Where the pope's words resonate

TRAUNSTEIN, Germany — In the Church of St. Veit and Anna, which sits alone atop a hill in the Bavarian town of Ettendorf, every pew was packed and some people were standing.  On this first Sunday after Easter, people shuffled over a bit to make room for two latecomers, but the new arrivals knew to simply close the heavy oak doors behind them and remain in place while joining in with the choir. 

The service offers a glimpse of a sort of idealized past, the kind of loyal German Catholic congregation that would have existed long before the wider church's current descent into turbulence and rancor.

The last weeks have been an all-out crisis for the church, which represents 1 billion Catholics worldwide, with much of the scandal centered in Germany. What started as a trickle of reports of abuse by priests in Germany has become an ever-worsening flood. The public has been almost as outraged by the Vatican's efforts at damage control as by the abuses themselves.

Already one bishop has submitted his resignation as a result of the fallout. Some Germans have suggested that Pope Benedict XVI — who, in his role as a bishop in Germany in the early 1980s, has been implicated in the pastoral re-assignment of an alleged pedophile priest — should do the same. A recent poll shows nearly a quarter of German Catholics are considering leaving the faith because of the Church's disregard for the trust that German society had placed in it.

But in the town of Traunstein, where the pope came of age, Catholic life carries on as it always has — for now. Locals feel proud that the pope, known then as Joseph Ratzinger, was born and raised in this stretch of idyllic Bavarian countryside. There is strong support for him here despite the scandal swirling around his papacy.

Benedict's style of governance of the church — from the unforgiving tenets of his theology, to the certainty of his piety, to the defensive nature of his reaction to the abuse scandals — may not have been received well by the Western public at large. But in Traunstein and across the rural pockets of Bavaria, the Vatican's reticent response to the abuse scandals — no matter how tone-deaf they  may sound elsewhere — find their proper register.

The letters-to-the-editor in Traunstein's local daily newspaper, the Traunsteiner Tagblatt, discuss issues ranging from conditions in the retirement home to plans for a new supermarket on the edge of town, but there has hardly been a mention of the abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.

“No, we don't hear much from readers about that,” said Kathrin Augustin, one of the Tagblatt's editors for local news. “If anything, they think the coverage is all already overblown.”

The contrast with Germany's national media could hardly be greater. For months, reporters and editors in Munich, Berlin and Hamburg have been pondering the accountability of the Catholic Church for alleged abuses of German minors by priests. The national television broadcasters have likewise held wide-ranging debates that have openly questioned whether the pope should resign, considered the compatibility of Catholic doctrine with democratic norms, and discussed the efficacy and sanity of traditions like celibacy. Many Germans have seemed eager to wrestle with the same questions.

In Traunstein, though, the conversation is still dominated by representatives of the Catholic Church itself. At the Ettendorfer church, the priest didn't shy from using his homily to directly address the “recent reports about the Church.” But Father Sebastian Heindl's emphasis was different than the recommendations coming from Germany's media hubs. First, Heindl told his congregation that their duty was to forgive the church for its wrongs, just as it was the church's duty to recognize that it was in need of that forgiveness.

Second, Heindl reminded the congregation that it was important for Traunstein's Catholics to resist efforts to displace their religion's position at the center of the community. The church's purpose, Heindl said, is to serve as the tie that binds society together and to give the greater community a common meaning and purpose. Modernity, of course, has produced countless challenges to the Catholic Church's traditional role as guarantor of social coherence. Heindl made it clear, for instance, that he found it problematic that many people in Traunstein had spent their Sunday shopping, rather than observing the day of worship in reflection and prayer.

After the mass, a few members of the congregation remained behind to continue the conversation with Heindl on a patch of meadow in front of the church. In the background, the choir continued to sing while the sun sank slowly over the snow-capped peaks of the Alps.

That mountain vista is one no doubt familiar to Pope Benedict. The young Joseph Ratzinger used to pass this church every day on his half-hour walk from the village of Hufschlag, where his parents lived, to the town of Traunstein, where he went to seminary. Benedict has repeatedly claimed that this picturesque region of Bavaria has a special claim on his identity, calling it his self-described “paradise of childhood and homeland.” Until he was elevated to the papacy five years ago, Ratzinger spent his annual holidays at the Traunstein seminary where he had studied to become a priest.

Indeed, these are among the few places in Germany where a priest like Heindl can still credibly rebuke his congregation for drifting too far away from the faith — elsewhere, it is far too late for such laments.

“Everyone who lives here is going to, in one way or another, be a member of the church,” said Klaus Oberkandler, an editor of the Tagblatt. “That's what the people in the big cities don't understand. I might not be religious, but if I have children, I'm sure as heck going to make sure they receive communion. Because otherwise they're going to find themselves left out.”

This social conformity is also reflected in other aspects of local life. If a Traunsteiner says he or she is going to get a beer, he more than likely means that he's going to the town brewery, the same one that has been located on the main market square since the early Middle Ages. When he votes in an election, it's almost certainly for the Christian Social Union, the party that has dominated Bavarian politics for more than 60 years. The traditional Bavarian hunting cap still qualifies as year-round de rigueur fashion.

This is the environment in which Benedict was raised. Traunstein's Catholic Church was an unquestioned guiding ethical authority in the town, not just one moral option among many. It's a setting that may help explain some of the problems at the root of his handling of the recent abuse scandals — problems like the pope's poor communication with the European laity and his seeming prioritization of the Church's peculiar traditions and institutions over basic questions of justice.

When Benedict was ordained, he immediately pursued a career as a theologian, rather then pursuing pastoral duties that would have brought him into closer contact with his congregants' problems. The choice, on top of his upbringing in this heavily Catholic town, may well have led him to overestimate the power of the church. Now he insists that Catholicism should only engage with modern society on its own terms and from a position of strength, leading to discord between the church and its faithful in more cosmopolitain parts of the world.

The Church can and should acknowledge changes in society at large, according to Benedict's philosophy, but the truths collected in Catholic doctrine should generally inform, not learn from modern social philosophy, whether on questions of democracy, sexuality or gender relations. Certainly, the church of Benedict's upbringing never felt it had to apologize or justify itself. Instead, it protected and cultivated its special access to the truth, and invited the public to be exposed to it.

The corollary of Traunstein's community-centric attachment to the Catholic Church is that the church remains above all a local phenomenon. Time and again, residents of Traunstein told me that they didn't pay much attention at all to the abuse scandals because they had little to do with the church in their community. Traunstein's Catholic Church hasn't faced any publicized instances of abuse, and is most beloved, apparently, for a community service — its efforts organizing child care for working mothers, a service that the city itself is unable to finance.

That is not to say that the locals are unfamiliar with the abuses. But the 30 kilometers that separate Traunstein from Garschig, a town where several of the most prominent cases of alleged abuse took place, has been distance enough to put most minds in Traunstein at ease.

But not everyone is convinced that the city's commitment to its church is as stable as it seems.

“It's a powder keg, I tell you,” said one anxious, cigarette-puffing local who had arranged to meet me in a city park so he could tip me off to an undisclosed local abuse scandal. The incident he wanted to discuss had occurred decades ago, but he insisted it was an exemplary instance of the town's hypocrisy, and in truth the story did bear an unusual instance of irony.

The man pointed out the offending (since-deceased) priest in a display case at city hall dedicated to the town's citizen of honor, Pope Benedict XVI. Joseph Ratzinger had apparently been ordained in the same year as the accused priest, and the diocese had placed their portraits next to one another in the poster celebrating the area's newly made priests.

It's inevitable that the simplicity of this town will one day crack and crumble. One notices few new families in Traunstein, young parents who are teaching piety to a succeeding generation. I was told that most of the ambitious had left for Munich, the capital of the state of Bavaria, to pursue careers. When Benedict was growing up here, Bavaria was one of the poorest areas of the country, and now it is among the richest. Money means more opportunities to travel, it means more exposure to alternative lifestyles. It means inevitable distancing from the conformity of a place like Traunstein.

Of all the people I spoke with in Traunstein, the one most willing to cast judgment on the church's scandals is one who is closest to the church and the pope. Rupert Berger is an 85-year-old retired priest from Traunstein who was ordained at the same ceremony as Joseph Ratzinger in 1951 and who now lives in the same home where Benedict's parents lived in the last years of their lives. He is a fixture in the town, but he has a clear sense of how the church here contrasts with global Catholicism.

Amid the cluttered possessions of Berger's living room, where he invites me to visit for about an hour before he leaves to give mass at a nearby nunnery, the priest is quick to pronounce a verdict on the church's offending priests: “I think they should all be excommunicated.” I ask him whether that's meant as a criticism of the pope, with whom he used to meet every year during his annual holiday visits to his hometown seminary. “I agree with the pope's goals. But I can't say I agree with all of his methods.”

Berger pauses for a moment before continuing. “Religion is changing, we have to recognize that. It used to be a Volksreligion, so that everyone, every single person, would go to church, no exceptions,” he says. “Now people have to choose to go. So some people might not go. But, those who do, maybe they have a deeper connection to the Church.”