22 April 2005
A quarter of a century ago, when Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope, certain Vatican insiders, considered it to be an ill-advised "Polish experiment". Now, with the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Catholic Church has embarked on a "German experiment".
Much of the German media has understandably responded with glowing pride. They are especially pleased that Pope Benedict XVI's first trip abroad will be to his native land. According to Die Welt, "there could not have been a greater honour for Christians in Germany". Die Tageszeitung even asked breathlessly: "Is God German?" But not all German newspapers have been so welcoming. As the Frankfurter Rundschau pointed out: "This is a man who often made life difficult for the Church in his home country and whose name is synonymous with the Catholic Church's backwardness."
Benedict XVI's ultra-conservatism is no secret. His opposition to any form of birth control has been much debated; so, too, have his views on homosexuality, which he has described as "an intrinsic moral evil". But the election of a German who lived through the era of Nazism to this supreme spiritual seat will inevitably raise questions not only about the present state of the Catholic Church, but about its past.
The accord that the Church made with Hitler in the 1930s is one of the most shameful episodes in its history. Pope Pius XII was instrumental in helping Hitler destroy political opposition from German Catholics. The Church should surely have strained every sinew to avoid dredging up memories of this terrible act.
No one has suggested the young Joseph Ratzinger was a Nazi, although he was briefly in the Hitler Youth. But the same cannot be said for his mentor - Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber - who visited Hitler on several occasions, supported German war aims and is known to have shared the Führer's anti-Semitism.
And consider Benedict XVI's own, somewhat troubling, conclusion about his relationship with the regime: "It was when the Nazis made it clear to me that they condemned Christianity because it had its roots in the despised Jewish faith that I realised their creed was nothing for me." This is a bizarrely technical reason for opposing Hitler's murderous brutality - and might suggest a man driven more by dogma than concern for humanity.
Of course, it is also entirely possible that Pope Benedict's nationality could turn out to be a strength. Some have argued that it will actually make him especially alive to the dangers of a resurgent European racism and sensitive to the threats posed to vulnerable minorities. We hope that this is the direction in which his pontificate evolves. But there remain good reasons for profound unease.