Wednesday, April 20, 2005

After the dust has settled -- after the processions are over and the Masses have been said, after the new pope has accustomed himself to new apartments, new tasks, new vestments -- Benedict XVI will face an extraordinary list of problems, ranging from the bioethical to the geopolitical. But for this German pope, among his toughest tasks by far will be the battle for acceptance on the continent of his birth.

It sounds paradoxical, given the European splendor in which the church has been cloaked for the past several weeks -- the scenes of Rome, St. Peter's Square, the Sistine Chapel -- but nevertheless it is not Africa, or Latin America, or even the rebellious United States that poses the greatest set of difficulties for the Catholic Church at the moment. It is Europe itself.

By this I don't mean merely that church attendance is falling in Italy and Spain, as is often reported, or that birth control is widely used among European Catholics. Although there is plenty of religious apathy in Europe, it is far less powerful than the antipathy directed not just at the Catholic Church in Europe but at religion in general. It's not that Europeans think the church is out of touch or backward, but that they -- or rather an influential group of intellectuals and politicians -- heartily despise everything about it. Some of this was visible yesterday. Within hours of his election a BBC profile had already speculated that the new pope had honed his rhetorical skills in Nazi Germany (he deserted the Wehrmacht at age 15) while some on the German left were describing his election as a "catastrophe." I expect we'll hear far worse insults in the next few days.
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