x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Pope returns home to a disenchanted Germany

Germany has fallen out of love with Benedict in the six years since he was elected in 2005 as the first German pope in almost 500 years, disenchanted by his rigid conservatism, his handling of a child-abuse scandal and his rehabilitation of a controversial British bishop.

Pope Benedict XVI is received with military honours at Bellevue Palace in Berlin yesterday by the German president, Christian Wulff. The head of the Roman Catholic Church is on his third visit to his home country since becoming pontiff in 2005. Britta Pedersen / EPA
Pope Benedict XVI is received with military honours at Bellevue Palace in Berlin yesterday by the German president, Christian Wulff. The head of the Roman Catholic Church is on his third visit to his home country since becoming pontiff in 2005. Britta Pedersen / EPA

BERLIN // Pope Benedict XVI arrived in his home country yesterday for a visit rich on pomp and ceremony but overshadowed by his rigid conservatism, his handling of a child-abuse scandal and his rehabilitation of a controversial British bishop.

Germany has fallen out of love with Benedict in the six years since he was elected in April 2005 as the first German pope in almost 500 years. That event was met with a national outpouring of joy, famously expressed in a legendary front page by Bild, the country's best-selling newspaper, which declared: "We Are The Pope!"

His four-day trip began in Berlin, where he was met on the red carpet at Tegel airport by Angela Merkel, the chancellor, and Christian Wulff, the president, before addressing parliament and giving an evening mass before 70,000 people in the city's Olympic Stadium.

It is his third visit to Germany as pope, and will be his most difficult because it has stirred controversy about the direction of the Catholic Church that critics say has grown more inward-looking and removed from the realities of the modern world under his leadership.

Some 100 MPs from the opposition Social Democrats, Greens and Left parties boycotted his speech to the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, and some 15,000 people demonstrated in Berlin against what organisers called his "inhuman gender and sexual policy", a reference to the Catholic Church's refusal to allow women priests, its ostracism of homosexuals and its opposition to artificial contraception.

Klaus Wowereit, the Berlin mayor, who is openly gay, said he could understand why people were protesting. "In its teaching, the church represents theories that belong to past millennia but not to the modern age," he said.

The president, Mr Wulff, a Catholic who has fallen foul of the church's moral standards by divorcing his first wife and remarrying, addressed these concerns in a welcome speech at Bellevue Palace, saying Catholicism was being constantly challenged by modern issues.

"How compassionately will it treat points of rupture in the lives of individuals?" Mr Wulff asked the Pope. "How will it approach points of rupture in its own history or the wrongdoing of members of its clergy? What are the respective roles of laypeople and clergy, women and men?"

Benedict, 84, told the audience gathered in front of the palace: "We are witnessing a growing indifference to religion in society." He called religion a foundation for a successful society and said its values were essential for freedom.

Earlier, he had told reporters flying to Berlin with him that he was not concerned about the protests. "It is part of our freedom and we must acknowledge that secularism and opposition to Catholicism in our societies is strong," he said. "But if opposition is expressed in a civil way, then nothing can be said against it."

Germany has some 24.6 million Catholics, just under a third of the population, but the church is in crisis, and many say Benedict is partly to blame.

There has been deep disappointment at his failure to open the church to modern trends. A paper written by Catholic legislators including Norbert Lammert, the president of the Bundestag, calling for a rethink of church rules enforcing celibacy was brusquely rejected by Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, a close confidant of Benedict. The cardinal called the appeal an "insult to Christ".

Germans are also incensed about an abuse scandal that has shaken the church since 2010. The church in Germany has received almost 600 requests for compensation for victims of sexual and physical abuse, while a victims' association estimates that more than 2,000 people were mistreated by Catholic priests in recent decades.

While Benedict has expressed his shame over abuse scandals that have been revealed in a number of countries, he has not launched a major investigation into the causes.

Even before the scandal came to light in early 2010, Benedict had already offended many Germans with his decision in 2009 to rehabilitate the British Bishop Richard Williamson, who denies the scale of the Holocaust, and three other members of the ultra-traditional Society of Saint Pius X, which holds views widely regarded as anti-Semitic.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae