Opinion: The Pope is Trapped | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 05.02.2009
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Opinion: The Pope is Trapped

The decision by Pope Benedict XVI to allow a Holocaust denier back into the Catholic Church was greeted with outrage, especially in Germany. DW's Felix Steiner takes a critical look at the controversy.


The election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as pope almost four years ago surprised many observers -- especially the older ones. It was, and still is, an undisputed fact that Ratzinger is one of the most brilliant and prominent Catholic theologians of our time.

However, the idea that a German could attain the position of the world's most visible and moral post seemed impossible after the crimes committed by Nazi Germany during the Holocaust -- and even more so considering the fact that Ratzinger belongs to a generation which was sent into Hitler's war to fight on the side of evil when they were still practically children.

Historical context

For many, the election of Ratzinger as pope was the final indication that today's Germans had become rehabilitated enough to join the civilized world. And so now it would be fatal for Benedict XVI, the German pope, to be suspected of making anti-Semitism acceptable in the Catholic Church and tolerating the denial of the Holocaust.

Yet anyone who has read the things Joseph Ratzinger has written and taken in all the things the pope has said in the last ten days knows that couldn't be further from the truth.

The facts

A look at what happened: Benedict XVI rescinded the excommunication of four bishops who were kicked out of the Catholic Church 20 years ago by his predecessor.

Now that the four men have once again been welcomed into the church, they are permitted to take part in the sacraments, including giving sermons and taking confessions. By no means does that mean the four are rehabilitated. They have no official powers as bishops in the Catholic Church, and their opinions of the relationship between Catholicism and Judaism have not become the opinions of the Catholic Church.

The problem lies elsewhere. The decision of the Pope simply isn't understandable, whether from within the church (from the perspective of the pastors and those responsible for the unity of the church) or without.

Historical novelty

The pope is not only perceived as a theologian and pastor, but as the head of the largest religious community on earth, and as such, his dealings also take on a political dimension. From a political standpoint it looks very simple: the pope is welcoming anti-Semites and a notorious Holocaust denier into the church -- the German pope, from the country of the perpetrators.

That explains why the protest is especially large in Germany, where denying the Holocaust is a statutory offense. And the massive uproar also explains why the German chancellor herself has asked the pope for an explanation -- a historical novelty.

Political differences

Meanwhile, elections are coming up in Germany, which is why the head of the SPD, who, unlike Angela Merkel, is a Catholic, also quickly upped the stakes and demanded the pope reverse his decision.

Unlike the pope, both of them have a definite interest in public opinion and are hoping to profit from this.

The pope, by contrast, is trapped. He can stand by his decision and risk what will likely be a severe pelting with criticism, on his person, his office and possibly even the institution of the church.

If he does the opposite and recants -- something that would also be a historical novelty -- the results will be the same. An organization like a church can not be dependent on public opinion, and a religious community cannot be led like a political party, completely at the will of the majority.

What we can expect from a pope is the ability to explain controversial decisions, both to church members and outsiders.

Felix Steiner is the head of Deutsche Welle's central news desk. (mrm)

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