Pope Benedict XVI will go down in Church history as one of the greatest popes. . . Joseph Pearce’s biography provides an unforgettable encounter with this great historical figure.
On August 21, 2008, Pope Benedict described his older brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, as "a companion" and "a trustworthy guide". The pope's love for his brother and his gratitude for the filial and familial bond that had united them across the decades was a testimony to the strength and witness of the devout Catholic family in which they had been nurtured and nourished. In the shining example of the Ratzinger family we see what the domestic church is called to be, which is nothing less than an image of the Church Herself, a beacon of God's love and presence in this vale of tears.
Hilaire Belloc said of the Church that "[w]ithin that household the human spirit has roof and hearth. Outside it, is the Night." This was certainly true of the domestic church in which Joseph and Georg Ratzinger belonged. Inside the family, the brothers and their sister Maria lived by the light of the faith that their parents taught them. Outside the family was the dark night of Nazidom that had descended on Germany when the brothers were still children.
Hitler had come to power on January 30, 1933, when the future pope was only five years old. In consequence, the young Joseph Ratzinger could be said to have grown up with two big brothers. The first was the older sibling who was the light and guide of his childhood; the other was the Orwellian Big Brother, the real-life dragon of anti-Christian secular fundamentalism who dwelt in the darkness beyond the sanctuary of the family home.
Joseph Ratzinger was born on Holy Saturday, April 16, 1927, in Marktl am Inn, a small town in Bavaria, a few miles from the Austrian border, and only eighteen miles from Braunau am Inn, the birthplace of Adolf Hitler. By a strange coincidence, which those of faith might see as providential symbolism, Blessed John Paul II was born in Wadowice, only eighteen miles from Auschwitz, the most notorious of the Nazi concentration camps. Both popes were also born in close proximity to major Marian shrines.
Wadowice is only twelve miles from the Kalwaria Zebrzydowska, with its "weeping" icon of the Virgin; Marktl am Inn is only ten miles from the Marian shrine in Altötting, known as the Lourdes of Germany. The providential proximity of these Marian shrines to the birthplace of both popes, coupled with the proximity of their birthplaces to the infernal "shrines" of the Third Reich, symbolizes the presence of the New Eve and her Old Adversary in the lives of these two great men. The significance was summarized by the German historian, Michael Heseman: "Both popes … were born in immediate proximity to places that symbolize, like no others, the rise and inhumane cruelty of National Socialism. Yet the two birthplaces are likewise under the protection of the Mother of God, who always vanquishes evil."
"My father," wrote Cardinal Ratzinger, "was one who with unfailing clairvoyance saw that a victory of Hitler's would not be a victory for Germany but rather a victory of the Antichrist that would surely usher in apocalyptic times ..."
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Ratzinger's father bought a radio as a means of circumventing the propaganda and censorship of the Nazi regime. "[I]t was clear to him that the Nazis were really just lying to us," wrote Georg Ratzinger in his memoir of his brother. "He wanted to know what was actually happening." The radio was tuned into foreign stations, a punishable offence under Nazi law, and not only to the neutral Swiss stations but also to the French and British stations, which broadcast allied propaganda in the German language. "Anyone who was not a staunch Nazi listened to these stations," Georg Ratzinger recalls, "although it was strictly forbidden."
Precautions were taken. The volume was kept very low and their surreptitious listening to verboten stations was kept a closely-guarded secret from their neighbours. Informers were everywhere and the consequences of being caught were potentially fatal. Reception was poor but it was the only alternative to listening to the incessant propaganda on German radio. The only thing that was true on the German stations, Ratzinger's father quipped, was the time and possibly the weather. "My father," wrote Cardinal Ratzinger, "was one who with unfailing clairvoyance saw that a victory of Hitler's would not be a victory for Germany but rather a victory of the Antichrist that would surely usher in apocalyptic times ..."
Another consequence of the Nazi Party's war on Christianity was its efforts to bring the Catholic schools into conformity with the prevailing ideology of the state. Fidelity to the Faith of the Fathers was seen as an obstacle to the new faith of the Fatherland. The traditional bond between the schools and the Church was dissolved and Christianity was replaced by a new common core curriculum imposed by the government. From now on, only that which was deemed politically "correct" would be tolerated in the classroom. The Catholic bishops fought to preserve the parochial schools and the pastoral letters on the subject which the local parish priest read in church made a deep and lasting impression on the young Joseph Ratzinger.
In the 1990s, half a century after the fall of the Third Reich, the elderly Cardinal Ratzinger was reminded of the politically "correct" nature of Nazi education as he thumbed through the songbook he had used at school. New Nazi songs, or old songs with new Nazi words, were interspersed amongst the traditional songs, and Ratzinger saw how his music teacher, "a convinced Catholic", had instructed his students to cross out the phrase Juda den Tod (death to Judah) and replace it with the words Wende die Not (dispel our plight). It is likely that this courageous teacher, inspired by his Christian principles, risked losing his job for this act of defiance against the immoral content of a state-imposed text book. One wonders whether any teacher in a public school in the United States today would risk losing his job by instructing his students to cross out phrases promoting sexual immorality, the killing of unborn children or radical relativism.
"In retrospect," wrote Ratzinger, "it seems to me that an education in Greek and Latin antiquity created a mental attitude that resisted seduction by a totalitarian ideology."
Shortly after the ten-year-old Ratzinger began school in Traunstein, the small town in Bavaria to which the family had moved in 1937, the deputy headmaster was removed from his post for refusing to conform to the demands of the new state-imposed curriculum. The education "reform" that the Nazis implemented amounted to an effort to suppress the traditional liberal arts. The study of Greek was removed from the curriculum entirely and the study of Latin was greatly reduced. These classical languages were replaced by the study of modern languages, especially English, and by a greater emphasis being placed on the physical sciences.
It is indeed astonishing to consider the similarities between the war on education waged by the Nazis during Joseph Ratzinger's childhood and that currently being waged by the Federal Government with its efforts to impose a common core. "In retrospect," wrote Ratzinger, "it seems to me that an education in Greek and Latin antiquity created a mental attitude that resisted seduction by a totalitarian ideology." This is no doubt the case but an education in traditional Christian doctrine is even more effective in creating such an attitude, which was no doubt the reason for the Nazi Party's banning, in 1941, of religious instruction in schools, replacing it with physical education and sports. By that time, however, Joseph Ratzinger had entered the seminary, following his older brother in his answering of the call to the priesthood.
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Ratzinger in his childhood and youth had seen and experienced the consequences of secular fundamentalism at first hand. He was all too aware that there is precious little difference between the various shades of socialism. Whether it is qualified by adjectives such as "national", "international" or "democratic" the same spirit of anti-Christian secularism and the same blind faith in the benevolence of big government always prevails. Big Brother, by any other name, is an enemy of freedom.
Joeseph Pearce. "Living With Big Brother." The Imaginative Conservative (November 10, 2021).
Reprinted with permission of Joseph Pearce.
This is an exclusive excerpt from Joseph Pearce’s book, Benedict XVI: Defender of the Faith.
Joseph Pearce is Director of Book Publishing at the Augustine Institute, editor of the St. Austin Review and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. Among the books he has authored are: Benedict XVI: Defender of the Faith, Literature: What every Catholic should know, Tolkien: Man and Myth, C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church, Literary Catholics, Race With the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love, Beauteous Truth: Faith, Reason, Literature and Culture, Through Shakespeare's Eye, J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth, Unafraid of Virginia Woolf, Solzhenitsyn, and Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc.Copyright © 2021 The Imaginative Conservative
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