Germans grapple with Pope's legacy

Pope Benedict’s reception in his fatherland has long been a thing of awkwardness, Katie Engelhart reports

In Germany, word of Pope Benedict XVI’s imminent resignation fell on Rosenmontag (Rose Monday), the kick-off to Karneval—a kind of German Mardi Gras. One top German Catholic, on hearing the news, dismissed it as a “carnival joke.

But Benedict’s reception in Germany, his fatherland, has long been a thing of awkwardness.

Pope Benedict XVI (formerly Joseph Ratzinger) was born in 1927 in Marktl am Inn, Bavaria, where his father worked as a police officer. Ordained in 1951, Ratzinger spent much of his career in academia—before his appointment as Archbishop of Munich and Freising.

In Germany, Ratzinger’s 2005 election, as the Church’s 265th Pope, was celebrated as a milestone.  Benedict XVI became the first German pontiff in more than 1,000 years. His papal rise was widely viewed as a symbol of Germany’s post-war absolution. Famously, the German newspaper Bild greeted news of Ratzinger’s election with the headline “Wir Sind Papst” (We are the pope).

But in the years that followed, many in Germany—where the population is split between Catholics and Protestants—grew wary of Ratzinger’s reactionary politics. The Pope earned the nickname “God’s Rottweiler,” for what The Guardian called his tendency to be “intellectually remorseless.”

(Pope Benedict XVI’s predecessor, the much-beloved Polish Pope John Paul II, was also a conservative figure. But in Germany, John Paul II’s conservatism was venerated—since its accompanying anti-Communism was credited with helping to bring down the Berlin Wall.)

Soon, Ratzinger earned a second nickname: “Nazinger”—a reference to the years he spent in the Hitler Youth and German Army.  Though Ratzinger was conscripted into those organizations (he had no choice but to serve), his wartime past would be subject to increased scrutiny.

Ratzinger didn’t help the matter when, in 2009, he reversed the ex-communication of four members of the ultra-conservative Society of St. Pius X; one was Bishop Richard Williamson, who has publicly questioned the extent of the Holocaust and denied that any Jews were killed in gas chambers.

But Benedict XVI’s biggest hit came in 2010, when it was revealed he had overseen the hushing-up of sexual abuse allegations, while serving as a German archbishop. Most notably: Ratzinger had approved a known pedophile’s return to pastoral work. (That priest would later molest boys in a new parish.) More than 180,000 German Catholics left the Church in 2010 alone.

On Monday, in Berlin, German chancellor Angela Merkel praised the Pope’s (almost unprecedented) decision to step down. “We are proud of our countryman,” she extolled, “the first for hundreds of years to take up the role of pope.”

Most of Benedict XVI’s critics, by contrast, kept mum; their criticism, presumably, will come later. Hans Kung, a theologian who was once close with Ratzinger but is now considered his greatest rival, said only that he hoped “Ratzinger will not exercise influence on the choice of his successor.”

Back in the Pope’s hometown, supporters gathered at St. Oswald’s, the church where Ratzinger was christened in 1927, to place flowers before his portrait. Some posed in photographs outside the Pope’s childhood home.

Still others—ignoring broader questions about the Pope’s confused German legacy—turned their attention to more immediate concerns: like whether and how news of the resignation would influence sales of locally brewed Pope Beer.