Disillusioned German Catholics: The Pope's Difficult Visit to His Homeland

When Joseph Ratzinger became pope in 2005, Catholics in Germany joyfully celebrated the first German pope in almost 500 years. Since then, the euphoria has turned to disappointment and disillusionment. Benedict XVI's visit to Germany this week will do little to heal the deep divide between conservatives and reformers in the German Church. By SPIEGEL Staff.

Photo Gallery: Benedict Loses His Flock Photos
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One thing is already clear: The two men will be all smiles when they meet.

If all goes according to plan, German President Christian Wulff will greet the pope at 11:15 a.m. this Thursday in front of Bellevue Palace, the president's official residence in Berlin. Photographers and cameramen will be eagerly jostling for the best spots, security teams will be intently scanning the area, and Wulff will shake his guest's hand with the proper degree of decorum.

But what will happen next? What will the German head of state and the leader of the Roman Catholic Church talk about when they meet for the first time, shortly after Benedict XVI's landing in Berlin? Will they talk about the fact that Wulff, a practicing Catholic, is divorced and remarried, a fact that, under the current rules of the Church, excludes him from receiving Communion?

Will Benedict XVI address the sensitive issue in his speech before the German parliament, the Bundestag, that afternoon? Although about 100 Bundestag members plan to boycott his address, Gerda Hasselfeldt, the Catholic chairwoman of the conservative Christian Social Union's group in the Bundestag, will be there without fail. Hasselfeldt is also divorced and has remarried. So has the leader of her party, Horst Seehofer, who also fathered an illegitimate child, and Oskar Lafontaine, the former co-chairman of the Left Party and a former Jesuit school pupil.

Sticking to the Rules

Benedict is scheduled to arrive at Berlin's Olympic Stadium at 6 p.m., where he will celebrate mass and meet with Berlin's openly gay Mayor, Klaus Wowereit. Will the pope encourage Wowereit, a Catholic and a member of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) who has been living with his partner for years, to practice abstinence and not to act out his proclivities, as his church demands of all homosexuals?

Luckily for the pope, he won't have any problems with two other prominent people he will meet in Berlin. Chancellor Angela Merkel (remarried) and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle (gay) are both Protestants.

But even those Catholics who seem to abide by all the rules aren't truly reliable. One of his hosts in Berlin, Bundestag President Norbert Lammert, recently ruffled feathers at the Vatican when he and fellow Christian Democrat Annette Schavan, who is Germany's education minister, together with other reformist Catholics, sent a letter to Germany's bishops about the marriage ban for priests. Those who staunchly cling to celibacy, Lammert writes, "are leading the Church with open eyes into a pastoral emergency."

The open criticism of the pope was not well received in Rome. Lammert's appeal was an "insult to Jesus Christ," Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, a close associate of Benedict, thundered.

One of the Last Absolute Monarchs

Worlds will collide when Joseph Ratzinger arrives in his native Germany this week for his first state visit. About 100 members of parliament have chosen to forego the experience, including lawmakers like SPD parliamentarian Ulla Burchardt from the western city of Dortmund. "A head of state who disregards labor rights, women's rights and the right to sexual self-determination should not be allowed to address the Bundestag," says Burchardt.

Her Green Party counterpart Toni Hofreiter finds it "questionable to invite the pope to the parliament by using the trick of defining him as a head of state" (the pope is the official head of state of Vatican City, the world's smallest state). Hofreiter will also not attend the speech. And Alexander Süssmair of the far-left Left Party "cannot even imagine what the democratic Federal Republic of Germany could learn from the representative of an absolute monarchy." In reaction to the boycott, former Bundestag members have been invited to attend so that the empty seats will be filled.

Many of the people that Benedict will encounter during his visit are divorced, gay, in common-law marriages or uninterested in the Church's ban on birth control. And even though they are Catholic, they do not see themselves as sinners. The pope, who rules the papal state as one of the last absolute monarchs on earth, will encounter a modern society with modern representatives.

Benedict will travel the country for four days, distributing his blessing and waving to the crowds from his popemobile. But in the German society of the 21st century, the answers his Church has to offer are no longer as relevant as they once were.

The enthusiasm and the spirit of optimism have disappeared -- on both sides. What began like a love affair six years with the headline "We Are Pope" in the tabloid newspaper Bild has since turned into a more distant relationship.

Germans Feel Deceived

The pope and his fellow Germans are not on good terms. The romance that existed in 2005 has vanished, leaving the hopes and the expectations of the day unfulfilled. The euphoria of the early years was a misunderstanding. According to a current SPIEGEL poll, only 8 percent of Germans want the Catholic Church to have more influence on politics and society in Germany.

The Germans are the ones who feel deceived. Ratzinger did not become the kindly, benign old prince of the church and bridge builder ("Pontifex maximus") they had wanted him to be. On the contrary, he proved to be more conservative than the Germans wanted to believe at first. He has never grown out of his former role of head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Instead of opening up in his faith, he withdrew into his fortress and became even more obstinate.

His Church is erecting new walls because it's what Benedict wants. Ironically, it is in Germany, the cradle of the Reformation, where his followers are transforming the community of Catholics into an organization of clerical obedience. The doctrine of the Vatican and the reality of the lives of most Catholics are moving further apart. In many places, traditionalists are gaining the upper hand over liberal Catholics.

More bishops in Germany's dioceses are seeking refuge in the Church's past, while Germany society is constantly becoming more dynamic, more Muslim, more atheistic and more multicultural. German society is divided over how to treat immigrants, and it is seeking alternatives to nuclear energy, a solution to the ongoing debt crisis and answers to the problems of an aging population. But Benedict and his Church hardly play a role in any of these debates anymore, because they are more concerned with the purity of their doctrine and their own problems.

The Church still hasn't weathered the consequences of the abuse scandal. It has failed to liberate itself from the deepest identity crisis of its recent history. Although Benedict expressed his dismay over the scope of the crimes, he has not pursued an extensive investigation of the causes. Instead, he assigns the blame to the Devil who, as he says, has thrown "dirt into the faces" of him and his priests.

Lost Euphoria

When Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez announced the name of the new pope from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica on April 19, 2005, cheers erupted on St. Peter's Square and elsewhere. North of the Alps, the election of the first German pope in 482 years was also met with great enthusiasm. Even non-religious intellectuals were suddenly raving about the sophisticated man at the head of the Church.

A few months later, hundreds of thousands of young people attending the Catholic Church's World Youth Day in Cologne greeted the pope as if he were a pop star. "Now the country is quaking under the storms of enthusiasm emanating from Catholic World Youth Day," the German Sunday newspaper Welt am Sonntag raved.

There is little evidence of this euphoria today, and the anticipated stampede of young people into the Church has failed to materialize. Cologne was merely an ecstatic event without consequences. Benedict is not leading his church into an open-minded future, but back into a narrow-minded past.

This is evident in his words and actions. The German pope, of all people, irritated Protestants by saying that their church is not a church "in the actual sense." He snubbed the Muslims with harsh words against the Prophet Muhammad. And he insulted the Jews by reinserting into the Good Friday liturgy, a prayer for the conversion of the Jews that one of Benedict's predecessors, Paul VI, had removed as a gesture of reconciliation after the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council.

Back in Time

Instead, Ratzinger sent signals of understanding and sympathy to the conservative fringe of Catholicism. By currying favor with the traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), he took the Church back in time and infuriated the overwhelming majority of Roman Catholics.

The backlog of reforms in the Church, which had developed under his conservative predecessor John Paul II, increased under Benedict. The Vatican continues to reject artificial birth control, which it sees as cause for eternal punishment. Millions of AIDS deaths have done nothing to convince the keepers of Catholic sexual morality that condoms might be a good idea.

Similarly, half of the Church's members remain excluded from all leadership positions. Women cannot become priests, let alone bishops. The official Church still excludes lesbians and gays from its community.

"A man like him is not made to lead a community of more than a billion people and fill them with life. He is especially lacking in charisma," says Leonardo Boff, the famous Latin American liberation theologian. Boff has long criticized Ratzinger, ever since the German, as head of the CDF, badgered him over alleged heresy.

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1. The Pope's Difficult Trip to Germany
Foxglove1 09/21/2011
What the Pope is trying to prevent is the morphing of the Catholic Church in Germany away from its traditional doctrinal bearings into something like a German Episcopal Church. That Church in the USA has transformed itself into a parody of the Unitarian Church which denies the divinity of Jesus Christ, regards the Bible as a fairy tale, and has little religious unperpinning beyond the solization of coffee-drinking gatherings after services. The ECUSA has lost 10s of thousands of members and is increasingly regarded as a joke by serious Christians of all demoninations.
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