BERLIN, Feb 3 – When Joseph Ratzinger became pope in 2005, people in his native Germany were over the moon. But his rehabilitation of a Holocaust-denying priest is turning this delight into embarrassment and shame.
"The pope has made a grave mistake. The fact that it is a German pope of all things makes it particularly bad," the mass-circulation Bild said in an editorial on Tuesday.
"Pope Benedict XVI is inflicting great damage on Germany’s image in the world … If someone in Germany denies the murder of six million Jews they are prosecuted."
News of the pope’s decision to lift the excommunication on British bishop Richard Williamson — who said on Swedish TV there were no gas chambers — came just days before the 64th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
For many, Benedict’s appointment as pope marked the culmination of six decades of German efforts to atone for its dark past and to finally be fully rehabilitated into the international community.
Bild’s headline at the time said it all: "We are pope!"
But since becoming the leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics, Bavaria’s Benedict has managed to offend Muslims, women, native Indians, Poles, gays and even scientists.
In Germany the 81-year-old’s latest move has gone down especially badly.
Jewish groups, who have been complaining for some time about a rise in anti-Semitic violence in Germany, believe that Ratzinger’s latest blunder has set a dangerous precedent.
"Now every far-right extremist will be able to say: Pope Benedict XVI has welcomed back into the church a Holocaust denier," Salomon Korn, vice-president of Central Council of Jews in Germany, told the Spiegel weekly in an interview.
"By taking [Williamson] back into the church, the pope has made a Holocaust denier socially acceptable and sent a disastrous message," Korn said. "What Benedict has done is unforgivable."
"People who fundamentally question this genocide and misrepresent the gas chambers as ‘an instrument for disinfection’ should face criminal prosecution rather than promotion to bishop of the Catholic Church," the Council’s general secretary Stephan Kramer said in an op-ed on the German news website The Local.
Senior figures in Germany’s Catholic Church are also dismayed, with several bishops and cardinals saying that Benedict had made a clear error — although some have claimed he was insufficiently informed about Williamson’s past.
"It pains me as bishop and as minister that these events have led to many believers becoming … estranged from the Church, to a loss of trust particularly between the Church and our Jewish brothers and sisters and to a serious breakdown in Jewish-Christian dialogue," said Gebhard Fuerst, bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart.
The eminent liberal Catholic theologian Hermann Haering even went as far as calling for the pope to step down.
"If the pope wants to do some good for the Church, he should leave his job," Haering told the Tageszeitung daily.
And Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, the Catholic bishop of Benedict’s home city of Regensburg in Bavaria, has reportedly banned Williamson from setting foot in the cathedral or any other Church property.
The damage is also being felt at grassroots level, with anecdotal evidence gathered by the Munich daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung suggesting an increasing number of Catholics are turning their backs on the Church.