Mix of ill-will and expectation await pontiff on German visit


Pope Benedict’s six-year papacy has sparked regular controversy in his home country, writes DEREK SCALLY

POPE BENEDICT XVI begins a four-day visit to his native Germany today with an address to the Bundestag and a Mass at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium.

Some 70,000 worshippers are expected to attend the opening Mass of the Pope’s third trip home since becoming pontiff in 2005.

Before landing, the 84-year-old might just spot a reminder of that momentous event on the Berlin skyline: mass-market Bild newspaper has covered its 18-storey offices with a reproduction of its 2005 front page that read: “We’re Pope!” Similar to last year’s visit to Britain, Pope Benedict arrives between a wave of public expectation and a cloud of ill-will.

News weekly Der Spiegel dubbed him “the unteachable one” on their cover, noting that his Berlin hosts are a collection of a la carte Catholics: from divorced president Christian Wulff to Berlin’s openly gay mayor Klaus Wowereit. “Like the gruesome neighbours in Rosemary’s Baby: fixed smiles and cold eyes.”

Some 20,000 people are planning a street protest while some 100 German opposition MPs plan to boycott his Bundestag address. Grassroots organisation “We are Church” has reiterated demands for women priests, an end to the celibacy rule and new teaching on homosexuality and condom use.

Behind the protests are hard numbers showing that, as elsewhere in Europe, the German Catholic church is in steep decline. One-third of Germans – 24.6 million people – are baptised Catholics, the largest religious group. But Mass attendance is down 43 per cent in 20 years to just 12.6 per cent.

Pope Benedict’s six-year papacy has sparked regular controversy in Germany, such as his 2006 Regensburg speech citing a 14th century Byzantine emperor’s description of Islam as “bad and inhuman”. Use of the quote upset Muslims around the world, though the Vatican called it a misunderstanding.

Jews were unimpressed when reconciliation talks with the breakaway Society of St Pius X gave a world stage to the Holocaust denial of British bishop Richard Williamson. Chancellor Angela Merkel intervened to stop “the impression being created that denial of the Holocaust is permissible”. She said she spoke only after waiting in vain for the Vatican to do so, but she succeeded in upsetting many German Catholics who felt a politician had no business correcting the Pope.

An open wound in the German Catholic church, however, is that of clerical sex abuse. Although it is nowhere near the scale of the Irish scandal, German bishops have struggled to shake the suspicion of organised obfuscation and institutional foot-dragging. Of 51 internal investigations against priests suspected of abuse in the last three years, 18 have been suspended and two defrocked.

For many abuse victims, the €30 million cost of the papal visit sits uncomfortably with their own outstanding compensation claims.

“The survivors say that their testimony vanishes into church channels and, if they are lucky, they might find out the outcome of the investigation, but perhaps not even that,” said Johannes Heibel, author of a recent book on clerical sex abuse of minors.

Tomorrow Pope Benedict visits the eastern city of Erfurt and a former monastery where Martin Luther made his first steps towards the Reformation.

Half an hour of conversation here with Lutheran church leaders will not heal a 500-year schism, but there is cautious optimism that the German pontiff can at least ease recent ecumenical tensions.

“Outstanding questions such as common Eucharist are being worked on by committees so the Pope cannot intervene,” said Hans-Peter Grosshans, a Lutheran theologian. “But I expect a shift in atmosphere, such as a positive perception from the Pope of Martin Luther as a theologian from whom the Catholic Church could learn a little, too.”

Addressing ecumenical tensions will leave little time to address internal Catholic divisions. For instance, Germany’s “church tax”: introduced to compensate for loss of wealth and property in the Bismarck era, the obligatory deduction earns the German Catholic Church €5 billion annually – but Pope Benedict has said the practice contradicts church teaching.

“Sacraments in exchange for a pre-payment is a theological scandal,” writes Matthias Matussek, author of the recent bestseller The Catholic Adventure. “It only goes to pay for shining facades of an inflated pastoral apparatus.” For German bishops, the papal visit marks a brief ceasefire in an increasingly fraught struggle between tradition and reform.

Liberals fear their influence is dwindling under the conservative Pope; conservatives say liberal reforms have only accelerated church decline, and want to go back to basics. With the faithful abandoning ship – last year more people left the church than were baptised – the energetic struggle resembles a disagreement over deckchairs on the Titanic. “In Germany we are living in the final phase of a strong, superstructure church, all facade and weak foundations,” said Prof Hubert Windisch, a Freiburg theologian.