In the first act of his papacy Pope Benedict XVI robustly condemned a Spanish government bill that would legalise homosexual marriages. But his first week as the head of the Catholic Church was also overshadowed by a fierce row in Europe’s press over Ratzinger’s conscription into the Hitler Youth.
The Vatican has urged civil disobedience to a new bill, passed by the Spanish parliament’s Socialist-dominated lower house, that would allow gay couples to marry and adopt children. Currently, Belgium and the Netherlands are the only European countries that permit same sex marriages. A senior Vatican official described the bill, which is likely to become law within a few months, as “iniquitous”. Spain, once one of Europe’s most devout Roman Catholic countries, would be making a dramatic step towards secularisation if the bill becomes law. In further plans likely to disturb the Vatican, Prime Minister Luis Zapatero says he intends to relax divorce and abortion laws.
Perhaps in a reflection of the changed times, Spain’s El Mundo newspaper struck a somewhat critical note in its comments on the new pope. “By choosing the German cardinal, the Church seems to have chosen to raise fortifications and reaffirm its traditional values. It is a legitimate and understandable option, but also disappointing for one sector of Catholicism, which was hoping for a leap forward at the start of a new millennium. Maybe his eventual successor will be the person predestined to spearhead great changes in the Church,” the paper reflected.
Strangely, Pope Benedict XVI, nicknamed ‘God’s Rottweiler’ for his strict adherence to conservative Catholic doctrines, was once seen as a progressive figure. This changed when he became a university professor and witnessed student unrest during the 1960s. By the time he became a cardinal and took over the leadership of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s guardian of orthodoxy, he had become a reactionary figure in the church.
Hitler Youth role triggers press row
Before the new Pope could stamp his authority, the British and German press were feuding about Ratzinger’s boyhood under Nazi rule. Germany’s top-selling daily newspaper, Bild, criticised British counterparts for what it described as their disrespectful coverage and focus on his brief membership of the Hitler Youth. The Sun newspaper, Bild’s nearest British tabloid equivalent, headlined its front page “From Hitler Youth to Papa Ratzi”. Even the traditionally staid Daily Telegraph carried the headline “‘God’s Rottweiler’ is the new Pope”. Bild, which itself reported the election of the first German Pope in centuries with the triumphant headline “We are the Pope!” said it was shocked by the tone of the British coverage. “The British have done it again. They are reporting on Benedict XVI with mockery and undisguised rage,” the paper proclaimed. Bild said that the British press had insulted the new pope and pandered to anti-German xenophobia.
Many other European newspapers also reported Ratzinger’s membership of the Hitler Youth, a fact Bild mentioned lower in its story. But the German paper, perhaps mindful of previous alleged anti-German comments in The Sun, directed its anger against the British tabloid even though the Murdoch-owned newspaper made clear that the Hitler Youth was compulsory for boys of Ratzinger’s age at the time.
“Resistance was impossible”
The son of a rural Bavarian police officer, Ratzinger was six when Hitler came to power in 1933. His father, also called Joseph, was an anti-Nazi whose attempts to stand up to Hitler’s Brown Shirts forced the family to move home several times.
Ratzinger joined the Hitler Youth aged 14, shortly after membership was made compulsory in 1941. He quickly won a dispensation on account of his training at a seminary. “Ratzinger was only briefly a member of the Hitler Youth and not an enthusiastic one,” concluded his biographer, John Allen. Two years later Ratzinger was enrolled in an anti-aircraft unit that protected a BMW factory making aircraft engines. The workforce included slaves from Dachau concentration camp.
Ratzinger has insisted he never took part in combat or fired a shot, adding that his gun was not even loaded because of a badly infected finger. He was then sent to Hungary, where he set up tank traps and saw Jews being herded to death camps. He deserted in April 1944 and spent a few weeks in a prisoner of war camp. Ratzinger has since maintained that, although he was opposed to the Nazi regime, any open resistance would have been futile. Ratzinger’s older brother, Georg, a retired priest ordained along with the cardinal in 1951, insisted that “resistance was impossible”.
Media image will be “corrected”
The Turkish press had a totally different gripe about Ratzinger – his hostility towards Turkey’s entry into the EU. One newspaper, Hurriyet, described him as the “cardinal who doesn’t want Turkey”, saying this would be yet another obstacle towards the country’s acceptance.
But, despite the controversy in the press, conservative voices in the Catholic Church have welcomed the new Pope’s appointment. Portuguese Cardinal, D. José Saraiva Martins, a candidate to be the new head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, believes the choice is wise. “Cardinal Ratzinger will be a good pope. He will be the pope that the church and the world needs, continuing the tradition of his predecessor,” said the cardinal who participated in the conclave.
He said that the new Pope’s negative image in some corners of the press would change. “He is a man of great culture, a thinker of profound spirituality who is very familiar with the problems of the church and the rich legacy bequeathed to him by John Paul II.” Saraiva said that some media descriptions of the new pope were inaccurate. The Portuguese Cardinal said that the values of humanity and the gospel were “perennial and immutable” and therefore required a conservative approach. But, he also acknowledged the need to be progressive in certain policy areas.