Disillusioned German Catholics The Pope's Difficult Visit to His Homeland
Part 2: From Liberal to Conservative
At the beginning of his career, Ratzinger held completely different views, views that were open-minded and liberal. At the Second Vatican Council in 1962, he and the prominent Swiss theologian Hans Küng were among those who sought to open up their fossilized church and fought against the Vatican's claim to absolute authority.
But the year 1968 became a turning point in Ratzinger's life. As a professor at the University of Tübingen in southern Germany, he was booed by students, who chanted "Jesus be damned" in his lectures. It was a shock he never came to terms with. The enlightened professor of theology transformed himself into a conservative dogmatist, filled with suspicion of all attempts to reform the Church.
Since then, Benedict has viewed the Catholic Church as the sole custodian of a divine truth. The notion that this divine truth was established for the sake of mankind and not for the sake of an absolute idea is no longer relevant in Ratzinger's theology.
It is doubly fatal for the Church that Ratzinger's fanaticism about the truth goes hand in hand with a fear of the world and its confusing ways. Like John Paul II, he believes that this earthly, hedonistic society is a culture of death, which the Church should distance itself from. As a result, the pope is squandering the opportunity to play an important part in shaping secular society, choosing isolation instead of openness.
A New Antipope
Because of this approach, Ratzinger encounters particularly great resistance in his native Germany. A broad alliance of about 70 protest groups, including the Pro Familia alliance for self-determined sexuality and the German AIDS Society, has called for a rally in downtown Berlin on Thursday. About 15,000 people are expected at the event, to demonstrate against the Church's "inhumane gender and sexual policy, harassment of homosexuals, contempt for women's rights and shameful condom policy."
Catholic reform groups like "We Are Church" are galvanizing public opinion against Benedict in a campaign called, in a play on the famous Bild headline, "We Are (Not) Pope." Former abuse victims and people who grew up in children's homes plan to protest openly over the roughly 30 million ($41 million) the Church has budgeted for the pope's visit -- compared with the roughly 2 million it has paid in compensation to victims of sexual violence to date.
A radical anti-pope alliance calling itself "What the Fuck" has already named a female antipope, Rosa I. In a recent protest, she shook the fence at the Vatican Embassy in Berlin, calling Benedict a "false pope with a false image of humanity."
Even Berlin Mayor Wowereit gave his worldly blessing to such criticism, when he expressed "great sympathy" for the protests, because, as he said, "the Church, with its teachings, promotes theories that belong to a period thousands of years ago, not the modern age."
Under these circumstances, 84-year-old church leader Ratzinger's third visit to Germany since 2005 will probably be his most challenging.
The 2005 World Youth Day event in Cologne and a largely private visit to Bavaria in 2006 were at least successful in terms of their atmosphere, even if the boost they were supposed to give to the German Catholic Church quickly fizzled out. This time, on the other hand, Benedict will witness the decline of the Church in his native Germany.
In the last year alone, the reverberations from the abuse scandal prompted more than 181,000 Germans to leave the Catholic Church (and about 150,000 to leave the Protestant Church). According to the latest statistics by the German Bishops' Conference, more than 2.6 million people in Germany have left the Church since 1990. Some 87.4 percent of Catholics no longer go to church on Sundays. The number of men hoping to become priests is at an all-time low, as is the number of baptisms and Catholic weddings.
Germany is experiencing a large-scale, historic withdrawal of the Catholic Church from German society. Monasteries are being forced to shut their doors as Catholic orders are dissolved. About 700 churches nationwide have been sold or torn down.
Monasteries Closing Down
Sometimes these drastic changes involve the end of a 1,000-year history, as in the case of the closing of the Michaelsberg Benedictine monastery in the city of Siegburg near Bonn, which was founded in 1064. Until recently, only 12 elderly monks were still living in the massive fortress of the church towering over the town, which was once home to several hundred monks.
Throughout the country, parishes are being combined to form "pastoral metropolitan areas" of 10,000 people or more. The German Catholic Church is undergoing a process of consolidation, downsizing and centralization. In many places, bishops must resort to Indian, Polish or Latin American priests, which has led to language problems in a number of communities.
Catholic kindergartens are being closed, as are hospitals, nursing homes and educational institutions. Even the Catholics' journalistic flagship, the Rheinischer Merkur, has not survived as an independent newspaper. It was shut down last November.
Nevertheless, many bishops are ignoring the alarm signals. Others are even proud of the contraction process. The traditionalists, in particular, are enthusiastic about a smaller church where only the most devout Catholics convene.
The political and social influence of priests is almost inevitably shrinking. The church experienced its most recent defeat in July, when the Bundestag, ignoring its protests, voted to issue its limited approval of preimplantation genetic diagnosis.
Meanwhile, the official Church is not seriously pursuing an open debate over its loss of significance and possible solutions to the problem. "There is a self-imposed silence over the crisis in the Church," says Jesuit priest Klaus Mertes, who exposed systematic sexual abuse at a Berlin Jesuit school in 2010, thereby setting the Catholic Church abuse scandal in Germany in motion.
"So far, the Church hierarchy has not had the courage to honestly and frankly admit what the situation is really like," says theologian Hans Küng, who is critical of the pope.
Liberal voices already had a rough time of it under John Paul II, but they have come under even greater pressure from Rome since his death. Mainz Cardinal Karl Lehmann was long the leader of the reformist camp in Germany. As chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, he did not shy away from conflict with Rome when it came to promoting a more modern form of Catholicism in Germany.
Those days are gone. The shift in the balance of power was almost physically palpable at a joint reception of the dioceses of Limburg and Mainz in the garden of the Limburg seminary in late August. The 75-year-old Lehmann, who is perhaps the last great liberal in his church, was on crutches after knee surgery and seemed weak. He responded to a question about reforms in Germany's dioceses with a weary, resigned look. The elderly bishop misses his companions from another era, who have either retired or passed away. "The others," as Lehmann puts it, are now calling the shots in the German episcopate. No more than a third of German bishops are still clearly on his side.
A few meters away from Lehmann, a prominent representative of "the others" was busily working his way through the crowd: Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, a young, energetic bishop who is shifting the once-liberal Limburg diocese decidedly toward Benedict's traditionalist course.
Ardent supporters of the pope, like Tebartz-van Elst and his compatriots in Berlin, Regensburg, Essen, Fulda, Eichstätt and Speyer, are now setting the agenda in German Catholicism. Many of them are protégés of conservative Cologne Cardinal Joachim Meisner, who once compared abortions with the Holocaust and has even gone to court to protest being characterized as a "hate preacher."
- Part 1: The Pope's Difficult Visit to His Homeland
- Part 2: From Liberal to Conservative
- Part 3: 'A Poisoning of the Atmosphere Within the Church'
- Part 4: Rise of the Neocatechumenate Movement