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Is Pope Benedict too sentimental about Bavaria?

There’s a flourishing discussion about papalotry, or the inordinate and uncritical adulation of popes, going on between the blogs of America Magazine and Commonweal. I’ll leave papalotry to my betters (Gregory Wolfe offers some good thoughts) and focus on its origins. Catalyst for the debate was Commonweal editor Paul Baumann’s critical post about a speech that Pope Benedict made a few weeks ago when he was made an honorary citizen of the town of Freising, a suburb of Munich where the Pontiff spent his seminary years.

It is perhaps fitting that Mr Baumann’s post is entitled “Confusing Images” because both its focus and intentions were confusing. Ostensibly Mr Baumann is reacting to another Commonweal blogger, Fr Robert Imbelli, who had simply posted up the Pope’s speech entitled “Images of Gratitude”, uncritically. Mr Baumann professes himself surprised by “the adulation the Pope’s remarks elicited”. He describes the speech as “unexceptional and thereby perfectly suited to the blandness of this particular civic ritual” but then proceeds to give to give it a meticulous going over.

He writes: “His appreciative recollections concerned family, neighbours, Catholic feast days, walks in the countryside, the numinous aura of Freising’s 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 Benedict’s 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.”

For Mr Baumann the point of contention appears to be not so much Fr Imbelli’s papalotry, but rather Pope Benedict’s youthful post-war memories. Mr Baumann takes the images that the Pope presented at this banal civic ceremony and redraws them to show a Pope clinging with sentimental attachment to Freising and Bavarian culture. Mr Baumann’s Benedict becomes an almost senile old man indulging in a fantasy of a youth spent in a sort of idyllic Schlaraffenland where traditions reigned supreme. This Benedict comes across as a man incapable of facing up to his beloved country’s Nazi past and by association, incapable of facing up to the challenges of the present.

Mr Baumann writes:

“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. Benedict’s 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 stone’s 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.”

One aspect of the speech, which puzzles Mr Baumann, is Benedict’s reference to “richtig bayerische Kultur” which he translates as “real Bavarian culture” and the Vatican translators give back as “true Bavarian culture”. The reference came at the end of the Pope’s speech when he thanked the good burghers of Freising for the honour. In doing so, he also thanked the Oompah-Oompah band which he said made “real Bavarian culture” present here. Given that the Pope was addressing a Bavarian delegation and was a bit more folksy than usual, “richtig” here could also have meant really. In short, he could also have been saying that the band “really made Bavarian culture present here”. He might not have been referring to “real Bavarian culture” at all.

Whatever the case, Mr Baumann wants to understand “what Benedict meant when he praised ‘real Bavarian culture’” and asks a friend who has lived in Germany a long time to explain it.

The friend comes up with this:

The interesting and to me key moment, rhetorically and symbolically, is Benedict’s 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 world’s 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 crèches. The caroling. Those immense horns they play. The festive garb. It’s 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 (one’s 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 excluding…or 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; he’s singing their song.

What he needs, as antidote to this sentimentality, is a viewing of Austrian director Michael Haneke’s new film The White Ribbon. Heimat and Heimweh are the reason such films are made.

Some of the observations ring true. Bavarians love festivals, many of which are Christian ritual overlaid on older pagan elements and the emphasis on the rural over the urban. But Bavarians also pride themselves on being part of the present. An unofficial Bavarian motto is “Laptop und Lederhose”, in short, the idea that Bavarian society is rooted in the tradition, but not stuck in the past. While Bavaria is becoming ever more modern, tradition remains very much alive—not as something invented by ideologues intent on re-creating some notion of German identity—but as part of the fabric of daily life. Walking in the street in Munich, people will be wearing traditional dress—in villages, members of the volunteer fire brigade will bear their banners with the Virgin Mary or St Florian as they march behind the children set to do their First Communion in the Corpus Christi procession. They might go play football later or computer games. Traditions that have died and then are re-invented, like Morris Dancing, are the product of a backward looking sentimentality, whereas traditions that continue to be lived offer a direct and real connection with the past without being of the past.

Granted there is some sentimentality in Benedict’s speechwhen he dwells on his time in seminary and his ordination to the priesthood by Cardinal Faulhaber, but who is not somewhat sentimental about key moments in life, places where one has grown up? Remember also that this was a speech at a fairly straightforward civic event to a group of worthies and notables, in which there was probably neither time nor necessity for a long discourse on the horrors of Nazism or on the deprivation and shame of post-war Germany. He has spoken of those, many times, in other venues, at other, more sobering occasions. If anyone in the Church today is aware of the horrors of Nazism, followed by the desolation of postwar Germany, then it is Benedict.

It is interesting to note that what Mr Baumann’s friend describes as fathomless sentimentality, the cult of Heimat and Heimweh, has its origins in German Romanticism and is more characteristic of Weimar (culturally northern Germany) than of Bavaria. To suggest that Haneke’s film The White Ribbon is an appropriate antidote to this sort of sentimentality is not entirely wrong–because the film is set in north eastern Germany.

But the criticism offered by Mr Baumann’s friend on Pope Benedict’s speech offers exactly the same two-dimensional perspective that marred Haneke’s beautiful and thought-provoking film, namely the thinly veiled view that a tyrannical streak of darkness and evil underlies traditional societies which are hypocritical in their praise of home, family, virtue, church and the divine. It fails to take into account—and yes, there is a dark streak in Bavarian culture, just as there is in any culture—that traditions and village rituals have a place in our culture and can offer both the stability, foundation and a sense of belonging to something greater, older and more enduring than a human lifetime.

At the heart of Mr Baumann’s critique of Pope Benedict’s Freising speech lies something more insidious. Tradition plays an important role both in Benedict’s theology and his pontificate, in part because of the traditional culture he comes from but also because he has grown up with living tradition.

For Benedict XVI, the Church offers living traditions, which bind us to our pasts and to our greater, collective selves, with all that that entails, as well as to the living Christ. To suggest then, that Benedict indulges in fathomless sentimentality about Bavarian culture, is, by association, to suggest that his papacy and his theology are the products of something not grounded in reality but upon some sentimental ideal about a more comfortable, untainted past. And that is more than just a straightforward criticism of papalotry

Written by annaarco

February 11, 2010 at 6:21 pm

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