Pontiff challenges Germany to reject godlessness
Pope Benedict XVI gives Communion to a child during Mass at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium on Sept. 22. CNS photo from Reuters

Because prophets are seldom embraced in their homelands, Pope Benedict XVI’s Sept. 22-25 state visit to Germany was never expected to be triumphant. And so it turned out: The trip was quieter than his first, postconclave visit in 2005; this time, he was six years older and more tired. And unlike his visit to the United Kingdom a year ago, there was no great turning of the tables on his critics. Although they led the news, the 9,000 protesters in Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz were dwarfed by the 70,000 in the Mass at the Olympic Stadium. 

Yet his 18 speeches and sermons were some of his most direct and audacious yet. Richly textured, intellectually thrilling and delivered with a Teutonic directness that would be hard to get away with anywhere else, they demanded a place for faith in the public square while calling on the Church to give up sophistication in favor of holiness. 

In turn, Pope Benedict was also challenged. He was greeted by the German president, Christian Wulff, a practicing Catholic who is divorced and civilly remarried, who asked him: “How compassionately will [the Church] treat points of rupture in the lives of individuals? How will it approach points of rupture in its own history or the wrongdoing of members of its clergy?”  

Before his speech to the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, the pontiff was told by its president, Norbert Lammert, that many people were “vexed” by the Catholic-Protestant divide and doubted that “inter-confessional differences, while they do undoubtedly exist, justify maintaining this division.” 

Daring rescue bid

The Bundestag address was a daring bid to rescue Western thinking from the clutches of a new positivism. Demonstrating how the Western democratic tradition rested on the Christian respect for the autonomy of reason subject to a higher law, the pope issued an “urgent invitation” for a wider debate on the way faith is commonly regarded as subjective and extraneous to the realm of reason.  

Warning that in Europe there are “concerted efforts to recognize only positivism as a common culture and a common basis for lawmaking, so that all the other insights and values of our culture are reduced to the level of subculture,” his speech argued that at the end of that road lay a vacuum that will be filled by extremism and radicalism. Likening positivist reasoning to “a concrete bunker with no windows, in which we ourselves provide lighting and atmospheric condition,” he appealed for the windows to be flung open again, in order to rediscover “the wide world, the big picture” of Western civilization.  

Noting how the Green movement had led to a newly discovered respect for the laws of creation, he said “there is also an ecology of man” that asks that man “listens to his nature, respects it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself.” In the conviction of a Creator God lay “the idea of human rights, the idea of the equality of all people before the law, the recognition of the inviolability of human dignity in every single person and the awareness of people’s responsibility for their actions,” he said, leading to “the criteria of law” that “we are called to defend at this moment in our history.” 

In that widely praised address, the pope had included a reference to the Nazi regime as an example of a state shorn of justice —“a highly organized band of robbers, capable of threatening the whole world and driving it to the edge of the abyss.”  

He continued the argument in a meeting with Jewish leaders in the Reichstag, in which he spoke of Adolf Hitler as pagan idol who sought to replace God.  

“Refusal to heed this one God,” the pope said, “always makes people heedless of human dignity as well.” 

Faith matters

At Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, the pope turned in his homily to the exodus of German Catholics who have left the Church — 180,000 last year, according to official figures — as result of the sex abuse crisis. The Church was not merely one of the organizations within a democratic society but a “complex entity” that contained both good and bad fish, wheat as well as weeds. Preferring to imagine an idealized, or “dream,” Church, he went on, Catholics who then discover the reality are alienated from it. 

His remarks to Muslims the next day at the Apostolic Nunciature praised the postwar German constitution as inspired by a particular faith — Christianity — but guarantees religious pluralism. In this way, he said, “an essentially homogeneous society laid the foundations that we today consider valid for a markedly pluralistic world, foundations that actually point out the evident limits of pluralism: It is inconceivable, in fact, that a society could survive in the long term without consensus on fundamental ethical values.” The pope appeared to be suggesting that Muslims in new regimes of the Arab Spring could learn from this model — a theme he is likely to make explicit in the Oct. 27 gathering of world religious leaders at Assisi. 

Ecumenical highlight

The encounter with Protestant leaders in the central city of Erfurt, followed by a joint prayer service, marked the ecumenical highlight of the pope’s visit. He prayed in Erfurt Cathedral, where Martin Luther was ordained a Catholic priest in 1507, before meeting with Lutheran leaders in the former Augustinian monastery where Luther lived until 1511. 

Praising the reformer’s zeal and Christocentrism, he noted that “it was the error of the Reformation period that for the most part we could only see what divided us and we failed to grasp existentially what we have in common.” Calling for the Churches divided by the Reformation to make a “joint commitment” and a “common witness,” he said these were particularly necessary at a time of secularization and the rise of fundamentalist evangelical churches — “a form of Christianity with little institutional depth, little rationality and even less dogmatic content, and with little stability.” The encounter appeared to lay the groundwork for preparations for the 500th anniversary of the break from Rome in 2017, for which Catholics and Lutherans are preparing a declaration. 

New evangelization

The pope ended his visit at Freiburg, a deeply Catholic city, where tens of thousands of young people held an overnight vigil until Mass the following morning. There Pope Benedict’s messages focused his remarks on the “new evangelization” — the attempt to evangelize the post-Christian cultures of Europe — which has provided a focus for his papacy. In part, this is about how the Church can gain a credible voice in society, something that can only happen, the pope told the lay Central Committee of German Catholics, through the renewal of faith, rather than structures.  

“The Church in Germany is superbly organized,” he said. “But behind the structures, is there also a corresponding spiritual strength, the strength of faith in a living God? We must honestly admit that we have more than enough by way of structure but not enough by way of Spirit.” 

He called for the Church to “return to the people who lack experience of God’s goodness,” saying that they needed “places where they can give voice to their inner longing.” Small communities could be one such path, he said. 

Pope Benedict resumed this theme in a meeting with Catholics active in the Church and society. There he warned of the Church becoming too settled and comfortable, coming to give “greater weight to organization and institutionalization than to her vocation to openness” and seeking to adapt to the standards of the world.  

Secularizing trends, Pope Benedict said, “have always meant a profound liberation of the Church from forms of worldliness, for in the process she has set aside her worldly wealth and has once again completely embraced her worldly poverty.” A Church relieved of the “burden of worldliness” is in a better position “to mediate the life-giving strength of the Christian faith to those in need.” 

Austen Ivereigh writes from England.