A Mixed Greeting for the Pope in West Germany

<i> Erich Vogt writes on East-West German affairs for the German weekly Die Zeit</i>

The most enduring image of Pope John Paul II is surely his white-garbed figure descending from an aircraft, his arms spread wide, with the familiar smile bestowed on the welcoming crowd. He has the presence of a religious superstar, attracting not only Catholics but also millions who do not share his faith. He has dazzled Peru’s Indians and Australia’s aborigines and Muslims and Hindus in the Near and Far East.

Last week this familiar spectacle emanated from West Germany, when the Pontiff landed Thursday at Cologne-Bonn Airport to start a five-day trip to 11 cities, his second trip to West Germany and his 34th foreign trip since he succeeded John Paul I in 1978.

For most of the 8 1/2 years of his pontificate, John Paul II has had it his way. But now his most outspoken critics are charging him with using 20th-Century techniques to push the church back into the 18th Century. Beneath the media spectacle of the papacy, and beyond the power and influence of the Holy See, a profound struggle is taking place. At stake is nothing less than the credibility of the Supreme Pontiff and the Roman Catholic Church as a strong and dynamic institution.

As he began his pilgrimage to West Germany, John Paul’s hosts had their hands full keeping the flock in line. Feelings about his visit ran deep, not least among the 28 million Roman Catholics--about 50% of the population. In a recent opinion poll, more than half of them expressed indifference or outright opposition to the Pope’s sojourn. Protestants have also voiced their objection to the Pontiff’s visit--a dramatic turnaround from the response to his first pilgrimage here in 1980.


At the root of the conflict is the Vatican’s campaign to stem the tides of liberalism in Martin Luther’s Germany. At the end of World War II the country’s Catholics were as conservative as any in Europe. But with the rebuilding of war-torn Germany and the restructuring of its social fabric came the experimentation with ecclesiastical democracy. Catholics and Protestants, priests, nuns and the laity argued with the hierarchies over the course their churches should take.

The Protestant leadership decided that in a democratic age their followers should have the right to decide for themselves questions of liturgy and the church’s involvement in social matters. The Vatican to this day has traveled a different, more rocky road. As the Pope calls upon the country’s Catholic leaders to correct “with charm and firmness” errant thinkers who “proclaim not the truth of Christ but their own theories,” theological scholars and practitioners of the parish challenge his rigid stance on issues of family life and morality, discipline among priests and nuns and the authority of the papacy.

What the Germans are only now beginning to appreciate is that within John Paul is a fierce and determined belief, dating back to the days of Hitler and the Stalinists, that his church can only become strong if individualism makes room for the requirement of unity.

That, however, has not been the experience of his West German brethren. Under the tutelage of the Americans, British and French, they inhaled the winds of democracy after World War II with individual freedoms and civil liberties. They experimented with a decentralized form of governance, and they became quite suspicious of anything that smacked of central dictates and collectivism. That is still the case, particularly with the vocal younger clergy and laity. They take a dim view of papal instructions, be it on church dogma or social matters.


So it was not too surprising when they accused John Paul of undercutting his own call for social justice and democratic rule when he admonished the Latin American clergy not to become a party to the social and political turbulence while, on the other hand, turning a blind eye on the church’s active political role in Poland. Moreover, they have charged him with being so adamantly anti-communist that he appears only too willing to receive any dictator who professes to fight “the forces of evil.”

Thus, much of the Catholic grass-roots movement has begun to resist more firmly the Pope’s agenda. The clear majority is opposed to his teaching on such issues as contraception, abortion, celibacy and the ordination of women, and blames him for deepening the divisions between Catholics and Protestants. The fact that John Paul has refused to speak with Germany’s Protestant leadership about injecting new life into the faltering ecumenical movement has prompted many in his own church to call for a boycott of his visit.

To make matters worse for the Pope, he has also come under intense criticism from Germany’s vocal Jewish community. His beatification Friday of Edith Stein, an Orthodox Jew who converted to the Catholic order of the Carmelites during Hitler’s reign, opened up old wounds between the two religions. Stein’s death in Auschwitz has brought the Holy See’s role in the Third Reich under close public scrutiny. What has emerged is a picture of a Vatican led by Pope Pius XI that willfully turned its back on the plight of the persecuted Jews in exchange for Hitler’s promise not to nibble away at the Catholic Church’s position in Nazi Germany and its influence in the schools.

The widespread criticism of the Catholic Church and the Pope’s pastoral visit from nearly every religious quarter in Germany--including his own--must be disconcerting to John Paul. Yet he seems undeterred in his efforts to clarify and unify the church’s public voice and preserve its heritage, as he sees it. He is bound to leave Germany empty-handed, but may take solace, however, in the realization that throughout its history the Catholic Church has faced persecution, wars and strife, yet has survived and often thrived.