London's Sunday Times would have us believe that one of the leading contenders for the papacy is a closet Nazi. In if-only-they-knew tones, the newspaper informs readers that German-born Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was a member of the Hitler Youth during World War II and suggests that, because of this, the "panzer cardinal" would be quite a contrast to his predecessor, John Paul II.
The article also classifies Ratzinger as a "theological anti-Semite" for believing in Jesus so strongly that – gasp! – he thinks that everyone, even Jews, should accept him as the messiah.
To all this we should say, "This is news?!"
As the Sunday Times article admits, Ratzinger's membership in the Hitler Youth was not voluntary but compulsory; also admitted are the facts that the cardinal – only a teenager during the period in question – was the son of an anti-Nazi policeman, that he was given a dispensation from Hitler Youth activities because of his religious studies, and that he deserted the German army.
Ratzinger has several times gone on record on his supposedly "problematic" past. In the 1997 book Salt of the Earth, Ratzinger is asked whether he was ever in the Hitler Youth.
"At first we weren't," he says, speaking of himself and his older brother, "but when the compulsory Hitler Youth was introduced in 1941, my brother was obliged to join. I was still too young, but later as a seminarian, I was registered in the Hitler Youth. As soon as I was out of the seminary, I never went back. And that was difficult because the tuition reduction, which I really needed, was tied to proof of attendance at the Hitler Youth.
"Thank goodness there was a very understanding mathematics professor. He himself was a Nazi, but an honest man, and said to me, 'Just go once to get the document so we have it...' When he saw that I simply didn't want to, he said, 'I understand, I'll take care of it' and so I was able to stay free of it."
Ratzinger says this again in his own memoirs, printed in 1998. In his 2002 biography of the cardinal, John Allen, Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter wrote in detail about those events.
The only significant complaint that the Times makes against Ratzinger's wartime conduct is that he resisted quietly and passively, rather than having done something drastic enough to earn him a trip to a concentration camp. Of course, whenever it is said that a German failed the exceptional-resistance-to-the-Nazis test, it would behoove us all to recognize that too many Jews failed it, as well.
If he were truly a Nazi sympathizer, then it would undoubtedly have become evident during the past 60 years. Yet throughout his service in the church, Ratzinger has distinguished himself in the field of Jewish-Catholic relations.
As prefect of the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger played an instrumental role in the Vatican's revolutionary reconciliation with the Jews under John Paul II. He personally prepared Memory and Reconciliation, the 2000 document outlining the church's historical "errors" in its treatment of Jews. And as president of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, Ratzinger oversaw the preparation of The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, a milestone theological explanation for the Jews' rejection of Jesus.
If that's theological anti-Semitism, then we should only be so lucky to "suffer" more of the same.
As for the Hitler Youth issue, not even Yad Vashem has considered it worthy of further investigation. Why should we?