BERLIN — Pope Benedict XVI called Holocaust denial “intolerable and altogether unacceptable” after meeting with American Jewish leaders on Thursday. But for some of his countrymen, especially his fellow Catholics, the speech may be too little too late.
Despite Richard Williamson’s remarks to Swedish television that he believes “there were no gas chambers,” Pope Benedict lifted the schismatic bishop’s excommunication on Jan. 24. The move has dealt the worst blow yet to the pontiff’s reputation in his homeland, where Holocaust denial is a crime. Germany’s large Catholic minority may sustain lasting damage.
"Ordinary churchgoers seem disappointed and distressed," said Christian Weisner, spokesman for Catholic grassroots reform group Wir sind Kirche (“We are Church”). The group is one of many collecting signatures for protest letters to the Vatican.
Germans divorced themselves from the Catholic Church in the hundreds last month, the news magazine Der Spiegel reported. The number of departures is up as much as 40 percent in some areas.
To leave the church, Catholics must file papers with the state to cancel the 8 percent surcharge on income taxes levied on those who participate in organized religion.
Church attendance is already under 14 percent even among declared Catholics, according to the German Bishops’ Conference. This is less than half of what it was two decades ago.
Currently one in three Germans are Catholic, but since the Williamson controversy broke they have been striking their names from church rolls.
Left-leaning newspaper Die Tageszeitung printed a ready-to-send form last week with blanks left for readers to fill in their name, date, and reason for leaving the church. Some options to check off were: too anti-gay, too reactionary, and “too Ratzinger.”
Will the pope’s Thursday speech staunch the flow?
“He made his position clear,” said Sister Simone Reiboldt, who helped staff a hotline for angry Catholics in the southern city of Mannheim. She said Friday that the crisis was past and the hotline was closed.
But online German-language forums like mykath.de and kreuzgang.org still overflow with thousands of posts discussing the Williamson case.
“I’m still Catholic but no longer want to be Roman Catholic,” writes one user named Wolfgang E. “On Monday I’m going to discuss with my confessor how best to go about that.”
A number of German Catholic groups have expressed solidarity with the pope, some bristling at Chancellor Angela Merkel’s public demand that Benedict “clarify his position on the Holocaust” and direct phone call to the pope on Sunday.
The Catholic archbishop of Munich and Freising, Reinhard Marx, expressed surprise at the Merkel’s criticism of the Pope, arguing that his position on the Holocaust is already clear enough.
Norbert Lammert, president of the Parliament and a member of Merkel’s CDU party, said that "much of what has been insinuated about the pope is almost malicious, and certainly not fair," in an interview with the Hamburger Abendblatt.
Merkel’s stand is remarkable given her usual reticence and in the context of the federal election coming up in September. The daughter of a Lutheran minister can ill afford to alienate conservative voters in heavily Catholic Southern Germany, a group that put her over the top in the 2005 election.
But most German’s applauded her stand on what they consider a particularly German question. Williamson’s views are hard to stomach for people who literally trip over Holocaust memorials on their city streets. The many "stumbling stones," engraved with the birth and death dates of Jews deported to concentration camps account for a just a tiny fraction of the memorials in a country obsessed by coming to terms with the Holocaust.
Pope Benedict has already touched this national nerve by continuing to support sainthood for Pius XII, the pope accused of failing to speak out against the deportation of Jews during World War II.
The pope seems to be at best tone-deaf when it comes to relating to his home nation. He raised hackles among Germany’s large Turkish population by quoting a Byzantine emperor’s characterization of the prophet Muhammad’s teachings as “evil and inhuman” in a 2006 speech. Last year, he approved a statement arguing that Protestant churches “cannot be called churches in the proper sense.” Unsurprisingly, this did not play well in the birthplace of the Reformation.
But many see the latest controversy as the ”moral last straw,” as one commentator termed it.
Catholics had hoped a German pope would renew enthusiasm for the religion in a secular nation, and they celebrated his election with a rare display of national pride.
"We’re the Pope!" crowed mass-circulation daily Bild almost four years ago. The phrase caught on, and the German Language Society named it one of the ten words of the year.
Now the catch phrase is: "We were the Pope.”