The Pope and the Chancellor

What does their running battle tell us about the future of European politics?

By , a Berlin-based journalist.
MICHAEL URBAN/AFP/Getty Images
MICHAEL URBAN/AFP/Getty Images
MICHAEL URBAN/AFP/Getty Images

In 2005, two unlikely Germans were elected to office, and a defining cultural rift was thrown wide open. First, Germany's ranking Roman Catholic cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger, the former Hitler Youth recruit from Bavaria turned archconservative theologian, became Pope Benedict XVI. Six months later, Germany elected as its chancellor Angela Merkel, a childless and twice-married Protestant from East Germany bent on updating her country and her hidebound Christian Democratic party. Over the ensuing years, the pope and the chancellor have worked in almost constant opposition to one another, though the struggle, at least until recently, remained behind the scenes. Their battle may well decide whether conservatives have a future at all in the new Europe-and if so, what kind.

Merkel and Benedict share, if awkwardly, a political base: the big-tented Christian Democratic Union born after World War II. The philosophy of West Germany's premier postwar conservative, Konrad Adenauer, was not to dwell on the Nazi past, but rather to plow forward with economic recovery and integration into the Western alliance -- all the while respecting the staunch conservatism of Chancellor Adenauer's own Catholic Rhineland.

In 2005, two unlikely Germans were elected to office, and a defining cultural rift was thrown wide open. First, Germany’s ranking Roman Catholic cardinal, Joseph Ratzinger, the former Hitler Youth recruit from Bavaria turned archconservative theologian, became Pope Benedict XVI. Six months later, Germany elected as its chancellor Angela Merkel, a childless and twice-married Protestant from East Germany bent on updating her country and her hidebound Christian Democratic party. Over the ensuing years, the pope and the chancellor have worked in almost constant opposition to one another, though the struggle, at least until recently, remained behind the scenes. Their battle may well decide whether conservatives have a future at all in the new Europe-and if so, what kind.

Merkel and Benedict share, if awkwardly, a political base: the big-tented Christian Democratic Union born after World War II. The philosophy of West Germany’s premier postwar conservative, Konrad Adenauer, was not to dwell on the Nazi past, but rather to plow forward with economic recovery and integration into the Western alliance — all the while respecting the staunch conservatism of Chancellor Adenauer’s own Catholic Rhineland.

In Catholic-dominated West Germany, the church had enormous influence on state policies regarding abortion, sex education, and gender roles, as summed up by the Christian Democrat dictum for women: Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church). Legal equality between men and women didn’t make it into the law books until 1958. As late as 1967, only a handful of the Christian Democrats’ MPs were women. Even after the Berlin Wall came down and Helmut Kohl took over reunited Germany, the Christian Democrats remained a male-dominated, socially traditional party that envisioned the nuclear family as the basis for a God-fearing nation-state. In short, it was the very definition of European Christian democracy.

By the time Merkel arrived on the national political scene, however, this conservatism was as out of date as the Cold War that had preserved it. Since taking over the Christian Democrats in 2000, Merkel has proceeded to dramatically reconfigure German politics, an overhaul that has important lessons for conservatives across Europe and one that is recounted in fascinating detail in German journalist Mariam Lau’s new portrait of Merkel, Die Letzte Volkspartei: Angela Merkel und die Modernisierung der CDU ("The Last People’s Party: Angela Merkel and the Modernization of the Christian Democratic Union"). "Even though the official party program still stipulates the state’s protection of marriage and family," Lau writes, "in light of societal reality (and a party leadership) in which there are ever more divorcés, childless people, singles, and homosexuals, the party quite suddenly discovered a breathtaking aptitude for open-minded coexistence."

"Merkelism," as Lau calls it, stands for a bold pragmatism on issues ranging from Islam to climate change. When the Christian Democrat old guard picked Merkel as party leader, it thought she would open Germany’s last bastion of stodginess to a new generation of conservatives. But, Lau argues, the standard-bearers got more than they bargained for. Merkel and her energetic former family minister, mother of seven Ursula von der Leyen, radically overhauled the model of the German family. Her new "conservative feminism" (though, Lau notes, Merkel spurns "the f-word") can be summed up as Kinder, Kirche, Karriere. Today there is room for unmarried couples, single mothers, childless relationships, and even gay pairs in the new German family — and in Germany’s conservative movement.

Conservative Catholics have not suffered Merkel’s cultural revolution gladly, turning to the German-born Pope Benedict as defender of everything they see Merkel as discarding. If her 2005 election suggested the willingness of German conservatives to open their party to new voters, his papacy represents a throwback version of the old Europe, to a time when Christian democracy, Adenauer-style, ruled unchallenged.

Indeed, Benedict’s ascension to the papacy was largely treated as a triumph of German conservatism. "We’re Pope!" trumpeted the mass circulation Bild-Zeitung in a famous banner headline, setting the tone for the rest of the German press. Ratzinger’s past record-the intellectual purges, the anti-Vatican II stands, the retrograde ideas on women-went largely unmentioned. The media oozed with excitement, in particular Die Welt, the flagship daily of the powerful, right-wing Axel Springer publisher, which also owns Bild-Zeitung. When Ratzinger was named pope, Die Welt‘s Vatican correspondent, Paul Badde, agreed that Benedict had been "chosen by God." Even Merkel, who couldn’t have appreciated Ratzinger’s 2004 suggestion that women should guide their actions by Genesis 3:16, "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you," stayed tactfully quiet to avoid offending the Catholics within her party.

It took the Holocaust to make the divide between Merkel’s Germany and Benedict’s Germany public. In early 2009, Benedict announced the rehabilitation of the breakaway St. Pius X sect, which included an English bishop, Richard Williamson, who had publicly denied the extent of the Holocaust as recently as 2008. In Germany, where Holocaust denial is a crime, Benedict’s move backfired, arousing a bona fide protest movement.

The editorial page of Bild-Zeitung signaled that the pope’s free ride was over: "The pope has made a serious mistake. That he is a German pope makes the matter especially bad." And Merkel took Benedict to task in uncharacteristically pointed language. "This should not be allowed to pass without consequences," she said.

Alan Posener, a prominent, independent-minded columnist for Die Welt known for his strong Zionism, had decided to write a critical book about Benedict in 2008, but found no takers for the idea; German publishers wouldn’t touch it. After the Pius sect controversy broke, however, everything changed. In February 2009, Posener was skiing in the Austrian Alps when his agent called to say that offers from publishers were streaming in.

In Benedict’s Crusade, Posener, a lapsed Anglican, argues that Benedict’s activist agenda is a brand of fundamentalism that has more in common with Islamist radicalism than it does with any kind of contemporary Christian democracy. Posener doesn’t explicitly mention Merkel (he is a fan), but the subtext of his exposé is the elemental rift between Benedict and mainstream German Christians, like Merkel and her supporters: The "Benedictine turn," as Posener calls it, includes "rolling back the Enlightenment, curtailing democracy, breaking with scientific thought, and ending women’s emancipation and sexual freedom." Benedict’s goal, claims Posener, is explicitly political: to transform Europe back into a Catholic continent. Implicitly, this also means changing everything about Merkel’s Germany.

Reactions to Posener’s book have made clear that, even in the age of Merkel, allegiance to the German pope runs deep. Posener’s publisher, the German heavyweight Ullstein Verlag, had planned to kick off its publicity campaign with a public debate in Cologne, a center of Rhineland Catholicism. But no venues would host it. Similarly, bookstores rejected Ullstein’s request to hold readings, and many have even refused to stock the book.

As the tiff reached its height, Merkel found herself facing a strong political rebuke in the 2009 general elections; though she was returned to office, her party had its worst showing in 60 years, with Catholics staying away in especially large numbers in what analysts surmised was, in part, pique over her criticisms of Benedict. "The Christian Democratic Union is still very much a Catholic party," one of Merkel’s political allies concluded after the results.

With the gulf between the pope’s Germany and the chancellor’s Germany widening, Merkel may risk falling in. Merkel’s challenge is still to bridge the gap, proving that a modern conservative party can integrate all of Germany’s conservatives, from the center to the far right. If she succeeds, Merkelism, if not Merkel herself, will be Germany’s future.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).

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