is His work; but man made the town, and he and his works are evil. This is what may be called the Benedictine idea, viewed in the abstract; and, as being such, I gave it, in my former Essay, the title of poetical, when contrasted with that of other religious orders.The internal quote is from Cowper:God made the country, and man made the town.What wonder then that health and virtue, giftsThat can alone make sweet the bitter draughtThat life holds out to all, should most aboundAnd least be threatend in the fields and groves?

I was at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers in 2008 for Benedict's visit, and for what it's worth, he struck a less nostalgic tone in his address to "young people" there.

My own years as a teenager were marred by a sinister regime that thought it had all the answers; its influence grew infiltrating schools and civic bodies, as well as politics and even religion before it was fully recognized for the monster it was. It banished God and thus became impervious to anything true and good. Many of your grandparents and great-grandparents will have recounted the horror of the destruction that ensued. Indeed, some of them came to America precisely to escape such terror.

He hardly exhausted the subject, of course, and I know some found what he did say too detached and passive. But it was memorable. His delivery grew much more emotional when he got to this part (vs. the dispassionate reading-from-a-page that characterized most of the talk) -- I remember very vividly his use of the word "monster," and the way his expression darkened as he said it.

I thought Peter's post was excellent.We just had a Commonweal issue on theology.How about a follow up thread on where to go in the current papcy amd environment with critical thinking in the Church? (And ecumenically as cardinal Kaspar and others seek out a kind of state of the question of where it's at?)

"before it was fully recognized for the monster it was" This is a really problematic statement, and part of the frustration, I think, that many of us have with the Benedictine nostalgic musings -- it was NOT recognized for a monster -- certainly not by anything approaching a majority of Germans -- without the horrible external intervention that we now call WWII. It wasn't recognized as a monster until the monster had been beaten to a bloody pulp, along with those who fed it, who were forced to stop. It's the apparent lack of self-recognition that the monster wasn't entirely "other" that rankles and makes what appear to be gentle, innoucuous comments about idyllic Bavarian farming life seem more suspicious than they ought to be.

The thing that struck me was the contrast between the city and the village. American Catholicism, the Catholicism of immigrants is very much the Catholicism of cities. I think it would be interesting to have him and Peggy Steinfels --with her wonderful memoir--talking about urban and rural forms of "thick" Catholicism.

The first 4 words perfectly, if inadvertently, adumbrate the tone of this post. Priceless!It's not that there isn't an interesting point to be made here about how subjective and personal memory can be --there is--but the post is cloaked in an animus that is soun-Benedictian that the reader is left wondering if the author made a large wager on the Colts.

Whatever my undoubted demerits, I seem to possess the singular ability to provoke both Peter and Paul to regrettably rare appearances.From the wiles and snares of papalotry, good Pope John, deliver us!

In judgments about when the "monster" was recognized for what it was, don't we need to add some qualifiers indicating by whom it was recognized, or not?

Actually, I found the Pope's talk charming -- but then I am a nostalgist of the same ilk -- a devotee of such places as Heidegger's Messkirch. Benedict is steeped in German literary culture -- which centers on glowing villages and quiet rural places. His favorite writer is Theodor Storm (also a very popular writer during the 3rd Reich, but that can't be held against him). Has that old world of rural rootedness been lost? No doubt. Heidegger says we have to find roots elsewhere, in Thought, and Benedict might say the same.

Why should grown-up, well-educated Catholics indulge in this tendency to treat the pope like the Dalai Lama?The older I get the more I realize that Catholicism has more than its fair share of near and actual idolatries: Latin The papacy Marianism The cult of saints AuthorityI know that conservative Protestants have their idolS in bibliolatry and churchianity, but one should expect more Godcenteredness in the Catholicism-of-the-road than one finds. Way too much time is spent focusing on those accidentals that have the tendency to direct ones attention away from the substance of faith.

Cathleen Kaveny: "The thing that struck me was the contrast between the city and the village. American Catholicism, the Catholicism of immigrants is very much the Catholicism of cities."Yes indeed, and does that make US Catholicism culturally different from virtually every other variant? including that of our neighbor (my geographical neighbor, at any rate, 60 miles away) to the north, in Quebec?) Does it mean that US Catholic nostalgia therefore rather different from other kinds of Catholic nostalgia? I know too little about Bavarian (or Austrian) senses of Heimat and Heimweh to say anything intelligent (except that they easily become kitschy), but the notion that real culture, real values, real people are rooted in the country rather than the city is very common. Why does Garrison Keillor preach to his educated urban audiences about the realities of Lake Wobegon? a contrast, perhaps, to the falsities of Chicago or New York? Look at US populism today in its various manifestations, still alive and well generations after William Jennings Bryan. What was it that defeated Al Smith in 1928? Was it mostly his Catholicism? or was it his mostly his urbanism, at a time that the US was undergoing a wrenching transtition from small town agrarianism to modern urban industrialism?Nothing to do with Benedict, of course, or (I hope) American populism, but the terrible modern example of this sense of rural reality vs. urban falsity is seen in Chairman Mao, leader of a victorious peasant revolution and notoriously distrustful of dangerous cities that produce dangerous ideas, dangerous institutions, and dangerous ways of living. Shanghai, the most prominent example of such dangers, was held back, kept poor, punished, so to speak, for its modernity, from 1949 until the late 1980s (and now look at it!).So perhaps American Catholic nostalgia is unique in looking back, not to the village church, but to the urban parish, its feasts and festivals of the kind Robert Orsi writes about, and the good old days before Vatican II, when we still knew which was was up. (But I don't come out of urban Catholicism, so I don't really know).

"So perhaps American Catholic nostalgia is unique in looking back, not to the village church, but to the urban parish"I would think that an appealing feature of Catholic European village nostalgia is that the ideal village (I speculate) would be one in which there were no denominational differences: everyone in the village belongs to the same church, which is in the center of the village, thus serving as a visual and physical as well as spiritual focal point for village life. When the church bell rings, the entire town gathers. When a town meeting is required, it is held in the church. That sort of thing. I believe the Holy Father 's reminiscences of the Cathedral conjure this picture, at least a little.Speaking as one who grew up as a Catholic in American small towns: small-town America is multi-denominational. Many of Jean Raber's comments here bear that out, istm. Having also lived for a number of years in Chicago, I would think that the urban Catholic enclave might actually come closer to the single-denomination European vilage ideal than an American small town. (In Chicago, the urban Catholic ghetto certainly still exists, but Spanish is now the vernacular). In the town where I grew up, it wasn't big enough for enclaves (except for the African American neighborhood). The downtown area has a Catholic church, a Presbyterian church and an Episcopal church cheek by jowl (think I'm remembering the denominations). I believe all three are now historical register sites. My experience of small town American life, and I think Jean's comments also bear this out at least a little, is that the denominational differences are a little rawer than is the case in the city or 'burbs - they still chafe a bit.

There is a definite strain in Benedict which avoids reality. He was a comfortable progressive until it got uncomfortable. He does talk about the monster of Nazism. Yet he tries to absolve the German people from it. Bavaria is a beautiful countryside. But the times that he speaks of were perhaps the worst or among the worst in human history. B16 talks about the one true, pure church but hardly recognizes the scoundrels who have led it. He mistakenly sees membership in the church as having all the gifts and forgetting that unity with the Crucifed Christ is the most desirable Christian position.

Well, of course, we in the US have a very ambivalent view of small towns--and religious homgeneneity. Our Town an The Lottery. The City on a Hill and Salem. I wonder whether the idea of small towns is as ambivalent in Germany.

What a strange post, even by dotCommonweal standards.I enjoyed the Pope's address, as I enjoy his writing in general. The image of the cathedral spires touching, but was more impressed by the way the Pope threaded together his memories in the place itself. I think Paul really missed the point here. I find a real joy, depth and generosity of spirit in Pope Benedict's homilies.I find the same qualities in Fr. Imbelli's posts and hope they continue.

The German post-WWII generation deserves praise for firmly establishing democracy in that country. They have acknowledged the evil of that time and their profound guilt, arguably more satisfactorily than the Japanese. And its certainly conceivable that some of these German leaders, far from being rootless cosmopolitans, drew strength from their Bavarian roots. Henry Kissinger, Fritz Stern and others have said as much - it shouldn't be controversial.

"a strain that avoids reality" -- surely this is so, though perhaps we all have some of that strain.It does become quaint when that strain is so out of sync with immense public office.What would we think if President Obama went on about old times in rural America etc.? The Pope gets away with it because he is so very old.

"What would we think if President Obama went on about old times in rural America etc.? "It's a theme that Sarah Palin has been known to invoke.