There is a warm spot in my heart for Sir Cecil Spring-Rice because he loved Theodore Roosevelt and disdained Woodrow Wilson. He also wrote the hymn “I Vow to Thee My Country” which some progressivists have forbidden their shrunken congregations to sing because it speaks of a real heaven, and a life of sacrifice. He said affectionately of Teddy: “You must always remember, the president is about six.” In the instance of his subject, that bespoke an innocent exuberance which sometimes tottered on the brink of vainglory and romance, and later led to the disaster of the Bull Moose Party, but which also impelled the Rough Rider up San Juan Hill (Kettle Hill for pedants). That was a flourish of innocence, as distinct from naiveté. For naiveté is to innocence what superstition is to faith, optimism to hope, and sentimentality to love.
In our day we have witnessed hearty public figures political and religious, fudging those distinctions and visiting mosques and bantering as though they were in a Kiwanis club. As they do, Christians are being killed in foreign lands by the disciples of Mohammed, whom the politically cautious say has been misunderstood by his extreme devotees. If that is so, we have yet to hear censure from the more moderate clients of that enigmatic figure who slaughtered many with his own sword. Images of Christian infants cut in half and children beheaded in Iraq, show that Herod is alive, and those of us who wear crucifixes now can see pictures of young men being crucified, as warnings that the cross is not an ornament designed by Tiffany for debutantes.
No civilized human can react with anything but embarrassment when Nancy Pelosi says on CNN that she has been informed by the Qataris that Hamas is a “humanitarian agency.” Her grotesque comment was made as Hamas was using human shields and citing lines from “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” At the same time, the cathedral in Mosul was being desecrated by the Islamic State and Yezidis were starving on a mountaintop as a moral descant to Pascal: “Christ is in agony until the end of the world.”
Agony is not a topic for humor. His century’s master of the English language, P.G. Wodehouse, recognized as such by T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and Churchill, broadcast from his internment camp ambiguous jokes about the Nazi genocide. “Risus abundat in ore stultorum.” Wodehouse was a gentle naïf, and, while distracted by golfing, he suffered under a lifelong cloud thereafter until he was decorated by his Queen who recognized that there was no malice in the man who never aged from six to manhood. There are those on the public scene today who do not have his excuse of permanent childhood.
In 1933, an anti-Nazi rally was held in Madison Square Garden where that noble and underestimated Governor Al Smith declared in his rough voice and Lower East Side diction, reading from notes written in is own hand on three envelopes with no recourse to teleprompters: “This fact, however, remains: That up to the present moment, if we look at the record, the responsible head of the German Government has said nothing in denunciation of this conduct.” More cultivated and less informed personalities like Lord Halifax, Geoffrey Dawson of the London Times and the 9th Duke of Manchester William Montague gathered at Cliveden, the country estate of the American expatriate Lady Astor, to mock those who said that Hitler meant what he said. The Irish journalist, Claud Cockburn, a Communist Party propagandist, may have caricatured their naiveté but dangerous it was, and it led to the pathetic incantations of Chamberlain who flaunted the term “appeasement” as a salutary policy, only to inherit the fate yet due to those in high places today who treat with presidents and governors, and then express “disappointment” that those presidents and governors had lied to them. History will record them uttering what Captain Renault sputtered in the fiction of film: “I am shocked. Shocked.”
On September 12, 2006 King Harald of Norway made available documents showing that the esteemed King Olaf V, as Crown Prince in the 1930s had urged his wiser father, King Haakon VII, to accommodate the Nazis. Both eventually fled to London when reality checked in. It was not a proud moment for the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sondenburg-Glucksburg, and a high price was exacted from all those who spouted what Chesterton called “easy speeches that comfort cruel men.” The New York Times, always eager to let theory trump practice, just as it had let its Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty defend Stalin, published an assurance from its Berlin reporter, Frederick T. Birchall, smoothly saying that Hitler had commanded the Nazi storm troops “to put an immediate stop to acts of political terror, personal persecutions and interference with private business.” The result was, according to him, “a visible relaxation of political tension throughout Germany.”
That 1933 New York rally was succeeded in 1939 by another in the same arena, when 22,000 pro-Nazis, inspired by figures including the universal hero, Charles Lindbergh, whom the world thought could slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet, boasted that the enemy was not an enemy. They spoke under a large picture of George Washington who, they said, was one of them because he was an Aryan. A grave in Mount Vernon must have rattled, but ideology has no patience for fact.
Today, the weaker voices who place politics above prophecy and popularity above the people, may say as some Frenchmen in the 1930s, understandably weary of war, said as they looked the other way, “We will not die for Danzig.” Bombs and shrapnel soon spelled out that Danzig was a cipher for all humanity.
If a prophet is not without honor save in his own country, a great prophet is not without honor save in the whole world. Pope Benedict XVI bent under that mantle in 2006 when he spoke in Regensburg. His only miscalculation was to assume that civilization might still be civil enough to respect reason. Quoting the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, himself a remnant of a decaying civilization which still distinguished good from evil, he considered how the Islamic notion of a divine power divorced from reason, whose absolute will is its own justification, could ransack the dignity of man. He condemned no one, and spoke only for truth without which the votaries of unreason, for whom there is no moral structure other than the willfulness of amorality, and whose God is not bound by his own word, rain down destruction.
The response of some, who protested with violence, proved by that very violence the Regensburg hypothesis, if the Incarnate Christ whose word is truth, can be called a hypothesis. Pope Benedict said: “Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul…. God is not pleased by blood—and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats.… To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death….”
Later, the distinguished Egyptian Jesuit scholar, Father Shamir Halil Shamir, wrote: “Benedict XVI is probably one of the few figures to have profoundly understood the ambiguity in which contemporary Islam is being debated and its struggle to find a place in modern society. At the same time, he is proposing a way for Islam to work toward coexistence globally and with religions, based not on religious dialogue, but on dialogue between cultures and civilizations based on rationality and on a vision of man and human nature which comes before any ideology or religion. This choice to wager on cultural dialogue explains his decision to absorb the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue into the larger Pontifical Council for Culture.”
The president of Argentina, the problematic Christina Kirchner, said that the Pope’s remarks were a “diatribe” and “dangerous for everyone.” A supporter of Kirchner, the left-wing “investigative journalist” Horatio Verbitsky, adept as a conspiracy theorist, claimed in the journal “Pagina/24” that Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, at that time archbishop of Buenos Aires, had distanced himself from the Regensburg address, and the cardinal’s spokesman, Father Guillermo Marco, was quoted in Newsweek Argentina as saying that Bergoglio was “unhappy” with what Pope Benedict had said. The London Daily Telegraph made the same claim with nothing more substantial than the article in Newsweek Argentina. It is the case that another Argentinian archbishop, Joaquin Pina, criticized the Regensburg thesis, four days after which the Holy See accepted his resignation, but he already was one year past retirement age.
These few years since have seen written in the suffering of distressed souls what Pope Benedict described calmly and charitably. Such a short time can sharpen perceptions, and Pope Francis, whom we are assured is close to Benedict, has recently said from his humble abode: “The news coming from Iraq leaves us with dismay and disbelief.” Consequently, the Holy See conceded that military action may be needed to stem the atrocities of the Islamic State of Iraq. Only time will tell if that is a day late and a dollar short. Pythagoras’s belief that history repeats itself is a notion contrary to Christian progress, but all history attests that mistakes can repeat themselves, and the only way out of that fatal trap is to admit error and make amends. Both Benedict and Francis continue to grace the world with their obedience to the Logos. Should the God of Love call Benedict first to his heavenly home where humility’s only advertisement is the peace which passes all understanding, may Francis or another successor of Peter, declare Benedict a Doctor of the Church. Of one thing we may be certain: like the bold prophet Jeremiah, the benign prophet Benedict will never say in this world or from the next, “I told you so.” Reality has said that already by events more than words.