Pope Benedikt’s visit to his native land this weekend is generating different types of debates and demonstrations. Many are questioning the status of the Catholic Church in Germany or whether the eighty-four year old Pope – as a head of State – should give a speech in the Bundestag. There are demonstrations against the Church’s stance on homosexuality or with regard to the recent revelation of child abuse within Catholic schools. There are also demonstrations of faith with thousands attending an open air mass in Berlin’s soccer stadium. All of that, however, is not too unusual. It would happen elsewhere in Europe or the US. The spectrum of opinions among Catholics is a broad one.

Things Have Looked Better….
The first stop the Pope made in Berlin was at the official site of the German Federal President – Christian Wulff, a self-identified Catholic, divorced and remarried – and an example of the perceptions of the Catholicism in Germany not in line with the Pope’s dogma. German Catholics have expressed their dissatisfaction with the Church in many ways during recent years. One is a significant attrition in members, a decline of those Catholics attending Mass or having their children baptized or marrying within the Church – all signs of the Church’s loss of traction. Still, the representative of two thousand years of Christianity is received generally with respect as a figure of faith.

One special dimension of this visit to Germany is the Pope’s trip to Erfurt- the city where a Catholic monk named Martin Luther began his trail on the way to challenging the Vatican and laying the foundation for what became known as the Reformation. The Pope has proclaimed his belief in the unity of all Christians in Christ, yet the vestiges of five hundred years of Protestant-Catholic divisions remain intact, in terms of both different interpretations of faith and the institutions surrounding them. Benedikt will meet with leaders of the Protestant Church in Erfurt and there will certainly be discussion of theological bridge building.

A Moral Compass
The challenge that the Pope must confront in Germany, and Europe as a whole, is building a bridge between religious values and the societies in which Catholics see choices for themselves that differ from rituals, and even doctrine, promoted by the Pope, yet still prefer to call themselves faithful − be they supporters of a woman’s right to choose, homosexuals, or others who the Pope might label “cafeteria Catholics” − picking and choosing what they like and dislike about Catholic doctrine. The forces of modern secularism and individualism are both very strong in German society, a development which the Pope sees as a threat to the coherence of living a Christian life.

And yet, there is no possibility that one can prevent those forces from developing further. It is rather more challenging – and promising – to seek to engage fully in the exchange between the forces of modernity and the need for a moral compass, a message which he sent worldwide during his speech to the UN on human rights in 2008. In the twenty-first century, the Pope may not be able to enforce how that is done. But he can, among many others, enable people to find ways of pursuing it.

The Struggle Ahead
A widely noted exchange between then-Cardinal Ratzinger – today’s Benedict XVI – and one of the most famous German philosophers, Jürgen Habermas, about the meaning of religion and secular society generated powerful ideas about the need for a dialogue pertaining to the values in western society. This is the kind of format in which the Pope is at his best. The question is how this level of debate can provide opportunities for millions seeking a more personal connection with either a church or a body of belief – or both – which can provide guidance.

That is a task which is a never ending one – with other religions now shaping the contours of society as well as with those not in religious circles but with a stake in a world marked by a struggle for faith in the future. Benedikt’s benediction was to offer one alternative.


This essay appeared in the September 22, 2011 AICGS Advisor.