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.