Germany’s Benedict Backlash

German Chancellor Angela Merkel receives a gift from Pope Benedict XVI during a meeting in August 2006.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel receives a gift from Pope Benedict XVI during a meeting in August 2006. (photo: CNS/Reuters)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s very public criticism of Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to lift the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson took the Vatican by surprise.

Merkel’s move has also been roundly condemned by some German bishops.

The decision to lift Bishop Williamson’s excommunication was made before the Vatican was aware of the bishop’s Holocaust-denying comments in an interview aired last month on Swedish television.

Merkel said on Tuesday the Pope’s move could not be allowed to pass “without consequences” and called on the Vatican to “clarify unambiguously that there can be no denial” that the Nazis killed six million Jews. Her comments were quickly rebutted by the Vatican, who called them “inappropriate.”

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said the position of the Holy Father and of the Church regarding the historical reality and the evil of the Holocaust “could not be any clearer.” Yesterday the Vatican called on Bishop Williamson to distance himself “unequivocally” from his claims the Nazi gas chambers never existed.

It’s unclear why Merkel didn’t use usual diplomatic channels and make her concerns known to the Vatican privately, nor why she seemed unaware that Benedict and the Vatican had already issued many clarifications re-iterating the Church’s condemnation of Holocaust denial.

Germany’s bishops are vocally defending their native-born Pope in the wake of Merkel’s comments. Bishop Walter Mixa of Augsburg, Bavaria, denounced the German chancellor for having criticized the Holy Father, the Italian daily Il Messaggero reported today.

Bishop Mixa accused Merkel of making a “political and diplomatic mistake” and said Benedict “didn’t need any extra lessons from the German leader.”

Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Mueller of Regensburg called Williamson’s denial “a truly idiotic act that has damaged the Church.” He added that as a consequence, the Pope has been subjected to “a defamatory media campaign,” according to Il Messaggero.

And Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstaett was quoted by the German newsmagazine Focus as saying Merkel’s lashing-out at the Holy Father was “incomprehensible and outrageous.”

Vatican officials have been surprised at the overall depth of vitriol directed against Benedict in Germany, where criticism of lifting the excommunication on Bishop Williams has been strongest. Some observers believe this episode has revealed festering anti-Catholic resentment in Germany’s highly secular society.

Some prominent Germans have rallied to the Holy Father’s defense, however. Bundestag President Norbert Lammert said “much of what the Pope is now subject to is almost sinister, and at least not being done in good faith,” Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine reported today.

Lammert said there has been “a kind of rhetorical competition that is neither justified, nor fair, nor helpful.”

Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, the Pope’s brother, yesterday added his voice of concern regarding Chancellor Merkel’s harsh comments and other recent expressions of German hostility to Benedict.

Said Msgr. Ratzinger, “He doesn’t need me to defend him, but it does annoy me how stupid and ill-informed several people are that are attacking him.”

— Edward Pentin