Putting aside all the clichés about Catholic popes in the land of Luther, Benedict XVI's forthcoming trip to his native Germany later this month comes at a crucial time for that country. Having just swept all before him in Zapatero's Spain, Benedict may very well find Germany to be one of his bigger challenges.
In some respects, contemporary Germany is a victim of its own success. Economically-speaking, Germany is Europe's powerhouse these days. Thanks to the persistence of a rather un-European work-ethic but also economic reforms implemented from 2003 onwards, Germany has largely escaped the sclerosis presently disfiguring Western Europe.
That's both a blessing and a curse. Germany's economic dynamism has prevented Europe's problems from becoming far worse. Yet it also means Germany finds itself propping up a political experiment (otherwise known as the euro) that's tottering under the weight of its internal contradictions. As the German tabloid Bild put it: "Will we finally have to pay for all of Europe?"
Looking beyond the present, however, grave challenges lie ahead for Germany -- not all of which are economic.
Germany has, for instance, one of Western Europe's worst birthrates. That spells trouble for Germany's future productivity and its welfare state. A second issue is Germany's struggle with the questions of immigration and non-assimilated Muslim minorities and the subsequently-inevitable always-awkward debates about what it means to be German in modern Europe.
These and other issues will make particular demands upon some of Germany's biggest culture-shaping institutions. Not all of these, however, are well-positioned to respond. That includes Germany's Catholic Church.
On the surface, the German Church's problems are manifested in the large numbers of German Catholics who say they've left the church in recent years (the very liberal Protestant German churches are shedding members even faster). Then there are the sex abuse scandals which emerged when ugly stories began circulating about what had really gone on in a now not-so-prestigious Berlin-based Jesuit school in the 1970s and '80s.
There is, however, another dimension to German Catholicism's present problems: a story of the follies of accommodation to whatever counts as "modern" or "contemporary" at any given moment.
Here I'm not so much thinking of the agenda of obvious figures like Hans Küng (who's increasingly an angry-old-man parody of himself). Rather, I have in mind the way much of German Catholicism decided to engage society after Vatican II.
In one sense, the Church is extremely present in everyday German life. It is after all one of Germany's biggest employers. Amply funded by a church tax levied on all Germans who identify themselves as Catholic, the Church runs thousands of educational institutions, hospitals, retirement homes, foreign aid programs, and so on.
It has, however, also become heavily bureaucratized -- something to which Benedict alludes in his interview-book Light of the World. Nor is it clear what distinguishes many German Catholic institutions from those of a more secularist bent. Moreover, by no means do all the people working in the Church's numerous agencies profess to be faithful Christians.
Some years ago, Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne openly wondered why the German Church employed so many people who were at best indifferent, if not quietly hostile, to Christian belief and evangelization. For asking this commonsense question, Meisner was pilloried by the secular press and assorted celebrity-theologians.
From this standpoint, bureaucratization is symptomatic of a deeper malaise in German Catholicism. And that problem boils down to one thing: a failure on the part of many German Catholics to teach the Catholic faith because of the distance they've put between themselves and the truth-claims of that faith.
Anyone who reads German theological journals will tell you that much of Germany's Catholic theological establishment sits rather loosely towards orthodox Catholicism. Much of it seems more intent on deconstructing that faith than illuminating its principles.
It's also true that they and many other German Catholics are now essentially liberal Protestants in the way they view Christianity and the world. And liberal Protestantism is, as the legal historian Harold J. Berman (himself a mild Baptist) once wrote, merely one step away from agnosticism.
To such minds, evangelization is hardly a priority. Instead, their focus is upon two things. The first is power within the structures of German Catholicism because (sotto voce) "we all know" life is really about acquiring power rather than knowing truth. The second is upon changing Catholicism to make the Church look much more like "the world" because (sotto voce) "we all know" the fullness of divine truth is "out there" rather than in the Revelation of Jesus Christ.
This state of affairs has been worsened by many German Catholic bishops' abject failure to provide evangelical leadership in the Church. Over the past forty years, German Catholicism has not had anyone like a Jean-Marie Lustiger in France or George Pell in Australia who -- through formidable combinations of intellect, personality, strategic thinking, and, above all, sheer fearlessness -- almost singlehandedly shakes a Church out of its sterile complacency and sullen defeatism.
By contrast, some German bishops' attitude is one of "don't rock the boat otherwise important people won't talk to us." Unfortunately, there's no strong evidence that secular German elites pay much attention to what progressive Catholics have to say. After all, it's virtually indistinguishable from progressivist-secularism. In fact, prominent left-inclined secularist Germans such as Jürgen Habermas and, more recently, Gregor Gysi, have indicated they're far more interested in what Joseph Ratzinger thinks.
Fortunately, like everywhere in global Catholicism, German Catholicism is changing. Younger bishops, priests and laity are far less worried about upsetting those tenured theologians who aren't sure if Christ is God but who are absolutely convinced no sin could possibly be mortal. The epicenter of German Catholic life is shifting away from what Benedict once called "the spent and tired" bureaucracy and is increasingly with what he describes as initiatives that "come from within, from the joy of young people."
And that, perhaps, is what Benedict will bring to the German Church: a sense of the joy of living a full Christian life, a message that contrasts sharply with the Götterdämmerung of a fading generation of Catholics in perpetual rebellion against anything which suggests modernity doesn't have all the answers. And in the contest of hope versus despair, we all know who ultimately wins.