How the Holy Father Lost the Fatherland

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

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. 


Dubai Goes Legit

The global recession is forcing one of the shadiest places on Earth to start cleaning up its act. Is this the end of sexpats and illicit trading with Iran?

Nowhere does compromise quite like Dubai. It is a city-state in one of the most conservative regions of the world that manages to attract millions of Western tourists every year. It is a place that has avoided the religious and tribal conflicts of its neighbors while pursuing a single-minded foreign policy. Before the crash, it was feted in Western capitals as an example of a progressive Arab model of development. And when the global economy faltered, it was ridiculed as an example of the worst excesses of laissez-faire capitalism.

But the downturn has highlighted other, more complex compromises than the obvious ones -- and the consequences go further than the clichéd headlines about seven-star hotels and indoor ski slopes would suggest. Dubai, an emirate with seven times more expatriates than locals, is going through a major identity crisis. And the resolution of its crisis could have a serious impact on its relationships with the six other emirates in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and its regional neighbors, including, crucially, Iran.

It's easy to forget that Dubai is a conservative Islamic emirate, with a set of rules to match. Public displays of affection are not allowed, men and women aren't supposed to stay in the same room unless they're married, and public drunkenness is illegal. But these rules go almost entirely unenforced because if they were, Dubai's tourism industry would collapse.

So instead, Dubai has operated under a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which covers everything from its attitudes toward alcohol and sex to its often murky trading partners. And unsurprisingly, a massive influx of Westerners over the last decade -- in 1996, 1.9 million visitors came to the emirate, a figure that rose to around 7 million in 2009 -- has brought consistent cultural clashes between tourists and local authorities. Even long-term expatriates (only 4 percent of whom are Western) often have no idea what is allowed and what isn't.

This system has functioned, more or less, for years. But as Dubai's economy faltered and the UAE's local population grew more frustrated at the country's changing demographics, ruptures started to show. Locals are getting frustrated with Dubai's cultural ambiguities and the vagueness of Emirati laws that leave Westerners confused about social mores. As Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, an Emirati commentator, wrote in the Abu Dhabi-based National newspaper last month, "It is time that the UAE has a serious conversation with itself about what is and isn't acceptable in public. It is no longer possible to expect that these issues will sort themselves through a policy of ambiguity."

The ambiguity was illustrated last month when the Dubai city government issued a circular banning the use of alcohol in all food served in restaurants and hotels. Barely 48 hours later, it claimed there was no ban and that the whole thing was a "misunderstanding."

Dubai's police, too, have become increasingly active: In recent weeks, expatriates have made news for kissing in public and sending allegedly explicit text messages.

According to Christopher Davidson, author of Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success, the crackdown is a threat to the mainstay of Dubai's economy: the 7 million tourists who bring in an estimated $1.5 billion each year. "The latest string of incidents is pushing Dubai precariously close to the point of no return when it comes to tourism potential," Davidson says.

If the crackdowns are a signal that Dubai's government, spooked by the financial crisis, is planning to pass broader Islamic laws -- or at least enforce the ones it already has -- Dubai's pre-eminence as a regional business and tourism hub could be seriously in jeopardy. As one Irish businessman told me, "I don't want to bring my family up in Kuwait or Abu Dhabi as Dubai is far more open, but if Dubai were to become stricter, I would take a job somewhere else in the Gulf where the pay is better."

And yet such crackdowns are nothing new, as Jim Krane, a nonresident fellow at the Dubai School of Government, points out. In his book, City of Gold, he writes, "Vice cleanups have been a Dubai staple for generations. There was a crackdown on hookers in Deira in 1936 when Sheikh Saeed's wali forced them to get married or leave town."

What is new is the increasing lack of identity many Emiratis feel in their own country. At a conference on national identity last year, Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, professor of political science at United Arab Emirates University, said the UAE's 800,000 citizens "are lost" among millions of expats. "My anxiety is for the younger generation, that they don't know a lot about their culture and history and we fail to tell them about our history and traditions," he told the conference, titled "Who Am I? Who Are You? A Dialogue on National Identity." This belief was reiterated last month during a session of the Federal National Council, a 40-member quasi-parliamentary body, in which some members criticized the lack of "Emirati values" in the country's media. This week, the National reported that many Emiratis are moving back to the deserts, alienated by the large foreign populations in urban areas.

It's because of these conflicts and cultural misunderstandings that both long-term expats and Emiratis felt a certain sense of relief during the downturn as the flow of visitors slowed. As Al Qassemi told me, "The real estate crash is seen by many as a blessing in disguise since the various governments in the UAE were building projects that would potentially double the number of expats in the country and reduce the local national population to single percentage digits from 15 percent today."

Other changes are still in store for Dubai's locals, however. The economic crash also subtly affected Dubai's power structure. Dubai's traditional merchant families, who had been dominated over the last decade by the Western-educated Emiratis in the governmental and semigovernmental bodies, are now returning to power: poorer, perhaps, but stronger politically as the monarchy reverts to its traditional base. The Western-educated Emiratis who dominated Dubai's semigovernmental bodies before the crash have been replaced or have disappeared from view. For example, Nakheel, the quasi-governmental developer behind the Palm and the World developments, recently replaced its chairman, a U.S.-educated Emirati, with Ali Rashid Ahmed Lootah, a member of the Lootah merchant family.

When it comes to Dubai's relationship with its neighbors, many of whom were also affected by the crash, some wonder if Dubai will follow in the footsteps of the northern emirate of Sharjah. The emirate was once a freewheeling smaller version of Dubai; then its economy collapsed in the mid-1980s, and it turned to Saudi Arabia for help. Now alcohol is banned, and Sharjah has lived under sharia law since 2001 -- and unlike Dubai's "sharia lite" version, Sharjah actually enforces its laws.

Such a shift is not likely to happen in Dubai, which relies far more on tourism revenue than Sharjah ever has. But Abu Dhabi, which bailed out Dubai to the tune of $10 billion last year, is likely to have more of a say in Dubai's affairs. So far, apart from the renaming of the world's tallest building, originally the Burj Dubai, to the Burj Khalifa (Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan is the ruler of Abu Dhabi and the president of the UAE), there has been no overt interference.

But Dubai could feel significant pressure from Abu Dhabi, a close U.S. ally, when it comes to foreign policy, and the newly dependent relationship could create interesting effects in the region. Dubai has always been the most pro-Iranian of the Gulf states, and Dubai and Iran have longstanding commercial and cultural ties. Trade between Dubai and Iran amounted to $12 billion last year, a figure that has tripled since 2005. And Dubai has benefited from Iran's increasing isolation from the rest of the world, acting as a backdoor to the Iranian economy. In Dubai's ports, where many Iranian merchants have lived for decades, Farsi is as commonly spoken as Arabic.

Abu Dhabi, on the other hand, is more wary when it comes to dealing with Iran, and it might press Dubai to rein in the smuggling. Closing off the Dubai avenue could be a big step for the United States as it looks to further cut off Iran, and in fact U.S. presidents have addressed the issue before: George W. Bush brought it up on his 2008 visit to the region.

According to a recent report by Al Jazeera, in fact, the pressure is already on. Dubai's compromises may be finally catching up to it, and the emirate's future is likely to be a far less shady one.

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