Ever since his appointment in April 2005, Benedict XVI has been a divisive figure. The euphoria over the election of a Bavarian pope that first swept Germany has long since receded. With all due respect to the first pope to voluntarily step down in hundreds of years: In the eight years he held office, the pope did more to polarize than to unify Catholics in his country of birth.
Benedict XVI never managed to grow beyond his former self, the conservative professor of theology Joseph Ratzinger. The pope did not build bridges as a Pontifex Maximus should. Here in Germany, his election led to an increasing split within the Church. On the one side were the disappointed advocates of long-overdue reform. On the other were the fundamentalists, the upholders of tradition and self-appointed guardians of the faith who wanted to turn the clock back to before the Second Vatican Council and sought salvation in an authoritarian and hierarchical Church of the past.
Some in Germany are already speaking of a schism within the Conference of Bishops. During his years in office, Pope Benedict boosted the reactionary wing of the Catholic community, with its frequently obscure splinter groups, more than his predecessor did -- be it with his approaches to the ultra-conservative Pius Brothers, his scolding of renegade theologians or his fondness for the Traditional Mass. His efforts to address the abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic Church all over the world were too little, too late. Neither in the United States, Ireland nor Germany did he and his bishops manage to regain the trust subsequently lost.
Under a German pope, no less, the Church's reputation arrived at an all-time low in Germany in early 2013. According to a study conducted by the Sinus Institute, even the most loyal Catholics don't trust their own bishops. Once hailed as a sophisticate, the head of the Church morphed into a leader who lurched on the international stage from one unfortunate mishap to another. Even close friends and former colleagues have said that a man like Joseph Ratzinger is not cut out to head a community of a billion people.
For those Catholics in Germany who couldn't abide criticism of Benedict XVI's course, the pope was a powerful ally. Those who secretly tested the adherence of Catholic hospitals to official liturgy, those who clandestinely recorded the sermons of priests in Germany to trip them up, those who sought to cast aspersions on a theology professor in Rome -- these self-proclaimed guardians of belief always sent their denunciations directly to Benedict and his secretary, Georg Gänswein. They knew that consequences for those they accused of wrongdoing would be prompt.
Reshuffling the Cards
Benedict's resignation, however, now reshuffles the cards. Power structures could shift as a result, however slightly, when a new pope, possibly even one from another continent, blesses the world from St. Peter's Basilica this Easter. It is a prospect that fills many leading Catholics in Germany with hope, others with fear.
The pope, though, has taken some steps to ensure that his political legacy will continue in Rome -- particularly through his appointment of former Regensburg Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller. As the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Müller is a rough and ready guarantee of strict orthodoxy on central Vatican positions. And just a short time ago, Benedict elevated his private secretary, Georg Gänswein, to the status of bishop. The fetching Gänswein, who has even graced the cover of the Italian edition of Vanity Fair, is now being floated as a possibility for leading a bishopric in Germany -- possibly as the successor to Cardinal Joachim Meisner, the powerful conservative leader of the Cologne diocese.
Yet with all due respect to the surprising decision made by an ailing and weak 85-year-old man, many in Germany have long yearned for an end to the Ratzinger era, no matter who might succeed him. It remains to be seen whether German bishops will have more confidence than before to follow a more independent path. But there will certainly be more room for risk taking.
Indeed, Benedict's resignation offers the Catholic Church in Germany a new chance to free itself from torpor created by this paternalistic pope and to perhaps finally find a way to begin resolving the deep crisis facing German Catholics.