Pope fails to satisfy critics on first state visit 'home'

26th September 2011, Comments 0 comments

Pope Benedict XVI's first state visit to his native Germany which wrapped up Sunday fell far short of the expectations of sex abuse victims and those clamouring for a more open and tolerant Church.

Benedict's four-day marathon taking in Berlin, the former communist East German city of Erfurt and staunchly Catholic Freiburg aimed to reinvigorate a Church in crisis in the face of the abuse scandals and growing secularisation.

The leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics addressed cheering masses and held talks with the political class as well as Muslim, Jewish, Protestant and Orthodox leaders in a conciliatory gesture among the faiths.

However those expecting the pope to take concrete steps toward healing religious rifts or modernising the Church in the interest of winning back alienated Roman Catholics were sorely disappointed.

"Nothing will change under Benedict XVI -- this year's trip was a nice show, nothing more," Catholic theology professor Werner Tzscheetzsch, a longtime Church critic, told the website of Der Spiegel news weekly.

Those who expected a softening of his stances on sexual dogma, the role of women in the Church or outreach to other faiths "don't know this pope," Tzscheetzsch said.

"He's a showman who knows how to hide his toughness," he added.

Despite blanket media coverage, the visit met with a large measure of apathy in this increasingly secular society with liberal views on sexuality.

Even protests in Berlin attacking the paedophile priest scandals and the pope's opposition to gays and artificial contraception remained low-key.

But Germans are leaving both the Catholic and Lutheran Churches in droves.

Richard David Precht, a best-selling German author on philosophical issues, said the lukewarm reception in Germany, which had taken great pride in his 2005 election, was symptomatic of a Western trend.

"The fate of the Catholic Church in the next few years and decades is not looking very positive or euphoric and I don't think the pope's visit is likely to stop the decline of Catholicism in Germany," he told ZDF public television.

"I think we will continue to see falling numbers of Catholics unless we experience a major economic downturn."

The pope used his trip to call German Catholics to order and hammer home his ultra-conservative credo on a range of issues such as artificial contraception, abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage.

But he acknowledged that the Church was at a difficult crossroads and urged the faithful to remain true to Rome in "this time of danger and radical change" and a "crisis of faith".

The pontiff held a keenly awaited private meeting with a small group of survivors of sex abuse by Catholic clergy in Erfurt Friday, as he had on previous visits to Britain, Malta, the United States and Australia.

But victims' groups were unappeased, calling for the Vatican to open up its archives, where cases of abuse are documented, and allow the crimes to be fully investigated.

His first speech before a national parliament, given Thursday in Berlin, was hotly disputed in the run-up to the visit and prompted the boycott of around 60 deputies who said it undermined the separation of Church and state.

But the highly philosophical address met with a standing ovation from the MPs present and Chancellor Angela Merkel, the daughter of a Protestant pastor, said its call for a revival of ethics in public life struck a chord.

"I could identify with its search for justice, and the question of how you win over majorities while still following your conscience," she told public television.

Cem Ozdemir, the co-leader of the opposition Green party, which the pope singled out for praise in the speech, said he was pleasantly surprised by the pope's "humanist" message.

"In my personal view, he built a strong bridge to people of other faiths," Ozdemir, the son of Turkish immigrants, told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper.

Germany's top archbishop, Robert Zollitsch, said the Church was extremely pleased with the visit, during which more than 200,000 turned out to hear the pope speak in his native tongue.

"All our expectations have been surpassed," he told reporters.

© 2011 AFP

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