Sep 20, 2006


Sandeep Banerjee

Pope Benedict XVI is 'deeply sorry.' Sorry, because some bits of his speech – on violence, jihad and Islam – at the University of Regensburg have offended Muslim sensibilities. So the Pope apologised in person; a rather gracious act, no doubt.

What exactly does this apology achieve? It probably helps the aggrieved forget the wrong. The Pope's sorry also allows for a selective appeal to memory, helping the individual and the collective negotiate history effectively.

Negotiating history is tricky because it requires skilful use of memory, of forgetting. So when the Holy Father in his speech quotes a Byzantine Emperor Manuel Paleologus as saying that 'violence is incompatible with the nature of God,' one cannot but help think that Papa Ben is indulging in some gratuitous forgetting of his own.

The Big Ben forgets, perhaps conveniently, that violence too is coded into the fabric of Christianity – it was Jesus (according to the Gospel, Matthew) who said, 'He that is not with me is against me' long before George W. Bush made this line his own.

As for the history of the Catholic Church: The Spanish Inquisition could lay claim to being one of the bloodiest chapters of human history, scripted by the Vatican's Holy Office of the Inquisition. Today this is called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an office the current Pope headed before his elevation. The Holy See also blessed the cleansing of the indigenous populations and cultures of the Americas. And the silence of Pope Pius XII as Hitler performed his danse macabre, wasn't exactly golden, was it?

Being German, the Pope knows the importance of forgetting since Germany stands at a curious psychological juncture of memory and amnesia. That country wants to forget its murderous Nazi past, Europe doesn't – because to forget murder is to absolve the perpetrator. Remembering the holocaust is to perpetuate guilt.

But in Germany, even remembering isn't an easy task. Ask Gunter Grass. After insisting that his countrymen must never, ever forget, he has just chosen to remember his own past in his forthcoming autobiography – that he was a member of the Nazi SS.

A snippet from his autobiography: As a prisoner of war in the Bad Aibling camp, Grass came across a shy 17-year-old boy called Joseph. Grass wanted to be an artist, Joseph wanted to go into the church. Grass can't remember if Joseph is Pope Benedict XVI though Papa Ben admits he was indeed a prisoner of war in that camp.

Strange, indeed, are the ways of memory.

This article was published in the editorial page of the Times of India, New Delhi on September 20, 2006. The original article can be found here.