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Europe Never Loved This Pope

By Tim Judah
February 12, 2013 10:56 AM EST

It is said that there are several stages of grief, running from denial, to anger, to acceptance. The resignation announcement by Pope Benedict XVI has provoked something similar in Europe's media -- minus the denial or grief.

First there was surprise, followed by largely content-free instant reaction, and finally a parade of experts who sought to crystallize the meaning of Benedict's papacy and of his unusual decision to leave the Vatican alive.

On Benedict's legacy, Europe's editors seemed to shrug their collective shoulders. Nothing could contrast more with the outpouring of grief and adulation that met the death and departure of Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II. On the decision to resign, by contrast, there was understanding and appreciation, which may say more about our own demography and pragmatism than about the pope.

Benedict said he was stepping down because, at age 85 he was no longer equal to the job. An internet poll conducted by the CSA polling agency found that among French Catholics, 67 percent approved of the pope's decision to resign and 8 percent disapproved, with the rest undecided. Even though no pope has volunteered to resign for almost 600 years, the decision seems natural in an ageing Europe, where more of us have seen the painful consequences of decline in the elderly than any previous generation. 

L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's newspaper and mouthpiece, stripped the resignation speech across the top of the front page in Latin -- the language in which the pope, a German born Joseph Ratzinger, delivered it. 

Benedict, writes the paper's editor Gian Maria Vian in a front-page column, “has never ceased to amaze us and he will leave a profound mark on history.” In holding that view, Vian was a lonely voice among Europe's mainstream media. 

In Catholic Ireland, for example, the Irish Times seemed to welcome Benedict's resignation. Over the past few years, the country has been rocked by appalling stories of child abuse by priests, leading to “the breach” between Ireland and Rome, according to the newspaper. While acknowledging Benedict's eventual apology, the Irish Times also saw his legacy as enforcing orthodoxy. “He made no concessions on issues such as liberation theology, homosexuality, celibacy, women priests." The newspaper added: 

Now, as Benedict gets his deserved rest, the church gets its chance to decide which way it will face. Into the future, or back to the past?

Der Spiegel, the German magazine, is even more forthright. In 2005, Germans celebrated the election of one of their own as pope, but now “many are glad to see him go. He was a deeply polarizing figure in his native country and blocked the Catholic Church from launching a badly needed renewal,” writes Peter Wensierski, in an online commentary. The church’s reputation has hit an “all-time low in Germany” under Benedict, Wensierski writes, adding that the best thing about the pope's resignation is that it “offers the Catholic Church in Germany a new chance to free itself from torpor created by this paternalistic Pope and to perhaps finally find a way to begin resolving the deep crisis facing German Catholics.”

Deutsche Welle, the German international broadcaster, takes a similar line. Its main story is headlined: “The Pope leaves behind a Church in crisis.” The pope was “no man of the people like his Polish predecessor," says Bernd Riegert in an opinion piece:

During his 2011 trip to his German homeland, he gave the impression that he was detached. At the time, many people criticized the Pope for being out of touch with the concerns of normal Catholics.

Italy's Corriere della Sera sees Benedict as a victim. Yes, it argues, the pope was tired, but his resignation was an “extreme symptom” of the “irrevocable crisis” of the papacy, and of the “rebellion” of a Holy Father against the institutions he failed to modernize. From being a “teacher of life,” the church has become a “sinner” from the moral point of view of Western public opinion, according to the newspaper. 

Corriere della Sera also makes reference to a secret report prepared by three senior cardinals on the so-called Vatileaks corruption scandal, which broke in January 2012. The report refers to financial impropriety and abuse of power in the Curia. Holes in the budgets of Catholic institutions, treachery, feuds over money, and legal threats of various kinds seem to have weighed “more than one imagined” on the shoulders of the pope, says Corriere della Sera. 

The Italian daily newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano sums up the whole episode in a little cartoon, which shows the elderly and fed-up pope striding away from the Vatican and tossing his papal tiara behind him. 

With Christians persecuted across the Middle East and expanding in Africa, and the Catholic church still reeling from sexual-abuse scandals in Europe and North America, Europe's media and bookmakers are speculating that a younger, perhaps African, pope will replace Benedict. They have no idea, of course, but one thing is clear after the pope's sudden departure: Leading 1.2 billion Catholics in the 21st century is going to be hard.

(Tim Judah, the Europe correspondent for the World View blog, is a correspondent for the Economist and author of several books on the Balkans. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this article: Tim Judah at timjudah@btinternet.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

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