Zero Hour at the Vatican: Bitter Struggle for Control of the Catholic Church

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If he already felt worn out from these battles over faith, the years in which butler Paolo Gabriele betrayed his trust must have finally pulled the rug out from under his feet. When Secretary Gänswein assumed all of the blame and offered to resign, the Holy Father wanted nothing of it. With a sigh, he said: "But we must trust each other up here. It doesn't work without trust."

Benedict's Parting Gift

But the treachery had found its way into his own chambers. According to a report last week by the Milan newsmagazine Panorama, Dec. 17, the day on which three cardinals handed the pope the secret report describing the background of Vatileaks, complete with witness statements, was apparently the moment he decided to resign. Before that, Benedict had "learned of conditions in the curia that he would never have thought possible."

He was, after all, a teaching pope and not a governing pope. Benedict sought to use the word to exert influence. His speeches in Regensburg and in Paris, and before the parliaments in Berlin and London, were invitations to the non-Catholic world to join Catholics in thinking about the ethical basis of the political, and to consider other things, too, like the law of nature and an expanded concept of reason.

"The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur -- this is the program," the pope said in his Regensburg lecture. And quoting the Byzantine Emperor Manuel II, he added: "Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God."

With his decision to resign, Benedict has given his church a final gift: the chance for a new beginning. And that is exactly what Catholics in his native Germany long for. Benedict's resignation comes at a time when the standing of the Catholic Church in Germany has arrived at a new low.

Church doctrine and social reality have drifted so far apart in many areas that even devout Catholics believe the time has come for change. Karl-Josef Kuschel, a religious scholar in the southwestern German city of Tübingen, says that the church is now confronted with "fundamental mistrust."

This cannot be blamed entirely on the outgoing pope, and yet Benedict didn't manage to stop the trend, at least not in northern countries. In 2010, the number of people leaving the church in Germany, more than 180,000, was for the first time substantially greater than the number of baptisms. Today more than a third of Germans are members of no Christian church at all. The number of baptisms, weddings and even church funerals is dropping rapidly. There is also a colossal shortage of priests.

Atmosphere of Fear and Suspicion

In total, the church lost about 3.8 million Catholics in Germany between 1990 and 2011, a number almost twice the size of the Archdiocese of Cologne. And the trend has shown no signs of reversal.

As a result, the church is losing importance in Germany. Its influence over legislation, important national debates or on culture is limited today. "The church is in a crisis of faith, trust, authority, leadership and communication," Mitschke-Collande, an active Catholic, writes in an analysis.

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