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Vatican crisis

April 19, 2010

During his five years as pope, Benedict XVI has lost the support of many, including Catholics in his German homeland. DW looks back at a papacy wrought with public-relations disasters.

Pope Benedict XVI looks concerned.
Some have called on the pope to step downImage: AP

In the five years since German Cardinal Josef Ratzinger was elected pope, the papacy has experienced one public relations error after another. Pope Benedict XVI has led the Church into an international crisis of confidence.

Although it may not have been his intention, the newly-elected pontiff's address to the crowd at St. Peter's Square on April 19, 2005 provided an indication that the days of the supposed infallibility of the pope were long gone:

"The cardinals elected me, a simple and modest worker in the vineyard of the Lord, to follow the great Pope John Paul II," Benedict XVI said. "I am comforted by the fact that the Lord knows how to work with even inadequate tools."

A conservative hardliner

No one expected the conservative Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to become a pope of reform. In fact, Pope Benedict XVI has maintained controversial Church stances against abortion, contraception, the ordination of women and interfaith marriages - to the chagrin of many liberal Catholics.

Wolfgang Beinert, a Regensburg theologian and a former student of Ratzinger's, believes, like many of the pope's critics, that the Church needs an update if it is to survive.

Pope Benedict XVI addresses a crowd in Regensburg
A speech in the pontiff's native Germany angered many MuslimsImage: AP

"There's been a series of theologically questionable acts that cast doubt on whether he's leading the Church towards a sustainable Catholicism, or ifthis papacy will get caught up in the same backlog of reforms that's been building up over the past 30 years," Beinert told Deutsche Welle.

In 2009, politicians in Germany, France and Belgium condemned the pope's claims that condoms could "increase the problem" of HIV-AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Interfaith miscommunication

Since becoming pope, Ratzinger's words and actions have alienated not only other Catholics, but Muslims, Jews and even Protestants.

The pope provoked violent reactions in the Middle East with a reference to Emperor Manuel II Palaeologus in a 2006 speech in Regensburg.

Benedict quoted Emperor Manuel II as saying, "'show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman.'"

Following Benedict's speech churches were burned in Gaza and an Italian nun was murdered in Somalia. The pope also received open letters from 38 Muslim leaders across the world.

Two years later Benedict's reversal of British Holocaust-denier Richard Williamson's excommunication prompted an outcry among Jews and caused German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to demand that the pope "clarify unambiguously that there can be no denying" that the Nazis killed six million Jews.

Holocaust-denier Richard Willliamson
Benedict reversed the excommunication of Holocaust-denier Richard WillliamsonImage: AP

In the same year, the pope readopted a pre-Vatican Council II version of the Good Friday Prayer for Jews, which beseeches God to "illuminate their hearts, that they acknowledge Jesus Christ is the Savior of all men."

In an attempt to soften the blow of the Regensburg address, Benedict visited a mufti at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, where he stressed the common goals of Islam and Christianity. He later proclaimed in Jordan his "deepest respect for the Muslim community."

After lifting Williamson's excommunication, the pope paid a similar visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

During his tenure, the pope also approved of a document denying that the Protestant church is a church "in the classical sense" - a decision that the Lutheran Bishop of Hanover at the time, Margot Kaessmann, described as a "fiasco."

"We are pope!"

Five years ago the announcement that Bavarian-born Joseph Ratzinger would become the first German pope since 1523, created excitement among Germany's Catholics. Their enthusiasm was best expressed in the headline of the mass circulation daily Bild: "Wir sind Papst!" (literally, "We are pope!").

That enthusiasm has waned. According to the newspaper Suedwest Presse, after months of new reports of sexual abuse by German clergymen, the Freiburg diocese lost 2,711 members in March 2010 alone. In the same month 2,676 parishioners withdrew their membership in Rottenburg-Stuttgart.

A woman reads a tabloid in Germany announcing, "We are pope!"
Thousands have left the Church in GermanyImage: AP

German clergymen support their leader but acknowledge that the pope has lost favor in his homeland.

"I am ashamed of us German Catholics for the way we are treating the pope," said Cardinal Joachim Meisner, the archbishop of Cologne.

The pope, who himself is accused of turning a blind eye to abuse during his tenure as the Bishop of Munich and Freising, has come under widespread criticism in Europe for his resistance to take a strong stance on abuse within the Church.

In an April 2008 interview, the pope told the US-based television news network that the Church should do all it can to help the victims of abuse and that he would "absolutely exclude pedophiles from the sacred ministry."

However, the pope did not see fit to reaffirm this message to the public when new reports of sexual abuse erupted in Europe - another public relations mistake that has cost the Church thousands of members.

Author: David Levitz

Editor: Andreas Illmer