Zero Hour at the Vatican: A Bitter Struggle for Control of the Catholic Church
Part 3: The Need for a New Beginning
Thomas von Mitschke-Collande, the former advisor to the German Bishops' Conference, deplores the pope's need for harmony. "Being Catholic also means unity in diversity. Bishops and the pope must come to terms with this tense relationship. The universal church now needs a pope who is willing to relinquish more of his power." There is no alternative, says Mitschke-Collande, in light of globalization, the diversity of regions and the differences in the nature of Catholics worldwide. He believes that the assumption that only one monolithic church is a strong church is fundamentally incorrect. "Using this approach, no corporation today would be able to market its products worldwide anymore," says Mitschke-Collande, who made his career as a consultant at McKinsey.
On the other hand Ratzinger, a former council theologian, tried to counteract the centrifugal currents. He was a pope of the Restoration, and many priests, and members of their congregations even more so, hope that those days are now gone.
Last year, Benedict repeatedly experienced how every step forward was weighed down by the shadows of the past, including charges of abuse and betrayal. Furthermore, his pronouncements were often thwarted, especially in his native Germany. Indeed, church attendance in his homeland has declined to 12 percent of the population and elementary religious beliefs -- that of the creed and the belief in the resurrection and the Holy Trinity -- are now held by only a minority of the population.
If he already felt worn out from these battles over faith, the years in which butler Paolo Gabriele betrayed his trust must have finally pulled the rug out from under his feet. When Secretary Gänswein assumed all of the blame and offered to resign, the Holy Father wanted nothing of it. With a sigh, he said: "But we must trust each other up here. It doesn't work without trust."
Benedict's Parting Gift
But the treachery had found its way into his own chambers. According to a report last week by the Milan newsmagazine Panorama, Dec. 17, the day on which three cardinals handed the pope the secret report describing the background of Vatileaks, complete with witness statements, was apparently the moment he decided to resign. Before that, Benedict had "learned of conditions in the curia that he would never have thought possible."
He was, after all, a teaching pope and not a governing pope. Benedict sought to use the word to exert influence. His speeches in Regensburg and in Paris, and before the parliaments in Berlin and London, were invitations to the non-Catholic world to join Catholics in thinking about the ethical basis of the political, and to consider other things, too, like the law of nature and an expanded concept of reason.
"The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur -- this is the program," the pope said in his Regensburg lecture. And quoting the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II, he added: "Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God."
With his decision to resign, Benedict has given his church a final gift: the chance for a new beginning. And that is exactly what Catholics in his native Germany long for. Benedict's resignation comes at a time when the standing of the Catholic Church in Germany has arrived at a new low.
Church doctrine and social reality have drifted so far apart in many areas that even devout Catholics believe the time has come for change. Karl-Josef Kuschel, a religious scholar in the southwestern German city of Tübingen, says that the church is now confronted with "fundamental mistrust."
This cannot be blamed entirely on the outgoing pope, and yet Benedict didn't manage to stop the trend, at least not in northern countries. In 2010, the number of people leaving the church in Germany, more than 180,000, was for the first time substantially greater than the number of baptisms. Today more than a third of Germans are members of no Christian church at all. The number of baptisms, weddings and even church funerals is dropping rapidly. There is also a colossal shortage of priests.
Atmosphere of Fear and Suspicion
In total, the church lost about 3.8 million Catholics in Germany between 1990 and 2011, a number almost twice the size of the Archdiocese of Cologne. And the trend has shown no signs of reversal.
As a result, the church is losing importance in Germany. Its influence over legislation, important national debates or on culture is limited today. "The church is in a crisis of faith, trust, authority, leadership and communication," Mitschke-Collande, an active Catholic, writes in an analysis.
And then there are the devastating results of a recent study by the Sinus Institute, based in the southwestern German city of Heidelberg, on the growing isolation of the Catholic Church in most social environments. The study makes it very clear that it isn't just external critics, so-called enemies of the church, but also the core and even the substance of loyal Catholics in the church that no longer has any confidence in the pope and the bishops.
The crisis has reached the center of the church, and the bishops are at a turning point. Business as usual isn't an option, and yet the bishops are only thwarting one another. "No one wants to come out from cover first," says a bishop's aide. "No one dares to go it alone, because everyone fears that the others will attack him and that, in the end, there will only be trouble with Rome."
This culture of making statements on the quiet is reminiscent of the final stage in East Germany, when an atmosphere of fear and suspicion had taken hold. But how can a church be attractive when it is internally divided, disunited and demoralized? Pope Benedict XVI and his most loyal representatives in Germany, be it in Cologne, Limburg or Regensburg, have allowed this disunity to develop, or they have even promoted it.
Referring to this issue, one cardinal's spokesman says: "You have to be able to say something without being immediately assailed, and without denunciation in Rome or on the Internet. If this climate of mutual suspicion isn't put to an end now, we will fail in our efforts to launch a new beginning. The church must be able to tolerate more criticism, more diversity and more freedom without its ranks." The role of the bishops, he adds, will be more important than that of the pope in the future, and the local mood will be crucial to people, be it in Germany, Asia, Africa or Latin America.
Catholic youth groups are calling on their bishops to address current debates from the center of the church, and not to leave the field to ultraconservative Catholics. This, they say, also includes a discussion on what "can be left up to the conscience of the individual," when it comes to sexual morality. Helmut Schüller, the co-founder of a pastors' initiative, says that the Vatican can no longer be the center of a universal church that "emanates fear and terror, where people are harassed, removed from office and denied the right to teach."
For now, such critique has been but a murmur. But it is rapidly getting louder.
Under the current papal rules, the secret election of the 266th pope, the conclave, must begin between 15 and 20 days after Benedict's resignation. As such, in mid-March, 117 cardinals will be locked in seclusion "cum clave" in the Sistine Chapel. There, they will pray, carry their folded ballots to the altar, count them, burn them and begin all over again.
Days -- in the past, even weeks and months -- can pass before a two-thirds majority materializes. But this time the electorate won't have much time. The new pope is expected to complete the traditional foot-washing ceremony on Holy Thursday, preside over the Stations of the Cross at the Coliseum on Good Friday and, on Easter Sunday, pronounce the Urbi et orbi from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, the blessing for the city of Rome and the rest of the world.
Will the succession be decided among the Europeans, or will they succeed in bridging the gap with the non-European churches? Will the pope remain a man of the Restoration, as Ratzinger was, or will he be a reformer, like Archbishop of Vienna Christoph Schönborn or Gianfranco Ravasi, 70, the notoriously progressive president of the Pontifical Council for Culture?
The church faces massive and fundamental issues: connecting to the modern age and decisions on key questions such as celibacy, the ordination of women, ecumenism and large numbers of faithful leaving the church in some regions.
- Part 1: A Bitter Struggle for Control of the Catholic Church
- Part 2: The Power of the Pope Emeritus
- Part 3: The Need for a New Beginning
- Part 4: Looking for a Miracle
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