How the Holy Father Lost the Fatherland

No one's more sick of Benedict than the Germans.

VATICAN CITY - APRIL 16: Pope Benedict XVI attends a concert of the Sudwestrundfunk (SWR) Symphony Orchestra during his 80th Birthday celebrations at the Paul VI Hall on April 16, 2007 in Vatican City. The Pontiff celebrated his 80th birthday at the Vatican and received tributes from religious and political leaders. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

To understand the predicament of the European Catholic Church as Pope Benedict XVI’s tenure becomes increasingly mired in scandal, it’s worth remembering why the former Joseph Ratzinger chose that name in the first place.

Speaking to the crowds in Vatican City’s St. Peter’s Square on April 27, 2005, immediately after succeeding John Paul II, Ratzinger made clear the choice of the name was meant in large part because of his desire to look to the example of St. Benedict of Norcia, the influential sixth-century cleric whose ideas led to the founding of the Benedictine order.

"He represents a fundamental point of reference for the unity of Europe and a strong reminder of the unrenounceable Christian roots of its culture and civilization," the new pope said that day, leading the New York Times to highlight in its lead paragraph "the Christian roots of Europe" as a possible "central theme" of Benedict’s papacy.  

If overseeing a revival of those "Christian roots" was a central goal of this papacy, as subsequent developments indicated, it’s not too early or too sweeping to declare that this goal now stands virtually no chance of success. Recent widespread revelations of sexual misconduct by clergy members in Ireland, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, and elsewhere, coupled with a shoot-the-messenger defense that just made matters worse, have dramatically damaged the Catholic Church. And, though the Bavarian-born pontiff probably had his best shot at successfully reviving the faith in his homeland, the German church’s reputation is now at a drastic low.  

According to a Forsa Institute poll published last month in the German news magazine Stern, after new revelations on child sex abuse around the world, only 31 percent of Germans rated Benedict’s tenure as pope good or very good, while 45 percent gave him bad marks. (In April 2007, 70 percent of Germans had rated the pope good or very good on the same poll.)

Der Spiegel, the widely read newsweekly, weighed in with a blistering critique under the headline, "The Failed Papacy of Pope Benedict XVI," concluding, "Suddenly, the worldwide chorus of outrage seems to be putting the German pope’s entire papacy in jeopardy."

"Catholics are shocked by this," said Olivia Schoeller, a former Washington correspondent for the Berliner Zeitung, now based in Berlin, who is herself Catholic. "I know a lot of people who are considering stepping out of the church. I was considering stepping out of the church…. I was just really, really mad. It made me so angry, the cruelness of it."  

As it turns out, Benedict’s nationality has not helped his eroding standing in his native country, which is more than a third Catholic.

Initially, his election was greeted by a wave of enthusiasm and pride summed up by a famous headline in the mass-circulation Bild newspaper declaring,   (We are the Pope!). But any goodwill Benedict could expect at home was quickly jettisoned as the Vatican got caught up in a bitter controversy over a Holocaust-denier.  

Taking a curious risk for a pope from Germany, Benedict announced in January 2009 that he was revoking the excommunication of four bishops from the Society of St. Pius X, an ultraconservative group. One of these was British Bishop Richard Williamson, who caused an international stir that same month when he used incendiary language in an interview, later broadcast on Swedish television, to claim that "not one Jew" was killed in gas chambers during World War II.

"It was all lies, lies, lies," Williamson reportedly said.

The Vatican response to the controversy struck many as delayed and ineffective, and the issue became explosive in Germany, where denial of the Holocaust is a crime. The Williamson affair and new questions about anti-Semitism in the church were doubly damaging for Benedict, who had sought to downplay the significance of his childhood membership in the Hitler Youth. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is not just Protestant but the daughter of a Protestant minister, responded directly to the Williamson affair, calling the Vatican’s clarifications "not yet sufficient. This should not be allowed to pass without consequences," she said at a news conference. "This is not just a matter, in my opinion, for the Christian, Catholic, and Jewish communities in Germany, but the pope and the Vatican should clarify unambiguously that there can be no denial."  

Not long ago, it would have been political suicide for a European head of state to pick a public fight with the pope. But while the episode was seen at the time as somewhat damaging to Merkel’s standing, conservative Catholics were more upset with Benedict. "It was this unprecedented thing where the chancellor basically told off the pope," Marc Young, editor of Berlin-based English-language website The Local, said. "Germans in many ways are disillusioned with Pope Benedict. There was a feeling he’s one of us … and he’s done nothing but alienate German believers."  

Many Vatican-watchers saw the selection of Benedict five years ago as a decision to have a caretaker papacy: another conservative European to consolidate John Paul II’s work. Benedict’s reinstatement of the four bishops was even more startling, then, given that it was John Paul II himself who excommunicated them in 1988 — and given that the extreme group was explicitly reactionary, having been founded in 1970 as a reaction to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which many saw as likely to push the church in a more liberal direction.  

In that context, the ongoing scandal over sexual abuse, even as it has drawn closer to the pope himself, is just the next phase of an essentially untenable political position for Benedict. He lacks the dynamism and political finesse of John Paul II, but has sought nevertheless to make bold moves in his predecessor’s style. Even without further revelations on the sex scandals, the Catholic Church can at best hope to limit the damage, with true renewal a goal for another day. And the Vatican strategy of blaming the scandals on unfair reporting has widely been denounced as yet another blunder.  

Meanwhile, in Germany, the backlash shows no sign of slowing down. Last week’s issue of the influential weekly Die Zeit, for example, ran an article on the scandals that ended with a call for the pope to be both stronger and more honest. "If he were a strong pope, he would communicate even his own mistakes," concluded the author, Patrik Schwarz. 

Andreas Wunn, managing editor of the German national television network ZDF, said his network had more special programs on the scandals planned for future weeks. "I think we haven’t gotten to the bottom of this yet," he said. "This is probably one of the worst crises for the Catholic Church in many, many years…. The trust of many Catholics in Germany has been destroyed."  

Benedict does have his defenders. Dirk Tänzler, chairman of the German Association of Catholic Youth, told Der Spiegel Online in a recent interview, "Personally I like Benedict’s approach," and praising the pope for such "bold" steps as using YouTube and Facebook, where more than 109,000 people have so far signed up as fans of  "His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI." But even he said that it’s clear that in general Benedict’s message is not resonating with German youth.  

"Most have a different idea of how to live their lives than the pope might imagine for them," he said. "There is no ‘Generation Benedict.’"  

Some Germans are reacting in irritation to attacks against the pope, even if they are personally divided on the matter. No matter what people might think about the scandals and the direction of the Catholic Church, for example, the news that obscene graffiti had been sprayed on the house in Bavaria where the young Ratzinger was born couldn’t help but inspire sympathy.  

This is all the more true when attacks come from abroad. The call by British authors Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens for Benedict to be prosecuted for "crimes against humanity" earned a lengthy rebuke on the front page of the cultural section of Munich’s Süeddeutsche Zeitung, generally considered one of Germany’s top two papers. Such wild, overreaching attacks can only boomerang around to help Benedict, argued the writer, Andreas Zielcke.

"How easy it is for the church to hide behind the zeal of its critics!" he wrote. "If one is seriously committed to combating crimes against humanity, then one should only raise a public furor if such crimes have indeed taken place. Inflationary bluster without sense and reason is deeply harmful."  

Germans are in short getting sick of hearing about the German pope and his troubles. But it’s probably too late for that to matter much. Few expect a turn for the better for this papacy’s standing in Europe, and the best Benedict can hope to do for as long as he remains in St. Peter’s chair is to try to limit further damage. 

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola