It is a measure of the crisis in the Catholic Church that a modern pope finds himself visiting his home country as an unwelcome missionary. This is the tricky task ahead for Pope Benedict XVI, who will visit Germany in late September.
Secularized Germans and Catholics to the left of Martin Luther sound less than enthused about the upcoming visit of their fellow countryman. Press reports indicate that Benedict's popularity in Germany is low, slightly better than the Catholic Church as a whole. The New York Times once headlined a piece about Germany's muted reaction to his papal election, "The Pope Without a Country," and not much excitement has grown since then.
The condition of the Church in Germany is bleak and getting bleaker. According to a July 29th Associated Press report, more Germans are leaving the Church than entering it:
The number of people leaving the Roman Catholic Church in Germany jumped by nearly 50 percent in 2010 as an abuse scandal widened, new data showed Friday.
Some 181,000 people quit their memberships last year, up from 124,000 in 2009, official numbers released by Germany's Roman Catholic Church showed.
Deaths and departures far outnumber baptisms, which are at "a record low," says the story. Meanwhile, the liberal Catholics who stay are sowing mischief. They are still beating the drum for the usual litany of dissent -- female and gay priests, Communion for everyone, the sanctification of the Sexual Revolution, and so on. Vatican watcher John Allen recently noted in the National Catholic Reporter that the "anti-Roman affect" in the "Teutonic realm" remains as strong as ever and will rear its head during Benedict's visit:
Almost three decades of leadership by John Paul II, the election of the first German pope in five centuries with Benedict, and repeated cycles of reform energy that never go anywhere, all have failed to snuff it out. It has enough gas left in the tank to mobilize a significant share of priests and laity, to galvanize media attention, and to force officialdom to take note.
That staying power also may be related to another unique feature of the German-speaking landscape: The "church tax" system, under which clergy and laity who work for the church often draw salaries from the state and enjoy some insulation from direct oversight by bishops.
Like-minded Germans have applauded the Austrian uprising [more than 250 Austrian priests recently issued an "Appeal to Disobedience"] , as Germany struggles to recover from its own sexual abuse crisis. The loyal opposition is gearing up to make its voice heard during Benedict's Sept. 22-25 trip to Berlin, Erfurt and Freiburg, his third homecoming, but the first since the eruption of the abuse scandals in 2010.
Still, the visit is sure to prove less controversial than his 2006 one, during which he committed the "gaffe" of telling the truth about militant Islam at a University of Regensburg lecture. Judging by the official schedule, the accent this time around will be on "ecumenism": meetings have been set up with Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, and Orthodox leaders.
On a trip like this one, heavy with courtesy calls, the likelihood of any inflammatory comments is low, though the secular media can be counted on to interpret whatever he does say in the worst possible light. Expect also the media to rehash what he did or didn't do as archbishop of Munich at a time of abuse. Not helping matters is that the pope's old diocese is on the ropes, as it reels from the scandal and sees membership plummet, the highest membership loss in all of Germany.
Often the most newsworthy comments during a papal trip take place before it officially begins, on the flight to the destination as the pope talks to reporters. This is what happened on his trip to Africa after he remarked to the press about the failure of condoms to stop the spread of AIDS there. Perhaps he will make a pointed remark or two on the way over.
Germans will probably tune whatever he says out, but his influence will outlive them. That Angela Merkel and company even bother to roll out the red carpet for him is an admission, if grudging, of his relevance. Like his namesake, St. Benedict, this pope approaches once-Christian Europe as mission territory, scattering a few seeds of wheat amidst the dying weeds of secularism.