Profile: Pope Benedict XVI | Papal Visit | DW | 19.09.2011
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Papal Visit

Profile: Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI has stirred controversy ever since he took the helm of the Catholic Church in 2005. In his native Germany, many have left the Church in recent years amid a string of scandals.

Joseph Ratzinger in Munich in 1977

Ratzinger was appointed cardinal in 1977

Pope Benedict XVI was born Joseph Ratzinger on April 16, 1927 in the small deeply religious Bavarian town of Marktl am Inn. His father was a police officer who quit his job in 1937 rather than join Hitler's National Socialist Party.

At the age of 14, Joseph Ratzinger joined the Hitler Youth, as was required of young Germans at the time. During World War II, he interrupted his studies at a seminary when he was drafted into an anti-aircraft unit in Munich.

Ratzinger at age 16

At 16, Ratzinger was drafted into an anti-aircraft unit in World War II

He deserted the German army towards the end of the war and was briefly held as a prisoner-of-war by the Allies in 1945.

Ratzinger became a university professor of theology at the age of only 31. He was appointed as archbishop of Munich and Freising in 1977 before being elevated to cardinal only a few months later.

When Pope John Paul II began his reign in 1978, Ratzinger quickly gained his favor. He was appointed Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981 – making him the most influential cardinal and the guardian of Catholic orthodoxy.

He soon gained a reputation as a theological conservative. The Italian press dubbed him the "panzer cardinal" and "God's Rottweiler" for his uncompromising positions on homosexuality, women priests and contraception.

Blow to inter-faith dialogue

After his election to pope in 2005, Benedict XVI was quick to stress the importance of reconciliation and interfaith dialogue. But just as swiftly, he ruffled quite a few feathers with a series of public relations disasters.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, celebrating Mass in the mountains of Ruhpolding, southern Germany in 1952.

Ratzinger became a university professor of theology at 31

During a private visit to Germany in 2006, he gave a lecture at the Regensburg university in his native Bavaria where he once taught theology.

In his speech, he quoted a 14th Century Byzantine emperor who said the Prophet Muhammad had brought the world only "evil and inhuman" things.

The passage, in the English translation subsequently published by the Vatican reads, "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."

Many Islamic leaders around the world took offence at what they saw as an insulting mischaracterization of Islam. The pope's spokesman reacted by saying that the pope had been misunderstood, that he respected Islam but rejected violence motivated by religion.

Favoring a Holocaust denier?

In another controversy in 2009, Pope Benedict triggered a storm of criticism with his decision to revoke the excommunication of four breakaway bishops from the ultraconservative Society of St. Pius X, including Bishop Richard Williamson, a Briton.

Cardinal Ratzinger with his mentor Pope John Paul II in 2004.

Ratzinger quickly gained the favor Pope John Paul II

Williamson has denied the existence of the Nazi gas chambers and said he believed that no more than 300,000 Jews died in the Holocaust rather than the accepted figure of 6 million.

Jewish leaders and even Chancellor Angela Merkel were outraged and demanded a clarification. Pope Benedict, in response, reiterated his "solidarity" with the Jews and his condemnation of the Holocaust, saying that "any denial or minimization of this terrible crime is intolerable," especially if it comes from a clergyman.

Since then, Bishop Williamson has apologized to the pope, the church and "survivors and relatives of victims of injustice under the Third Reich." But he did not disavow his remarks. The Vatican said that the apology was not sufficient.

Damaging sex abuse scandals

In recent years, reports of child sex abuse by priests have seriously battered the reputation of the Catholic Church. Thousands of people have come forward in Germany, Ireland, the US and elsewhere with allegations, lawsuits and reports of clerical abuse.

The most damaging accusations for the Church have been that local dioceses – and even the Vatican – were complicit in covering-up many cases.

The Vatican has condemned sexual abuse and acknowledged "grave failures" over its handling of the issue, for example in Ireland.

Pope Benedict XVI has met and issued an unprecedented apology to victims, promised action and made clear that bishops must report abuse cases to the local authorities.

Ratzinger and his older brother Georg in 2005

Joseph Ratzinger met with his older brother Georg during his visit home in 2005

Mixed message

Despite the controversies dodging his papacy, Benedict XVI has also at times surprised his followers with new ideas.

"There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility," the pope said in a book of interviews published in November 2010.

To AIDS activists, it appeared to be a big turn around for the pope, but the Vatican was quick to clarify that the remarks were not meant as a shift in Church teachings.

They stressed that the pope had not intended to condone contraception but rather that in the specific context of "gravely immoral" prostitution, use of a condom could be a "first step in respecting the life of another."

Germany visit hit by controversy

Pope Benedict XVI is now set to make his first official state visit to Germany, from September 22-25. He is to speak before parliament, the Bundestag, in Berlin.

That has triggered a heated debate in Germany on the separation of church and state with several left-wing parliamentarians threatening to boycott the speech.

Protests against the pope have been banned in Berlin in an attempt to prevent scenes similar to those seen during World Youth Day in Madrid which the Pontiff attended last month.

The event was marred by protests as gays and lesbians demanded a more tolerant stance on same sex partnerships.

Author: Rina Goldenberg
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar

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