In one of his speeches, the Pope appeared to associate atheism with the Nazis, which has prompted criticism from humanist organisations.
Although, the Catholic Church has moved to play down the controversy, saying the Pope knew “rather well what the Nazi ideology is about”, humanists have said the comments were a “terrible libel” against non-believers.
In his address, the Pope spoke of “a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society”, and went on to urge the UK to guard against “aggressive forms of secularism”.
The Pope made those remarks at Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, in his opening address to the Queen.
He said: “Even in our own lifetimes we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live.
“As we reflect on the sobering lessons of atheist extremism of the 20th century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus a reductive vision of a person and his destiny.”
‘Force their views on others’
In a statement, the British Humanist Association said the Pope’s remarks were “surreal”.
It said: “The notion that it was the atheism of Nazis that led to their extremist and hateful views or that it somehow fuels intolerance in Britain today is a terrible libel against those who do not believe in God.
“The notion that it is non-religious people in the UK today who want to force their views on others, coming from a man whose organisation exerts itself internationally to impose its narrow and exclusive form of morality and undermine the human rights of women, children, gay people and many others, is surreal.”
It is not the first time the German-born Pope has spoken of his time growing up under the “monster” of Nazism : he joined the Hitler Youth at 14, as was required of young Germans at the time. Late on in WWII he was drafted into an anti-aircraft unit in Munich. Towards the end of the war he deserted the German army and was briefly held as a prisoner-of-war by the Allies in 1945.
While teaching at the University of Bonn in the 1960s, the Pope’s conservative, traditionalist views were intensified. He was said to be appalled at the prevalence of Marxism among his students.
In his view, religion was being subordinated to a political ideology that he considered “tyrannical, brutal and cruel”.
Later, he would be a leading campaigner against liberation theology, the movement to involve the Church in social activism, because for him it was too close to Marxism.