Defending Benedict XVI in His Native Land

On seventh anniversary of election, Pope has a friend in Germany.

Matthias Matussek with Pope Benedict XVI.
Matthias Matussek with Pope Benedict XVI. (photo: Courtesy of Matthias Matussek)

Matthias Matussek is one of the most prominent Catholics in the world of German journalism. He is a popular and frequent guest on talk shows and debates and writes for the German magazine Der Spiegel, where he also has a popular video blog.

His book Das Katholische Abenteuer: Eine Provokation (The Catholic Adventure: A Provocation) provided fodder for energized debates on the Catholic faith and the Church.

He accompanied Pope Benedict XVI during World Youth Day 2011 in Madrid and his visit to Germany last fall.

Today is the seventh anniversary of the election of Pope Benedict XVI. Matussek spoke with Register correspondent Robert Rauhut about his faith and Benedict’s visit to Germany.


Your book is a “declaration of love” to the Catholic faith. In Germany, such an attitude is no longer self-evident.

A “declaration of love” — that’s correct. Unfortunately my book has often been misunderstood as provocation, especially in the organized structures of the Catholic Church in Germany.

However, it is a “declaration of love” to the Catholic faith. I owe a lot to the Catholic faith. The book is dedicated to my father, who was decisive and formative for my faith. Fundamentally, parents are important for the development of one’s faith. Our day-to-day life was subordinated to the calendar of the Church. The great feasts were celebrated extensively in my family. …. We went to confession. Our father helped us to write the notes for the confession [so we would remember what to confess]. This served the practical purpose that he was up-to-date on our misconduct. … I have always experienced confession as a beautiful and important gift. The forgiveness of our sins: What a wonderful offer. The relief during confession was always an easing of the burdens of my life. But I do know that others had differing experiences from mine. They somehow felt spied on by the priests and the Church. I have never understood that because there is the secret of the confession between God, the priest and me.


The family is also of great importance for you personally. In which way do you try to hand over your faith to the next generation?

By practicing and living the faith. ... Faith is a grace, a gift. Certainly, the shrinking of faith nowadays is also a consequence of the dissolution of the family. Many households are single-parent households, and faith is often not passed on. I also wonder about the quality of religious education at school. Are the Ten Commandments, the seven sacraments, the Christian virtues taught? Perhaps our theology has become too progressive in many ways. What about the Trinity, the Resurrection, etc.?

More than 60% of all Germans do not believe anymore in a life after death. About 12% of our Catholics go to church on Sunday. People do not leave the Church because there are not women priests or because there are celibate priests. Leaving the Church is a symptom of fatigue of the faithful who somehow [constantly and gradually move from faith to unfaith, from the light of faith to the darkness of unfaith].

Sometimes they get excited by the faith, e.g., if there is a marriage or a funeral — the big ceremonies. At present, faith does not play an important role in Germany. To write about the faith independently — this can become dangerous for a journalist nowadays. You are not allowed to show loyalty to your faith.

Being faithful means being marginal, for many. On the other hand, faith is the most personal aspect of our life.


There was a time when you were greatly fascinated by communism. How did that change?

In 1970 I was 16 years old. That was the time when I moved to a Maoist community. That was the milieu at that time. We breathed that air. We wanted to change society. We wanted to change everything. But I noticed there was no plan, no proper destination. We only had a vague imagination of a youth movement. Later, we learned about the horrible massacres, about the fact that the younger generation was pushed against their parents.

In the beginning, the leftist thinkers seemed more inspiring to me. But I noticed how empty and  dogmatic the discourse in the left splinter parties had become. I was in a Marxist-Leninist pupils group at that time. At a certain point, I was thrown out. I wanted to write poems; went to India. That was common then.

I stopped going to church and was fascinated by the religions of the Far East. I felt worse and worse and suddenly collapsed. Then I ended up in hospital. And there was my father. And he was there for me in a magnificent way. He was usually strict, but there he was of a particular mildness and an obvious understanding. This was very important to me, a turning point. And then I started to go to church regularly once again.


You work for Der Spiegel, Germany’s most famous newsmagazine, which isn’t Church friendly. How does that work?

It’s not that we debate on my faith every day and I have to confess it every day. By my book, I have made clear my position: I am a traditional Catholic. If my colleagues agreed to a version of the Catholic faith, it would be the progressive version of it, the “light version.” That’s the mainstream of our society. But if you look at my life, you will clearly see that taboos have also been my topics.

First, I wrote about the “fatherless society,” which was a sort of plea for the traditional family, against the “divorce society and business,” against the radical feminist discourse (“No men!”), and so forth.

After that, I wrote about a healthy patriotism. You are never as German as you are when you are abroad. It’s about your identity.

We grew up in a generation which was taught that being German means being a criminal. I think that a healthy patriotic feeling belongs to everybody. I wanted to show that the Germans [have] exist[ed] longer than those horrible Nazi years.

So, I would say they know where I stand. The book on faith is a continuation of these topics. It’s always to do with relationships. It’s true, there was a confrontation with the chief editors when the Pope came to Germany. Spiegel wrote a very critical title story on the Pope and the Church, but I was allowed to write my opinion about the Pope’s visit in Germany.

My voice is tolerated and therefore listened to. Look at this: When we talked about the celibate priesthood in connection with the Pope’s visit to Germany, one of my colleagues looked at me aghast and asked: “Do you really believe that?” I said, “Yes, I really believe that.” Before Christmas I broached the issue of Christian persecutions. That is a huge and important topic for the Church, not the question of celibacy.


What about your personal relationship with Pope Benedict XVI?

I was a correspondent in London when he was elected Pope. You remember all these negative headlines. But he showed that he is no inquisitor but a smiling Pope. I think that he is very courageous, right from the beginning.

I was present when he visited Altötting. It is his mixture of high intellectuality and deep Bavarian popular piety which is so enormous, impressive and inspiring. I think he is very authentic. Take, for example, his famous speech in Regensburg. He just said what he wanted to say.

I met him personally on his way to World Youth Day in Madrid. I was allowed to give him my book with a dedication of St. Augustine: Qui incipit exire, incipit amare [“He begins to leave who begins to love”].

In Germany we find a tendency in many places in the Church of never-ending lamenting …. Especially during his visit to Germany the Holy Father made this clear: the Church is a gift…. We cannot invent a new Church. The Church is a huge religious community with more than 1.2 billion faithful.

I personally experienced his visit to Germany as a triumphal procession, although media coverage was hypercritical. He used the right words at every station. … I think the most important aspect was said at the end: detachment from the world.

In Germany, there is too much world in the Church, too many committees, a huge administration, hospitals, but little God. The people are called to go to church and pray. That’s my personal opinion. Cardinal [Walter] Kasper [president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity] once noticed [that the faithful should focus on] “being in the world, but not being of the world,” meaning we act in this world but we do not imitate it. The Church is not a multinational company. …. There should be more investment into pastoral care. You can be very critical about my book, but there is no doubt that it is taking the Gospel into our society.


Why is the Pope so often misunderstood in Germany?

The German Pope does have German enemies. He was an important theologian during the Second Vatican Council. He was professor in Tübingen, where he had various, not always pleasant experiences. Here in Germany, many people know him.

Personally, he is a humble and kind person. I suppose it is his “inflexibility” with regard to his message [that is the issue]. Many people do not like that. And also the topic of the “detachment from the world” of the Church, which so often is misinterpreted.

The people pretend as if he had said that he wanted to dissolve all Catholic welfare centers, which is absolutely not true. Let’s talk about God, the Ten Commandments, [how to] celebrate the liturgy properly. We should focus on that.


Is that the reason why you wrote the book?

I got the feeling that the discussions in and about our Church are heading in the wrong direction — and the level is getting worse and worse.

You cannot ridicule a 2,000-year-old bastion which is a source of hope and salvation for many people in every talk show. Wherever a clergyman turned up, there was this background laughter. I thought, That is unworthy. My “club” is attacked; as a journalist, I had to respond.


Is there anything the Church in Germany can learn from the Church in other countries?

I have been around a lot in this world. To some extent, we Germans are peculiar. Somehow, this element of apostasy seems to belong to us since the Reformation. My wish is that — like in New York, for example — the life in our parishes is especially vital, when everybody is involved. I would like to meet the people that take part in the Mass afterwards.

I think it is great if the priest says good-bye to the faithful or welcomes the new parishioners at the door at the end of the Mass. In Rio de Janeiro, they had this statue of the Christ Child that went from family to family. I think we can learn a lot from the world Church. That also applies to German theology, which should become more open.


Where do you notice positive developments in the German Church?

Personally, I notice these positive developments in the new movements; for example, the community of Chemin Neuf in Berlin. They offer many courses on faith. We are not any more a folk Church, but a Church of conscious decision. We will have to do a lot in the formation of adults and the New Evangelization. Other Christian denominations are more courageous and decisive with respect to evangelization. We should show a greater joy because of our faith.


Are there any particular places where you can refuel your spiritual tank?

I love Rome, St. Peter’s Basilica — confession there — but I do not look for spiritual places in order to refuel my spiritual tanks. My local church is enough, where I can drop in the “church bank” and talk to and with God.

Register correspondent Robert Rauhut writes from Berlin, Germany.