The Pope’s Purpose
Differing Catholic Communities
While the Pope is making his historical visit to Washington and New York this week, he is grappling with a community of Catholics that looks different from the one in the Pope’s native country. Contrasting with a very vocal, diverse, and large group of some 70 million American Catholics is a smaller and more subdued German Catholic community, one that is confronted with problems similar to its American counterpart but less certain about solutions to them.
Although Catholics make up about a third of Germany’s population, the recent past has seen a significant and consistent attrition in membership. In eastern Germany, Catholics make up single-digit percentages. The results of this trend has led to problems familiar to some American Catholics, such as churches having to close for want of parishioners, a deficit of priests, and fiscal deficits in dioceses.
An Intellectual Master
When the Pope was elected three years ago, there was an initial expression of pride in having the first German in 500 years sitting on St. Peter’s throne in the Vatican. “Wir sind Papst” ran the headlines. The following year, when the Pope was in Germany, there was a nationwide curiosity about the former Cardinal who had been known as the Vatican’s enforcer of doctrinal correctness for the many years he had spent in Rome.
Some were looking for the same kind of charisma associated with his predecessor, but they did not find it. Benedict’s virtues are found more in his head as an intellectual master of theological debates rather than in singing songs with the crowds.
This past week, thousands of American Catholics, the majority of which don’t know much about Benedict, flocked to see him lead mass at a baseball stadium in Washington and in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. The Pope seemed to enjoy the attention, complimenting the public demonstration of faith by the crowd, and encouraging them to live by it.
Of course, the Pope also got a well-deserved earful from those who were victims of sexual abuse by priests, and he also knows about other complaints from women who aspire to have more of a role in the church. He took the former issue very seriously given the enormous damage it has done to the reputation of the church in the United States, an issue which has not been as public a concern in Germany.
What Does the Pope Stand For?
The attraction of the Pope among both the faithful and the simply curious is shaped by the man and the symbol, the leader of over one billion Catholics and the embodiment of a 2,000 year old institution.
For some, the Pope represents the commitment of faith in the face of doubt. For others, he demonstrates the strength of unwavering conviction and belief in a set of values and traditions framing the Catholic church, even when the leaders in the church do not always live up to those values.
President Bush’s respectful reception of the Pope was accompanied by the emphasis on the role of religion in American society: “Here in America you’ll find a nation that welcomes the role of faith in the public square. When our Founders declared our nation’s independence, they rested their case on an appeal to the ‘laws of nature, and of nature’s God.'”
And the Pope echoed that with this statement: “As the nation faces the increasingly complex political and ethical issues of our time, I am confident that the American people will find in their religious beliefs a precious source of insight and an inspiration to pursue reasoned, responsible, and respectful dialogue in the effort to build a more human and free society.”
German Catholics and the Church
One wonders whether such an exchange might occur between Chancellor Merkel and the Pope at a similar public occasion. The role of the Catholic Church is widely institutionalized in Germany, as is that of the Protestant Church, but the leaders do not seek the public stage as aggressively and frequently do their American counterparts. Religion remains very much more a private affair.
And yet, there are some trends that suggest Germans are rethinking the secular society in which religion has been firmly entrenched, if also remaining somewhat uninspiring. During the past few years there has been an increasing wave of returning members to both Catholic and the Protestant churches, across all age groups. At a time when Islam is the third-largest religious group in Germany, the role of religion in the personal lives of Germans has become more of a question, maybe not answered by following the older traditions but emerging out of the need for a compass to navigate the unpredictable path of today’s challenges.
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 about 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.
Challenges for the Future
The challenge that the Pope must confront both here and in Europe is building a bridge between those values and the societies in which Catholics see choices for themselves which 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 and American 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 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.