Germans fall out of love with their pope
When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected the head of the Roman Catholicism in 2005, the best-selling daily Bild caught the national mood with a frontpage headline crowing Wir sind Papst! (We’re Pope!). Now, Germans are falling out of love with their pope for readmitting to the Church an excommunicated bishop who denies the Holocaust. For the vast majority of Germans, denying the Holocaust is beyond the pale. Shunning anyone who does deny the Holocaust is considered a civic virtue. So seeing the world’s most prominent German rehabilitate a Holocaust denier is quite distressing for a upstanding, post-war German democrat. How could he do it?
(Photo: Pope Benedict at the Vatican, 2 Feb 2009/Alessandro Bianchi)
The Vatican and Catholic bishops around the world have been defending the pope, saying the lifting of the excommunications for the controversial Bishop Richard Williamson and three other bishops was an internal Church issue unrelated to his political views. They say repeatedly that this is not a rehabilitation, but simply a readmission to allow discussions on rehabilitation to start. After botching the initial announcement, the Vatican has had a tough time trying to convince public opinion in other countries. In Germany, where many understandably think Holocaust deniers deserve no sympathy whatsoever, this task is proving to be doubly difficult.
From Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Foreign Minister to leading Catholic thinkers, Jewish groups and editorial writers in top-selling newspapers — they’re all criticising the pope’s controversial decision to welcome Williamson back. Here is our news story from Berlin wrapping up the reaction. In Rome, another German, Cardinal Walter Kasper, bluntly told Vatican Radio: “There wasn’t enough talking with each other in the Vatican and there are no longer checks to see where problems could arise.”
(Photo: Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Angela Merkel, 21 Oct 2008/Tobias Schwarz)
While Kasper takes a jab at Ratzinger now and then, it’s rare to see such a wide variety of opinion lining up in Rome and in other countries against a pontiff. It is almost unthinkable that a head of government should break with protocol and openly criticise a pope. But when a German pope ignores one of the deepest German taboos, getting a reaction like this is — as they say here in Germany — “as certain as hearing ‘Amen’ in church.”
There have been so many comments that we couldn’t fit them all into our news stories. Here are some of the comments from Germany:
- Merkel says says it’s all about “the pope and the Vatican making very clear that there can be no (Holocaust) denial and that there must be positive relations with Judaism.”
- Genscher writes: “Poles can be proud of Pope John Paul II. At the last papal election, we said “We are the pope!” But please — not like this.”
- Politicians from the Greens, the Left, the Social Democrats, the Free Democrats and even the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) criticise the pope’s decision. The CDU/CSU expert on church affairs, Ingrid Fischbach, said she was appalled and added: “This has disappointed me, a believing Catholic, very personally.”
- German newspapers have also joined in, including the top-selling popular daily Bild, whose editorial entitled “Infallible?” said “It is morally the last straw, the most despicable thing possible, when one relativises the racist murdering of and deadly envious fury against the Jews… The pope must correct his mistake, take back the decision and apologise.”
- The respected theologian Hans Maier said the handling of the affair was “an unforgivable failure, a political blunder … Why didn’t they get a broad consensus on these issues in advance? Such an important and decisive question must be discussed in a broader group of people.”
- Papal biographer Peter Seewald, author of two long interview book with Ratzinger entitled Salt of the Earth and God and the World, said the pope was badly advised: “This shows clearly that they’re not very professional behind the walls of the Vatican. There’s even some naïvité. This crisis could easily have been avoided with more precision. We have to get used to the idea that Benedict’s papacy will not be calm and quiet.”
The German service of Vatican Radio, which describes itself as “the voice of the pope and the world Church” (see logo below), gave in today’s news summary another explanation of the pope’s view by Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi and a postive comment by Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone (“For me, the issue is over”). It followed that by 10 — count ’em, 10 — critical comments from top German clergy condemning Williamson’s Holocaust denial and demanding full support for the Second Vatican Council and no concessions to the ultra-traditionalists. The radio quoted Mainz Cardinal Karl Lehmann, Cologne Cardinal Joachim Meisner, Munich Archbishop Reinhard Marx, Bamberg Archbishop Ludwig Schick, Hamburg Auxiliary Bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschke, Münster Bishop Felix Genn, Magdeburg Bischof Gerhard Feige, Limburg Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, Osnabrück Bishop Franz-Josef Bode and Paderborn Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker. They naturally don’t attack Benedict openly, but it’s hard to remember when the pope’s own radio station carried this many verbal nudges and winks and stage whispers from fellow Church leaders aimed in his direction.
What next? What should Benedict do when even his “home team” tells him he’s gone way out of bounds?