Tuesday, April 17, 2012

'Nazi Pope,' Urban Legends, Academic Standards, and the News

During and immediately after World War II, quite a few folks decided to leave Germany. Some of them didn't have all their papers with them, and didn't want to wait for a thorough background check: sometimes, I suspect, because they were about two jumps ahead of the Gestapo.

Some of them got out because Catholic priests didn't insist on detaining them until German authorities could determine whether they should leave, or stay. After the war was over, some Catholic priests still helped refugees get somewhere else.

Some of the refugees were Nazis. And some priests helped refugees, even though they were Nazis.

Those are facts.

But the persistent notion that the Catholic Church conspired with Nazis? That's something else.

Assumptions aren't Facts

I don't know how, or if, old-school news media will connect the latest 'Nazi Pope' tale with the recurring 'pedophile priests' story. But given their track record, I wouldn't be surprised if that happens.

Both urban legends are are based on actual events. But, like the old Bible epics, 'based on actual events' isn't the same as 'depicting actual events.'

I don't doubt that folks who 'really believe' that space aliens are trying to help us are sincere. I also don't doubt the sincerity of the person who wrote this:
"...Catholics and Muslims along with the fake Jews all are Satanic Cults...."
(Anonymous, quoted April 2, 2009)
But sincerity doesn't guarantee accuracy, and assumptions aren't facts: no matter how fervently one believes that they are.

Urban Legends, Plausibility, and Space Aliens

Urban legends have been defined as being "just plausible enough to be believed."1 I think thresholds of plausibility vary greatly.

Apparently "one out of three Americans believe we have had Visitors" from another planet.2 Of those, the fraction who really 'believe in flying saucers' have, in my considered opinion, a fairly low threshold on their 'plausibility' scale. So does the (hypothetical) chap who thinks that "Alligator" is a documentary film. I like "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," by the way, and that's another topic.

Harvard, Chick Publications, and the Pillar of Fire Church

Having a college degree is no guarantee that a person will not mistake assumptions for facts. The person will probably use more sophisticated terminology to express the goofy ideas, though: there are advantages to doing time in academia.

I think that part of the problem is that folks tend, naturally enough, to believe assumptions that appear to support what they want to believe. And when a person is immersed in a relatively isolated subculture, I think it may be hard to remember that 'I want to believe it' isn't the same as 'it's true.'

Not when everybody one knows insists that only stupid, ignorant, outsiders question the assumptions.

Harvard is a fine old American institution. It's been around since 1636. Over the generations, it developed a reputation for being where really important people went to college: which is true. Lots of important folks went to Harvard; where they met kids of other important folks. Some Harvard graduates seem to have had something besides their parents' money going for them, like:
Don't get me wrong: Harvard started letting unimportant folks attend, too, starting around 1945. They even let Catholics attend. That's awfully broadminded, given the old American attitude of anti-Catholicism.


(from PZ Myers, Pharyngula (July 24, 2008), used w/o permission)
A consecrated Host impaled with a nail, a page from the Quran, and a page from an athiest's book, arranged and photographed by associate professor Paul Myers, University of Minnesota, Morris. (2008)


(Chick Publications, via FoxNews.com, used w/o permission)
Excerpt from Chick Publications' "The Death Cookie," illustrating an alternatively-factual view of the Catholic Church.

From ''Klansmen: Guardians of Liberty'', 1926. Published by the Pillar of Fire Church in Zarephath, NJ. Copyright was not renewed.
(Pillar of Fire Church, via Wikipedia, used w/o permission)
"From ''Klansmen: Guardians of Liberty'', 1926. Published by the Pillar of Fire Church in Zarephath, NJ...."


(From Thomas Nast Portfolio, Ohio State University, used w/o permission.)
"The American River Ganges, a cartoon by Thomas Nast showing bishops attacking public schools, with connivance of Boss Tweed. Harper's Weekly, September 30, 1871." (Wikipedia)

Harvard and an Old American Tradition

For all new ideas, or new labels on old ideas, at Harvard, the Ivy League bastion seems to remain firmly rooted in some old-fashioned American values:
"Claims of papal help for Nazi war criminals 'verifiably false' "
CNA/EWTN News, (April 16, 2012)

"A Harvard professor's claim that Vatican leadership intentionally helped Nazi war criminals escape to South America after World War II relies on erroneous sources and misinterprets events, argues Catholic author Ronald J. Rychlak.

" 'The combination of sloppy work and over-the-top charges provides a textbook example of how a verifiably false account can be reported as fact in the mainstream media, Rychlak said in the April 2012 issue of the Catholic League's newsletter The Catalyst...."
I put a copy of that article at the end of this post.3

Research, Facts, and Other Pesky Things

I'll give Harvard credit. This 'Nazi Pope' story isn't some liberal fantasy. "How the Catholic Church Sheltered War Criminals" appeared in a "neoconservative magazine" in December, 2011. Back to that article:
"...Rychlak, the associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Mississippi, has authored two books on Pope Pius XII's actions during World War II. He critiqued Harvard Divinity School professor Kevin Madigan's essay 'How the Catholic Church Sheltered War Criminals,' published in the December 2011 issue of the neoconservative magazine Commentary....

"...Bishop Hudal was not on friendly terms with the Vatican leadership, Rychlak explained.

"The bishop's memoir said that the assistance he gave to fleeing Nazis was done without the Pope's knowledge. He authored a book 'critical of the hard line that Vatican diplomats took with the Germans,' Rychlak reported...."
(CNA/EWTN News)
I'll grant that "How the Catholic Church Sheltered War Criminals" sounds more dramatic than "How Some Catholic Priests Helped Refugees, Some of Whom Were Nazis." Besides, in some circles 'everybody knows' how icky the Catholic Church: which might make the idea of a Nazi-Vatican conspiracy seem plausible.

About apparently ignoring a bishop's dicey relationship with Rome, and the fact that the bishop wrote that he wasn't telling Rome what he was up to? I remember how much work goes into research, and how pesky deadlines can be. But when I was doing time in academia, I didn't think it was okay to fudge facts, even if I was pretty sure that the imaginary reality would please a professor.

I've wondered if academics like Kevin Madigan and Ward Churchill are exceptions to the rule: or if they're just the ones who get caught.

And that's another topic.

Related posts:
In the news:

1 Urban legends are "just plausible enough to be believed:"
"Definition: An apocryphal, secondhand story told as true and just plausible enough to be believed, about some horrific, embarrassing, ironic, or exasperating series of events that supposedly happened to a real person...."
(David Emery, About.com)
2 My take on facts, statistics, and space aliens:
"If a candidate for president said he believed that space aliens dwell among us, would that affect your willingness to vote for him? Personally, I might not disqualify him out of hand; one out of three Americans believe we have had Visitors and, hey, who knows? But I would certainly want to ask a few questions. Like, where does he get his information? Does he talk to the aliens? Do they have an economic plan?..."
("Asking Candidates Tougher Questions About Faith"
Bill Keller, Magazine, The New York Times (August 25, 2011))
That "one out of three" link takes you to an interesting article:
"Poll probes Americans' belief in UFOs, life on other planets"
scrippsnews.com (July 15, 2008)

"Most Americans say it is very likely or somewhat likely that humans are not alone in the universe and that intelligent life exists on other planets.

"Only a third of adults, however, believe it's either very likely or somewhat likely that intelligent aliens from space have visited our planet, according to a survey of 1,003 adults conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University. ..."
Depending on how the poll questions were worded, I might be in the "third of adults" that thinks it's "very likely or somewhat likely" that someone from another planet has landed on Earth. But that doesn't mean that I think space aliens have been mutilating cattle, buzzing cars, and performing interstellar pregnancy tests in wholesale lots over the last half-century.

I don't know whether or not there's life anywhere in this universe, except for what's on Earth. But I do know that cosmologists, physicists, and astronomers have good reason to estimate the age of the universe at about 13,030,000,000 years: and that Earth has been around for roughly 4,000,000,000 years.

That vast expanse of time, and the physical size of the universe, is part of why I think we may 'not be alone.' Over the last 1,000,000 years, we've gone from burning our fingers on campfires to plugging leaks in reactors. That's 1/13,030 of the age of the universe, and 1/4,000 the age of Earth. Over the last 100 years, we've gone from having some interesting math that said interplanetary travel might be possible, to robot explorers mapping the outer Solar system.

If there is life somewhere else in the universe, if it's 'close' on a cosmic scale, and if that life includes someone with the sort of itchy curiosity some of us have - - - That's a lot of "ifs."

Adding two more: if those folks got started just a little sooner than we did, say 1/13,030th of the age of the universe; and if they'd decided to go to other worlds; they'd have been traveling in space for 1,000,000 years.

Today, we've got off-the-shelf hardware that could get to nearby stars in that length of time: not with the ship's radio still working, though, most likely. Propulsion technologies that could substantially reduce travel time to other stars are in development. Others are still strictly theoretical: Alcubierre's equations may or may not lead to a practical 'warp drive.' Give us another million years, though, and my guess is that someone will have sent probes to other stars. And, more than likely, made the trip in person.

I think it's possible that someone else did the same thing: and might have visited Earth: at some point in the last 4,000,000,000 years. But in the last 40? With nobody noticing? That, I think, is very unlikely. I've been over this sort of thing before:
(This footnote is so long, I'm thinking of using it as a post in another blog)

3 From the news:
"Claims of papal help for Nazi war criminals 'verifiably false' "
CNA/EWTN News, (April 16, 2012)

"A Harvard professor's claim that Vatican leadership intentionally helped Nazi war criminals escape to South America after World War II relies on erroneous sources and misinterprets events, argues Catholic author Ronald J. Rychlak.

" 'The combination of sloppy work and over-the-top charges provides a textbook example of how a verifiably false account can be reported as fact in the mainstream media,' Rychlak said in the April 2012 issue of the Catholic League's newsletter The Catalyst.

"Rychlak, the associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Mississippi, has authored two books on Pope Pius XII's actions during World War II. He critiqued Harvard Divinity School professor Kevin Madigan's essay 'How the Catholic Church Sheltered War Criminals,' published in the December 2011 issue of the neoconservative magazine Commentary.

"Madigan contended that the Pontifical Aid Commission supplied 'crucial aid in sheltering Nazi war criminals.' The commission, he claimed, viewed itself as 'a sort of papal mercy program for National Socialists and Fascists.'

"Madigan's essay indicated that this support took place with the whole-hearted support of Pius XII.

"But Rychlak countered that the commission helped 'hundreds of thousands of legitimate refugees' and that some Nazi war criminals took advantage of this.

" 'Madigan would have us believe that the Church knowingly sent Nazi officials to safety,' he said. 'It is, however, inconceivable that the Nazis revealed their background to reputable Church officials. It is even less likely that any such information would have reached the Vatican. The logistics of the massive relocation programs simply made it impossible to investigate most individuals who sought help.'

"Part of the controversy centers on Bishop Alois Hudal, a Nazi-sympathizing rector of the German-speaking seminary college of Santa Maria dell'Anima in Rome.

" 'It has long been known that Hudal and a Croatian priest named Krunoslav Draganovi? helped some former Nazis escape from Europe. Madigan, however, says that they were part of ‘a sort of papal mercy program for National Socialists and Fascists',' Rychlak said. 'That is far from the truth.'

"Bishop Hudal was not on friendly terms with the Vatican leadership, Rychlak explained.

"The bishop's memoir said that the assistance he gave to fleeing Nazis was done without the Pope's knowledge. He authored a book 'critical of the hard line that Vatican diplomats took with the Germans,' Rychlak reported.

"In 1949, the bishop asked the Vatican to defend him from press attacks. Then-Msgr. Giovanni Battista Montini, a top advisor to Pius XII who would be elected Pope Paul VI, replied 'there is no defense for a Nazi bishop.'

"Pope Pius XII refused to meet with a group of Austrian pilgrims organized by the bishop if the bishop accompanied them.

"Rychlak also questioned the reliability of Madigan's sources.

"Madigan's Commentary essay drew on Gerald Steinacher's book 'Nazis on the Run: How Hitler's Henchmen Fled Justice' and David Cymet's book 'History vs. Apologetics: The Holocaust, the Third Reich, and the Catholic Church.'

"According to Rychlak, Madigan 'confounded' Steinacher's points and wrongly said that he wrote that Pope Pius XII favored an 'extensive amnesty' for war criminals.

" 'That is not what Steinacher wrote, and nothing could be further from the truth,' Rychlak said.

"He cited Pius XII's repeated public stands in favor of punishing war criminals and his provision of evidence for use against Nazi defendants. The Pope assigned a Jesuit to assist prosecutors of accused war criminals.

"Steinacher in fact attributed the advocacy amnesty to a German bishop working in Rome, but this interpretation is a misreading, Rychlak said.

"He focused on Steinacher's examination of two letters between Bishop Alois Hudal, rector of the German-speaking seminary college in Rome, and then-Msgr. Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Pope Paul VI.

"Bishop Hudal's May 5, 1949 letter to Msgr. Montini sought amnesty for German soldiers. Steinacher's book, which incorrectly dates the letter, erroneously reported that the bishop sought pardon for war criminals, Rychlak said.

" 'Actually, Hudal expressed sympathy for political prisoners who had already spent four years in prison, but he never mentioned nationalities, war criminals, or soldiers,' Rychlak wrote.

"Besides these problems in Madigan's essay, Rychlak objected to its claims regarding the treatment of Jewish children entrusted to Catholic institutions for their safety during the war. Some of the children were taught Christianity and baptized.

"It is 'nonsense' to say that the Pope refused to let any baptized Jewish child be returned to his or her parents, Rychlak said. He characterized this as a 'false charge' based on Cymet's book, which draws on an incorrect summary of a 1946 document on the topic.

" 'Madigan should have done his homework before spreading these malicious charges,' Rychlak said."

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