Losing Touch A German Pope Disgraces the Catholic Church

By SPIEGEL Staff

Part 3: Isolated within the Confines of Doctrine


A conservative lobby has formed around the pope over the years, with considerable influence and abilities to manipulate policy. It includes the members of groups like Opus Dei, the Legion of Christ, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter and the SSPX.

When it comes to rapprochement with other religions, they not only delay and debate ad nauseam pending decisions, but they also allow their views to leak to the outside world. One example was the pope's baptism of a Muslim during the Easter vigil mass in St. Peter's Basilica in 2008. The conservative lay movement "Comunione e Liberazione," which is highly influential in Italy, orchestrated the baptism.

The demonstrative conversion of a Muslim to Catholicism became an immediate source of indignation among Muslims around the world. Arab dailies wrote that the water that Pope Benedict had poured onto the head of the convert was "like petrol thrown onto the fire of the clash of cultures." At almost the same time, terrorist leader Osama bin-Laden broadcast on the Internet a message critical of the pope, accusing him of playing a key role in a new crusade against Islam.

Minor acts, fleshed out in the backrooms of the Vatican by orthodox lobbyists, can have a substantial political impact. Apparently Benedict failed to recognize the explosive nature of this baptism. It marked the second time that he was responsible for serious consternation in the Islamic world.

Critical of Islam

The first was his 2006 speech in Regensburg that angered Muslims from Jakarta to Casablanca. In September 2006, Pope Benedict XVI, without so much as consulting with the relevant bodies in the Curia, delivered a lecture on faith and reason, and in doing so he unwittingly set off a global religious controversy. "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman," the pope said, quoting a Byzantine emperor. The speech quickly ignited outrage around the world. Islamic fundamentalists in Indonesia called for the pope's death, and in Somalia a nun who had worked in a children's clinic was shot. A pope had openly insinuated that another world religion showed a tendency toward violence, and a pope had cited a sentence critical of Islam without distancing himself from it clearly enough.

Ratzinger, who holds a doctorate in theology, wrote the speech himself, which shows that the Holy Father apparently has difficulty comprehending the public impact of his actions. Benedict has almost no sensitivity for the public mood, and he is no politician. His actions are based on other maxims, derived from theological tenets, dogmatic insights and the constraints of church law.

Wolfgang Thierse, a Catholic German politician and member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), thinks Benedict's gaffes come from his isolation. "The pope's faux pas and blunders show that he makes decisions on his own. In theological terms, he lives in a separate world, the world of the old church fathers who shaped him. This is why he barely notices the historical and political context. He claims to serve the truth, which is not incorrect. But he must combine it with a respect for other truths."

It is a weakness in his biography that Ratzinger has almost never left the confines of a strictly clerical environment. His contact with the world and other people was consistently kept to a minimum. His world is that which exits inside the church, including its old traditions. In that world all that counts is what can be read in books. Now, at his advanced age, he is anxious to prevent this world from fracturing.

"His current life," says a German theologian, "is reminiscent of Louis XVI. He hears snippets of what is happening in the world, signs something here and there, performs his duties, studies documents and has generally made a comfortable life for himself at court. But he is not the master of the machine that surrounds him."

The Bavarian pope's lack of worldliness is at times oddly amusing and at times horrifying. He wants to be a doctor of the church, most of all, ceaselessly presenting the truths of the faith. But he has little interest in how his church is positioned in this world. The theological pope blossoms when he can work his way through the apostles, bit by bit, during his Wednesday audiences, even discussing such unknown church fathers as St. Andrew of Crete.

'Degeneration of the Liturgy'

Perhaps this explains the covert sympathy Benedict has for all the ultra-purists, the brothers of St. Pius and other Don Quixotes of a supposedly pure Catholicism. He resembles them in his deep pessimism about the course of the world, in his almost entomological passion for minute deviations from doctrine, and in his belief that the world is essentially made up of dogmas.

In his autobiographical "Milestones," Joseph Ratzinger criticized the Second Vatican Council. The hard break with traditions like the Tridentine mass, the old-style Roman Rite Mass, was a mistake, he writes. "I am convinced that the church crisis we are experiencing today is largely a result of the degeneration of the liturgy."

Every brother of St. Pius will agree with this, and with the programmatic address Ratzinger gave in April 2005, just before the conclave: "Having a clear faith, based on the Creed of the Church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas, relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and swept along by every wind of teaching, looks like the only attitude (acceptable) to today's standards. We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one's own ego and one's own desires."

Perhaps the See of Rome is in fact the only job in which such beliefs can still be reconciled with the job profile. If this is the case, however, there are bound to be regular collisions with the real world that exists outside the Leonine Wall surrounding the Vatican. The global, media-dominated society hears everything, sees everything, knows everything and forgets nothing. The Regensburg address made this clear, as does the current Williamson affair. And no amount of prayer can change this.

The Vatican must have known what kinds of thoughts the Lefebvre disciples harbored. Bishop Williamson's followers in Sweden posted a presentation on YouTube in which Williamson enthusiastically praises the so-called Syllabus as a litmus test for true Catholicism. For non-Catholics, the "Syllabus Errorum" is a list of the supposed fundamental errors of the modern age. These include concepts like democracy, the rule of law, freedom of religion, the separate of church and state, human rights, liberalism and rationalism. (Gay marriage is not mentioned explicitly, at least not yet.)

Evidence of a Certain Misbalance

Pope Benedict gets involved with backward-looking pious types, because he sees himself as a servant of unity, as he explained last Wednesday. His step, he said, should be understood as an "act of paternal mercy, because these prelates had repeatedly manifested to me their deep pain at the situation in which they had come." He wanted to overcome a schism within the church, he said.

The SSPX consists of just 500 priests worldwide. In Germany it has chapels and churches in more than 50 locations and about 10,000 members. There are no precise numbers of worldwide membership, although it is estimated at between 100,000 and 200,000, distributed across 30 countries around the world. No more than 0.02 percent of all Catholics are members.

And yet Benedict seems willing to risk the reputation of his church for this small group. A fundamental theologian like Joseph Ratzinger can apparently put up with many things, just not secondary truths. "The pope has placed the welfare of the church above respect for the truth and the memory of the dead," says Vito Mancuso, a professor of Catholic theology in Milan, Italy.

In fact, there is evidence of a certain imbalance. The pope routinely blunders when it comes to the more liberal side of things, but never on the conservative side. This is borne out by many examples. For instance, at the opening ceremony for the Latin American Conference of Bishops in Aparecida, Brazil, in May 2007, the Bavarian pope snubbed all indigenous peoples when he said that their ancestors' conversion to Christianity did not constitute forcing the religion on a foreign culture, but instead was something the indigenous peoples had unconsciously desired.

"To say that the cultural decimation of our people constitutes a purification is offensive and, to be honest, frightening," indigenous representative Sandro Tuxá said at the time.

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