Catholic sex abuse scandal raising doubts for young German Catholics

In Germany, the birthplace of Pope Benedict XVI, the priest sex abuse scandal has shaken many young Catholics' trust in the church, if not their faith. The man who initially inspired a new 'Benedict generation' is now seen as out of touch.

Pier Paolo Cito/AP
Pope Benedict XVI waves from the popemobile during his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, April 14. The Vatican has gone into full-fledged damage control mode in the priest sex abuse scandal ahead of Pope Benedict XVI's first foreign trip since it erupted.

The Vatican today accepted an apology from the British Foreign Office for an internal “prank” memo written by a 23-year-old diplomat that satirized Pope Benedict XVI ahead of his UK visit.

British Foreign Secretary David Milliband said he was “appalled” by the leaked spoof memo written by an Oxford graduate that caused a minor media storm by suggesting the pope open abortion clinics and bless a gay marriage while in Britain.

But beyond such juvenalia and other late-night TV humor, the global pedophile priest scandal is causing disaffection among a young generation of Catholics.

With waning trust in church institutions and a turn toward “spirituality” among Catholic youths, many German Catholics under 30 have turned away from the pope. While saying they respect Benedict’s learning, young German Catholics don’t identify with Bavarian-born Benedict or with an institution seen as closed, hierarchical, and absolute.

“Benedict is not communicating openly, and that means the church is not addressing its core problems during this [abuse] crisis,” says Geoff Steigler, a 25-year old graduate student in Munich and a believing Catholic. “But the church will have to adjust, since no young people are in the church anymore.”

Polls reflect this sentiment. A March survey showed that only 24 percent of Germans expressed trust in Pope Benedict, compared with 38 percent in January. Overall trust in the Roman Catholic Church was even lower, at 17 percent in March compared with 29 percent in January, the poll showed. And according to the Forsa Institute's April poll of more than 1,000 German Catholics, 23 percent of all church members are considering leaving.

The greatest disillusionment is felt among youths, the poll found, with more than one-third of Catholics aged 18 to 29 considering leaving the church.

Fading euphoria

Initially, church participation soared when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict in 2005. One press headline read, “We are Pope.” Euphoric rallies of a million youths in Cologne,Germany, and a 2008 youth meeting with Benedict in Australia suggested a pending “Benedict generation.” The pope was expected to capture young imaginations, and young Germans thought Benedict would erase old stigmas associated with Germany's past.

But that was then.

“In 2005, there could have been a Benedict generation, but we are not that convinced of Benedict anymore. It’s not because of the sex scandal … he’s just moved himself off our radar,” says Niklas Ebel, a Catholic theology student in Tubingen, Germany. “We want a church that is more open, self-critical, and lively – that means a message of participation that reaches people.”

Dirk Tanzler, head of the German Catholic youth department, conceded in a recent interview with Der Spiegel that Benedict is more of a professor than the charismatic Pope John Paul II, and “that’s a world foreign to many young people.... Not all Catholic youth see the pope as an example…. Most have a different idea of how to live their lives than the pope might imagine for them.”

To be sure, the pope retains strong backing among a small but devout minority of youths – a new and powerful conservative “clerical” movement in the US and Europe. The sex abuse scandal has also brought sympathy for a pope who is viewed as being under attack.

The president of the Catholic chapel at Sciences Po in Paris, Alix Prevost, a French representative at the 2008 youth meeting in Sydney, has “nothing but respect for Benedict.” But as a young Catholic, she says she trusts the church and doesn’t focus on the pope currently in power.

“I’ve had a wonderful experience, and I’ve found a lot of good in the church that doesn’t get mentioned,” she says.

Too conservative?

Yet Ms. Prevost disagreed with Pope Benedict’s move to bring ultraconservative Bishop Richard Williamson, a Holocaust denier, back into the fold. Mr. Williamson has said: “I believe that the historical evidence is strongly against, hugely against, 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler.”

The global priest abuse and coverup scandal ground forward on Monday, with reports that a retired Belgian cardinal, Godfried Danneels, ignored complaints that Bishop Roger Vangheluwe molested a young man in the late 1990s. Benedict accepted Mr. Vangheluwe's resignation over the weekend, and on Sunday made an elliptical reference to the scandal by saying that priests should ensure congregations do not come to harm.

In a dozen informal interviews with young Catholics in Bavaria and Tubingen, Catholics under 30 generally disagreed with the church's absolute positions on contraception, abortion, celibacy, and the ordination of women.

“The Lutheran church has women ministers, and they seem to be working out,” says a young Catholic representative at a local Munich lay Catholic meeting. “I’m not closed to the idea."

Analysts say youth views reflect the very kind of modern values – some secular, some democratic – that are seen by Vatican bishops and the pope as merely mirroring popular culture, or being simply “un-Catholic.” Some analysts say young Europeans sound more like American Catholics.

“We respect Benedict but are not fond of him. We think he comes up with strange sayings and ideas,” says a young Catholic from central Germany who sports a scraggly beard and gives his name as Benoit. “When he went to Africa, he talked about not using condoms and abstinence.”

Nor is the Bavarian countryside, the traditional seed-corn for the German church, necessarily retaining small-village values. Students now move from small towns to the city, study overseas, go to rock concerts, vacation abroad, and surf the Web.

Stephan, a research assistant at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, says he identifies strongly as a Catholic though he thinks the church is not adapting to modern problems.

“If people would obey the rules and love thy neighbor we would have fewer problems in the world," he says. "The core values of the church shouldn’t change, but the institution should change.”

Without such change, the Catholic church could face growing rows of empty pews. More than a mere revision of the old system, young Catholics want to see a permanent and significant transformation, according to theologian Tom Beaudoin of Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York City.

"[Young people] are leaving," Mr. Beaudoin says. "Unless something changes, the church will go its way, and they will go their way.”

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