The flood of pilgrims that descended on Rome was biblical in magnitude. When the body of Pope John Paul II was carried into St. Peter’s Basilica in April 2005, tens of thousands of faithful took part in the funeral cortege. Many of them cried while others sang church songs, with applause breaking out over and over again. More than a million people paid their last respects to John Paul II as his body lay in state.
More recently, not even 200,000 believers passed by as the body of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI – Joseph Ratzinger – lay in state. Only around 50,000 people came for his burial last Thursday.
Interest in the event was also rather limited in Germany, even though Benedict was the first German leader of the Holy See in 482 years. To be sure, Benedict XVI was never even close to as popular as his predecessor. But his lack of charisma is only one reason for the comparative lack of interest, both in Germany and the rest of the Catholic world, in the deceased pope.
The rather limited outpouring of grief shows just how alien the Catholic Church has become to many people – and how advanced is its decay. In the public perception, Catholicism is no longer exclusively associated with integrity, decorum and equity, but with sexual assault committed against children and teenagers. Some Catholic parents hardly even dare tell people anymore when they send their children to communion. The image is that bad. In Germany, more than 2.5 million people have left the church since the 2010 abuse scandal was made public.
Benedict XVI was one of the faces of this epochal crisis. During his pontificate, a shocking number of cases involving the sexual abuse of children and teenagers were revealed. And the Church continued to erode after he stepped down from the papacy. In Germany, a significant share of the abuse victims feel as though they are being disregarded. The reform movement Maria 2.0 is fighting in vain for a greater involvement of women in the Church, while in Cologne, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki is driving believers to despair with his obstinacy.
Now, after the death of the pope emeritus, some are hoping that Pope Francis, widely seen as more liberal than his predecessor, can finally act more freely. That he will make the church more democratic and strengthen the role of women. Perhaps even that he might show more tolerance for homosexuality. Are such hopes justified?
There isn’t much evidence to suggest that they are. The camp that Benedict XVI represented is strong. Ratzinger’s scowling successors continue to hold the Church in their grasp. Even the cautious attempts at reform launched by a handful of bishops in Germany don’t stand a chance against Rome.
Even from his alleged retirement, Ratzinger fulminated against permitting remarried Catholics to take communion. He said the 1968 generation was partially to blame for the sexual abuse of children perpetrated by clergymen. And he claimed that "modern society" is formulating an "anti-Christian creed" with the legalization of same-sex marriage.
With such statements, the shadow pope remained the hero of traditional forces in the Vatican – forces that are separated by a vast gulf from the lives of normal Catholics. The Benedict faction exerts a huge amount of influence in the Vatican. And they are sure to continue to work at odds to Francis, who they consider to be a lightweight.
Clerics such as the American Cardinal Raymond Burke, a longtime Ratzinger ally. Burke has criticized Francis’s use of the term "Mother Earth" as being heretical. And when the pope demanded more protections for homosexual partnerships, Burke derogatorily referred to the call as a "private opinion."
Francis was widely considered to be a reformist when he took over the papacy in 2013. But his positions are often muddled, and he sends mixed messages. Sometimes he refers to homosexuals as "the children of God," but he has also proscribed the blessing of same-sex couples.
The Catholic Church is in need of far-reaching reform. German bishops launched the Synodal Path, a discussion format in which they can speak with laypersons about issues like the loosing of celibacy or possible reforms to the church apparatus. But the discussions go too far for the traditionalists in the Curie. In July, the Holy See warned participants in the Synodal Path that it "would not be lawful to initiate … new official structures or doctrines."
Behind the walls of the Vatican, Church leaders fear nothing so much as an open fracture between liberal and conservative countries in the Catholic fold. Currently, people in Germany are leaving the Church in droves. Last year alone, an estimated 400,000 Catholics turned their backs on Rome. That’s twice the total number of pilgrims who journeyed to Rome on the occasion of Benedict’s death.