By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Friedrich Nietzsche espoused a pagan lust for power “irreducibly” opposed to Christian non-violence, the Preacher of the Papal Household told the pope this morning, and it’s difficult not to see a connection between Nietzsche’s thought and the Nazi Holocaust.
Capuchin Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the pope’s official preacher since 1980, addressed Benedict XVI during the weekly retreat he offers for the pope and senior Vatican officials each Lent. His subject was the promise of the Beatitudes in the New Testament: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land.”
The Capuchin recalled that Nietzsche scorned the vision of humility and non-violence offered by Jesus in the Beatitudes, styling it a “morality of slavery.”
In the last half-century, Cantalamessa observed, it’s been fashionable to try to reconcile Nietzsche and Christianity, arguing that it was only an excessively abstemious and tee-totaling brand of religion to which he objected. Thus when Adolph Hitler invoked Nietzsche to justify the Nazi regime, according to this theory, he was betraying Nietzsche’s intent.
Explore Pope Francis' environmental encyclical: Get this free readers' guide when you sign up for the weekly Eco Catholic email.
tOnly one voice, Cantalamessa said, has held out against this revisionist approach: the French Catholic thinker René Girard (today an emeritus professor at Standord). Girard, according to Cantalamessa, saw clearly in Nietzsche’s reaction to the Beatitudes a microcosm of the “irreducible alternative between Christianity and paganism.”
t“Paganism exalts the sacrifice of the weak in favor of the strong and the advancement of life; Christianity exalts the sacrifice of the strong in the favor of the weak,” Cantalamessa said.
tIn that regard, he said, Hitler did not misread Nietzsche.
“It’s difficult not to see an objective connection between the proposal of Nietzsche, and the Hitlerian program of the elimination of entire human groups for the advancement of civilization and the purity of the race,” Cantalamessa said.
t“Christianity was not the philosopher’s only target, but Christ,” Cantalamessa said. “‘Dionysus against the Crucified: Behold the antithesis,’ he exclaimed in one of his posthumous fragments.”
tIn fact, Cantalamessa said, the widespread modern conviction that society is obligated to defend the powerless is a direct result of Christianity’s influence.
tCantalamessa said Girard shows how “the greatest point of pride for modern society – its concern for victims, its taking the part of the weak and the oppressed, its defense of life where threatened – is in reality a direct product of the revolution of the Gospel.” Paradoxically, Cantalamessa said, those very qualities are now championed by other movements as if they were their own inventions, sometimes even in opposition to Christianity.
Reflecting on the Beatitudes, Cantalamessa told Benedict XVI that the gospel leaves no room for doubt about non-violence as the proper Christian attitude, as opposed to other traditions where “exhortations to non-violence” are “mixed with contrary exhortations.”
tThough he did not mention Islam by name, Cantalamessa situated his analysis of the Beatitudes and non-violence within the context of “the debate over religion and violence which has taken place after Sept. 11.”
Even if some Christians have not lived up to these ideals over the centuries, Cantalamessa said, the witness of the Gospel in favor of non-violence is clear.
He argued that two New Testament references frequently cited as examples of a “violent” thrust also within Christianity have been misinterpreted.
tFirst, Cantalamessa addressed the famous line from Luke 14, where a master instructs his servant to find guests for a dinner and to “force them to come.” The line has a checkered history; St. Augustine, for example, used it to justify violence against followers of the Donatist heresy. Cantalamessa, however, argued that in context, the master is talking about “amiable insistence,” not literal coercion.
t“How many times in similar circumstances have we said, ‘You forced me to accept,’ knowing full well that the insistence in this case is a sign of benevolence, not of violence,” Cantalamessa said.
tSecond, Cantalamessa referred to Luke 19:27, in which Jesus tells a parable about a king who says, ‘As for those enemies of mine who did not want me as their king, bring them here and slay them before me.’ A recent Italian book, Cantalamessa said, claims that the line authorizes a Christian form of holy war. In fact, however, Cantalamessa says that the words are from a character in a parable, and the identification with Jesus is inexact. Moreover, he said, they have to be ‘translated’ spiritually. In effect, Cantalamessa said, the point of the parable is that the decision to accept or reject Christ is a matter of life and death.
t“Holy war,” Cantalamessa said, “has nothing to do with it.”
Just $5 a month supports NCR's independent Catholic journalism.
We are committed to keeping our online journalism open and available to as many readers as possible. To do that, we need your help. Join NCR Forward, our new membership program.
Looking for comments?
We've suspended comments on NCRonline.org for a while. If you missed that announcement, learn more about our decision here.