Benedict leaves his German homeland with a complicated legacy

BERLIN (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI is leaving his homeland with a complicated legacy: pride in a German pontiff but a church deeply divided over the need for reform in the wake of a sex-abuse scandal that implicated his own actions decades ago .

Benedict has long drawn mixed reviews in Germany, a country where Christians are roughly evenly split between Catholics and Protestants and where many have struggled with his conservative stance.

The day after the election of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the first German pope for centuries in 2005, the front page of the best-selling Bild newspaper shouted “We are the Pope!” The left-wing Tageszeitung reacted with the headline “Oh, my God!”

Chancellor Olaf Solz said that “as a ‘German’ Pope, Benedict XVI was a special church leader for many, not only in this country.” He paid tribute to the late pontiff as “a formative figure of the Catholic Church, a militant personality and a wise theologian”.

“As a church in Germany, we think with gratitude of Pope Benedict XVI: He was born in our country, his homeland was here and he helped shape church life here as a theologian and bishop,” said the head of the German Bishops. Conference, Bishop of Limburg Georg Baetzing.

However, a decade after his resignation, deep divisions are evident in the German church between traditionalists in the Benedict mold and relative liberals.

“The German pope filled many with pride, but above all with hope,” said Irme Stetter-Karp, head of an influential grassroots organization, the Central Committee of German Catholics, or ZdK. “For some, that hope was richly fulfilled. For others, there remained an unfulfilled yearning to find a way … for their Christianity to succeed in the 21st century.”

Since 2019, German Catholic bishops and representatives of the ZdK have been involved in a potentially groundbreaking reform process – the “Conciliar Path” – addressing calls to allow blessings for same-sex couples, married priests and the ordination of women as deacons.

German church leaders persist that the process will not lead to a schism and vow to go through with it, even as they face pressure from suspicious Vatican officials.

Highlighting both the pressure for reform and the divisions it faces, a Synodical Path assembly in September failed to approve a text calling for the liberalization of sex education because, while it won overall 82% support, it failed to get the required two-thirds support of the German bishops.

The retired pope himself has stayed out of the fray, although his longtime secretary, Archbishop Georg Genswein, has signaled his own strong skepticism about the Synod.

The process was initiated in response to the abuse scandal that has rocked the church in Germany and elsewhere in recent years, which has contributed to large numbers of Germans officially leaving the church.

In 2018, a church-commissioned report concluded that at least 3,677 people were abused by clergy in Germany between 1946 and 2014. More than half of the victims were 13 years old or younger, and nearly a third served as altar boys.

Various dioceses commissioned law firms or others to compile reports on their own pasts. This has led to massive and unresolved tensions in the diocese of Cologne, where the archbishop, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, was widely criticized for the handling of a report he commissioned. His resignation offer has been pending with Pope Francis for months.

An independent exhibition in the archdiocese of Munich and Freising, where Benedict served as archbishop from 1977 to 1982, turned the spotlight for the retired pope himself last January. His review of decades of abuse cases has failed to be handled by a series of church officials past and present, including then-Cardinal Ratzinger in four cases.

Benedict asked for forgiveness of any “serious errors” in the handling of clergy sexual abuse cases, but denied any personal or specific wrongdoing. Reform advocates and victims’ advocacy groups criticized what they saw as a lackluster response.

The head of the bishops’ conference, Baetzing, said on Saturday that he “asked for forgiveness from those who were hurt. however, questions remained open.” But he highlighted Benedict’s role in overturning the church’s approach to clerical sexual abuse as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and later as pope.

Reform group We are Church said Benedict’s response to the abuse report had seriously damaged his reputation and generally criticized him as a “relentless reactionary”.

As pontiff, Benedict — who left his homeland for the Vatican in 1982 — made three visits to Germany, including a trip to his native Bavaria in 2006 and a trip in 2011 in which he became the first pope to speak in German parliament.

His only known trip outside of Italy since his retirement also took him to Germany. He returned to Bavaria for a few days in June 2020 to see his older brother, the Reverend Georg Ratzinger, shortly before the latter’s death.

Bavaria’s governor, Markus Soeder, said he “always carried his country in his heart” and that many there “will remember him with gratitude not only as Pope Benedict XVI, but also as a humble pastor.”

“It gave a lot of people strength and direction,” Soeder said. “But at the same time, he also had to face responsibility for difficult phases in his work.”

In his “spiritual testament”, released by the Vatican on Saturday, Benedict wrote: “I pray that our country remains a country of faith and I exhort you, dear countrymen: do not let yourselves be discouraged from faith.”


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