Argument

Against the Tides

As Pope Benedict XVI says his final farewells, how will Germans remember one of their own?

Eight years ago, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was proclaimed Pope Benedict XVI, a German tabloid ran the headline: "We are pope!" It was meant to suggest a special bond between Germans and the new pope -- the first to hail from Germany since Pope Adrian VI in 1522. And it was an expression of pride: Finally the Catholic Church was being run by someone whose own biography allowed him to relate to German concerns and sentiments. That's how it appeared then. But the relationship soon went sour: Disappointment turned into indifference, indifference into rejection. Last time he came to visit Germany's capital, in 2011, the pope's detractors gathered at night near his lodgings and tried to keep the old man awake by banging drums and playing trumpets.

Initially, the question of the pope's nationality was also taken up by commentators outside Germany. After all, here was a German who had once been a member of the Hitler Youth. The suspicion grew when he voiced his intent to bring back a reactionary Holocaust denier into the church's fold -- in 2009, Pope Benedict lifted the ban on Bishop Richard Williamson, who once said, "There was not one Jew killed by the gas chambers" during the Holocaust. It seemed a little much. But the pope confronted his critics' somewhat superficial perspective head-on by placing himself, his testimonial, and his teachings at the core of his rule. During his visit to Israel in 2009 he stressed the "indestructible bond" between Jews and Christians and the need to fight against anti-Semitism with "all strength." Soon, assumptions about his attitude toward Judaism and position on the Holocaust appeared not only unjustified, but straight-out ridiculous.

The other assumption -- that a German pope would be a pope of the Germans -- turned out to be equally silly. The emphasis on his geographical background was little more than patriotic hubris; if anything, Pope Benedict's reign would contribute to the church's decline on the European continent, where only a quarter of the word's 1.2 billion Catholics reside. His time as the head of the church was marked by the rise of Christianity in Africa and Asia, where the faithful are less concerned about issues like abuse, homosexuality, and the ordination of female priests. But Pope Benedict failed to reconcile the rival impulses within his flock.

To be sure, the pope took up the matter of the declining Christian communities in Europe. During the 2011 World Youth Day in Madrid, he complained about "God's eclipse" in the West, railed against "aggressive forms of secularism," and warned that the disappearance of God from our lives would lead to a "derogative view of man." But his call did not lead to a rejuvenation of Europe's Christianity. In Europe, religious traditions are fading, while anti-religious sentiments in general are on the rise. The Swiss banned minarets, the French banned headscarves, and the Germans, of all people, banned -- briefly at least -- religious circumcision.

In Europe, the Catholic Church and Christianity, in general, face two challenging trends: secular apathy mixed with moments of anti-religious fervor, and the mighty social impact of Islam. The two trends are divisive, yet they have occasionally united people across faiths: The German debate about circumcision, for example, brought Jews, Christians, and Muslims together into a coalition, but the pope's 2006 speech at Regensburg University still remains contentious. In the speech, Pope Benedict XVI referred to a debate between a Byzantine emperor and a Persian and quoted the emperor's provocative words: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, an association of 57 Islamic states, called the speech a "smear campaign."

The roots of this misunderstanding can be traced back to a conscious decision: From the start of his reign, Pope Benedict made clear that he wanted to spar theologically with Muslims. In his first encyclical, akin to a State of the Union address for popes, he described the Christian God of love as the radical antithesis of the entity that terrorists take to justify their acts. "In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence, this message is both timely and significant," he said.

Pope Benedict also faced a changing tide, one that threatened to move the epicenter of Christianity -- both demographically and texturally -- from the Vatican. He proved to be a stalwart defender of Christians' religious rights around the globe (especially in places like Iraq, North Korea, China, and Saudi Arabia) where worshipping Jesus can literally be life-threatening. But the persecution of Christians along with their growing ranks in places like Africa and Latin America has made the distinction between European Christians and Christians from other parts of the world less relevant. Christians are persecuted as Christians, not specifically as Catholics or Protestants. And while Christianity as a faith is growing in Asia and Africa, the newly established rites are often a mixture of Christian and local traditions. Increasingly, syncretic forms of Christian life are the global norm.

Back in Europe, however, the erosion of denominational boundaries had raised German Protestants' hopes for a renewed ecumenical push. Before the pope's historic visit to Germany in 2011, expectations ran high that he might rehabilitate Martin Luther, some 500 years after the church's schism. He did not. In ecumenical terms, the Vatican suddenly seemed closer to the Christian Orthodox Church than to the Protestant Church. Many in Germany, a country evenly split between Catholics and Protestants, saw it as an insult that a Bavarian pope would work to further divide Christians. 

During the pope's visit to Germany in 2011, the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung remarked that the "vehemence with which its spiritual head is being opposed is an indication of the church's strength." If only. The pope's decision to step down comes at a time of crisis for Catholics in Germany. Given the disorienting complexity of modern life, the erstwhile appeal of a morally unerring pope suddenly came across as dogmatic. In fact, on the same day that the pope announced that he was stepping down, German news shows were covering the story of a woman who had apparently been raped but was refused treatment in a Catholic hospital in order to avoid putting doctors in a position of advising about the morning-after pill.

Cold, narrow-minded, repellent: That is how the Catholic Church is perceived in Germany today. It may not be entirely the pope's fault, but he has also done very little to counter this perception. Joachim Meisner, archbishop of Cologne, recently complained of a growing "Catholic-phobia" in Germany, while Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, observed in an interview published Feb. 1 that there was a "pogrom atmosphere" against the church.

Pope Benedict felt comfortable as a thinker; the intellectual universe was his home. Whenever he spoke -- often inaudible, sometimes mumbling -- he managed to create fascinating spiritual paintings. Perhaps he was worn down by the politics of the Vatican; perhaps he was too spiritual for the terrestrial intrigues of power and influence. And perhaps he was worn down, too, by the fact that his message was least heard in the place closest to him biographically: Europe and Germany.

All this makes him look like a tragic figure: a man misunderstood, a solitary universalist, a man of letters but not of words. In a world that tends to confuse the quiet with the unimportant and noise with persuasiveness, he will be missed.

Stefano Dal Pozzolo - Vatican Pool via Getty Images

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