The election of a German pope almost four years ago sparked a flurry of national pride. But with his decision to reinstate a Catholic bishop who has denied elements of the Nazi Holocaust, even former fans have turned on him.
Chancellor Angela Merkel added to the controversy on Tuesday with an usually sharp statement. "This should not be allowed to pass without consequences," she said, daring to give advice, as a Protestant politician, to the leader of the Catholic Church. "The Pope and the Vatican should clarify unambiguously that there can be no denial."
Since then Merkel has been on the firing line from both German politicians and the Vatican. Now Benedict XVI has moved to contain the criticism aimed at Rome by ordering Richard Williamson to recant his Holocaust remarks before he assumes any powers as a bishop. But Merkel herself is still in hot water, and German commentators on Thursday are analyzing both the wisdom of Merkel's intervention and the pope's chances of emerging from the episode with an unscathed reputation.
The daily tabloid Bild Zeitung writes:
"The pope reacted late, but he has reacted. It may be true that dealing with ultra-conservatives is internal church business and that politicians should not interfere. But the denial of the mass murder of six million Jews is not."
"The pope comes from Germany. For that reason the chancellor has to react, because it is a question of averting damage caused by German people, just as her oath of office dictates. When necessary, the chancellor's arm has to extend as far as Rome."
The centre-left Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote:
"Chancellor Merkel was right to issue the warning and, contrary to the insinuations of some bishops, she was acting within her right. This is not interference in the affairs of the Catholic Church but a response to the fact that the pope has infringed on religion, civil religion -- something that is necessary in our country."
"A vital foundation of Germany is also the notion of 'never again' ... (and) one aspect of this is a particular responsibility towards Jews, especially those who still, or once again, live in Germany. It is difficult to defend civil religion, and sometimes it comes across as acting as a starry-eyed idealist. However, Germany, and its reputation in the world, has much to do with civil religion. A pope of German origin who alienates the Jewish community and who helps a Holocaust denier to a position of prominence has failed to understand something basic...."
"The church wants to function at the center of society. Therefore it also has to accept that society will protest when the pope seems to edge the church towards a marginal position."
The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung wrote:
"Benedict had made clear that he in no way approved of the denial of the mass murder of the Jews. He has -- only just -- recovered his poise with his demand that Williamson should revoke his controversial statement on the Holocaust in an 'unambiguous way' if he wants to be completely rehabilitated. In his (Benedict's) statement that he was unaware of these comments, the pope has claimed innocence. By abandoning Williamson ... he is exercising damage control. In this way he has restored his somewhat blemished authority, for now at least."
The centre-right Frankfurter Allgememeine Zeitung wrote:
"Now (Merkel) may be using an internal church debate as an opportunity in an election season. She has adopted it ... to boost her party's profile and attract votes. Maybe she wanted to achieve clarity, (but) there is widespread unease among private individuals and church members who are critical of the church's politics that Merkel -- who was quick to visit Rome (after the pope's election) -- has ventured into forbidden territory. The Catholic Church is older than the Christian Democratic Union, and older than the German state."
The left-wing Berliner Zeitung wrote:
"Williamson didn't just murmur his Holocaust denial on his way to the confessional. He spoke out publicly. The situation would hardly be any better if Benedict XVI had really been taken by surprise by the anti-Semitism expressed by the bishop -- that would mean he had lost his overview of the Catholic Church, which needs him to defend morals and decency."
"This is not just about a crisis of the church, but about our fundamental method of dealing with modern Nazis. Given the pope's nonchalance in dealing with this episode, Merkel had to react. His remark that the church does not deny the Holocaust was inappropriately concise. The Vatican's late demand for Williamson to distance himself from his statements also fell short -- Williamson's apology would not be credible. The only consistent action would be a reversal of Benedict's decision to lift Williamson's excommunication. He should fire the advisors who aided him so poorly. He must admit his own failure to restore his own credibility. An untrustworthy Pope can put his mitre back on the shelf."
-- Jess Smee, 1:15 p.m. CET
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