Many are perhaps familiar with the arguments of Daniel Goldhagen, first in Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust and then in Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair, to the effect that the German "race" as a whole bears full moral responsibility for the Nazi holocaust and the Roman Catholic Church, in particular, bears full moral responsibility--to the extent of owing reparations--for not merely standing by while it happened, but actively promoting its ends. Ryback's rant does not foam at the mouth as Goldhagen does, but it labors mighty hard to work up a lather over statements and actions that, upon reflection, seem perfectly harmless and, upon closer inspection still, are evidently benign.
Eventually one must wonder where all this animus against the German "race" comes from, if not from a noxious racism of the very sort deemed unacceptable in others, especially Germans. Another explanation is on offer, however, and I suppose it may even apply to Goldhagen. There is a tendency in some writers--more than a tendency in Ryback, as it turns out--to conflate individuals and institutions. It is ironic in a day and age in which Platonism is far from the minds of most of the self-styled "Brights" who criticism religion as an institution that moral responsibility should so often and so easily be transferred from the culpable individuals who commit great crimes to the institutions to which these individuals claim allegiance. This reification of institutional structures cannot be taken as a hopeful sign that Aristotelian essentialism is again on the rise: rather it is a sign of the incredibly sloppy moral reasoning to which we are subjected on an almost daily basis.
It would seem to be so obvious as to be a truism: individual persons engage in moral reasoning and make moral choices, therefore individual persons are the sole bearers of moral responsibility, the sole objects of praise and blame. Institutions become objects of praise or blame only indirectly, as blanket-terms covering a multitude of individuals. When John Paul the Great offered his "apology" for the actions of the Church, it is important to read the text of the apology very carefully, because it is quite clear that it is not the Church itself, qua Body of Christ, that has acted sinfully in the past, but only certain individuals claiming to act on behalf of the Church who have sinned. It should come as a surprise to no one that the Church contains sinners, but it apparently can still surprise some that the Church is not itself a sinner.
- Here is a box. It contains diamonds. Therefore the box is a diamond.
There are really two fallacies at work here. The first is the reification of something that cannot be a moral being; the second is to treat the "parts" of that reified whole as having all the same properties as the whole.
- Here is a BMW. The BMW costs thousands of dollars. Here is a bolt from the BMW. The bolt costs thousands of dollars.
- Here is a BMW. Here is a bolt from the BMW. The bolt is very cheap. Therefore the BMW is very cheap.
It really grates, though, when the responsible individuals are dead and gone and the rest of us are still pissed off about what they did. That's why it's so tempting to hold their tribe responsible for what they did. Hatred is always more tempting than forgiveness. For one thing, it's a lot easier. My son, who is twelve, is often irritated by his sister, who is four. She pesters him constantly to play with her, but he often refuses on the grounds that she has done this or that to him to make him angry. Last night, as I listened to yet another one of these squabbles, I decided to have a "teaching moment". I hauled out the Bible and made Michael read to me from Matthew 18.21-22: forgive your brother (or sister) seventy times seven times. As quickly as he finished reading it he was piping up: "But dad, I've already forgiven her more than seventy times seven times, and she keeps on doing the same things!" So after explaining to him about numbers in the Bible, I talked to him at some length about forgiveness, and how it is difficult to do, yet necessary, since those who do wrong are in need of something other than anger and hatred, ortherwise they would not be doing wrong. He actually caught on to this immediately: when I asked him why parents ought not to react in anger to children who do wrong he said "Because they're just stupid little kids--they don't know any better." But he understood that such children need some sort of discipline, otherwise they might wind up being seriously hurt. You do not beat up a sick person: you give him medicine. Forgiveness doesn't seem like medicine to us because we're too accustomed to desiring vengeance rather than rehabilitation. Hopefully, though, a parent who disciplines a child is not seeking the retributive suffering of that child, but his betterment.
For the Goldhagens, and perhpas the Rybacks, of the world, forgiveness as a principle is something one rolls ones eyes at:
John Pawlikowski, a professor of social ethics and the director of the Catholic-Jewish studies program at the Catholic Theological Union, in Chicago, took a somewhat different view [from that of Avery Cardinal Dulles, who explained that Christians ought to pray for their enemies and those who persecute them]. "I think there is a strong tendency, not only in the bone marrow of the average Christian but in the DNA of Christian ethicists and theologians, to emphasize forgiveness and reconciliation," he told me. He has worked with Holocause survivors and has spent years on the Holocaust Memorial Council, and these activities have tempered this instinct for forgiveness. Pawlikowski said that Ratzinger was right in leaving the fate of La Combe's war dead "in the hands of God," but he faulted him for not condemning that which should have been condemned: Catholic, if not German, culpability. "Many of the S.S. men were certainly raised as Catholics," Pawlikowski said. "They were part of this Church that we remain part of as well. They were catechized by that Church and may also have had the anti-Jewish attitudes that were so prevalent in the Church. We need to acknowledge that we catechized them in the wrong direction, and commit ourselves today to not repeating that sort of catechesis."It's a little scary to think that this Pawlikowski is a professor of any kind of ethics, in spite of the fact that he makes at least one true claim here--that we ought not to repeat any kind of shoddy catechesis that may have occurred. The glaring errors in his other claims, however, outweigh whatever truths he has hit upon accidentally. Consider the effortless slide he made, for example, from the claim that those S.S. men who were raised Catholic "were catechized by [the] Church" to the claim that "We need to acknowledge that we catechized them in the wrong direction." Who's "we", white man? Somebody catechized them in the wrong direction, that's for sure--but it was not "we" (I, for one, would have opposed it), and it wasn't the Church, either, since the Church explicitly condemns the very thing he's accusing it of teaching. Some particular idiotic individuals did the catechizing, and they are the morally culpable ones. We need to do what we can, again as individuals, to see to it that this sort of thing never happens again, but we won't be doing anybody any favors if we perpetuate moronic moral inferences of this sort.
Ryback clearly endorses this attitude towards forgiveness. He wants more retributive suffering, and he wants it from whomever he can extract it. The Germans as a "race", if that's all he can get, but ideally from the Catholic Church, which apparantly ought to have known better. Silly old Church--why can't you keep closer tabs on what your parts are doing? The Pope, of course, stands for the Church in ways that the rest of us can never hope to, but he is not identical to it, and Popes may err. When that happens--when a Pope sins--the Church itself remains sinless. The Pope is the vicar of Christ, and we do hold him to a higher standard because of that special role. But we ought not to act surprised when Popes do what Christ would have done: forgive even their bitterest enemies, even while hanging on the cross.
The title of Ryback's essay?