BERLIN (Reuters) - When Pope Benedict visits his native Germany later this week, the anarchists, gays and radicals planning to protest against his presence should be the least of his worries.
His toughest critics come from the ranks of fellow German Christians.
Religion in Germany has a public edge the Bavarian pope doesn’t often see, with politicians and Protestants as likely as Catholic parishioners to speak out against his conservative ideas.
A record 181,000 left the Catholic Church last year in protest against its sexual abuse scandals and increasingly conservative line. For the first time, that was more than those quitting German Protestant congregations and even topped the total number of new baptisms into the Catholic Church.
Among those who have stayed, many say the Church should reform its celibacy rule to counter the dwindling number of priests and allow Protestants married to Catholics to receive communion at Mass with their spouses.
Catholic theologian Hermann Haering told Reuters it was no surprise that Benedict should elicit such criticism in his native land.
”First of all, he’s German,“ he said. ”Emotions both for and against him have always been very strong.
“In a country where Catholics and Protestant populations are of equal size, all theological and church issues are much more clearly defined.”
German churches traditionally have been seen as normative authorities, almost part of the state, he said.
“We don’t have a liberal tradition, such as in the United States. These issues are not seen in the framework of a civil society.”
Even if they remain silent, some senior Catholic politicians due to meet Benedict in Berlin symbolize the gulf between them and the lifestyle the pontiff preaches.
President Christian Wulff is a Catholic who has divorced and remarried. Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit is Catholic and openly gay. The Church says both lifestyles are sinful.
Bundestag Speaker Norbert Lammert joined seven other Catholic politicians in January in urging Benedict to ordain married men, but the pope has ruled out any change in the Church’s centuries-old rule of celibacy for the clergy.
Even Chancellor Angela Merkel, a Protestant, has fired shots across Benedict’s bow. When the pope readmitted a Holocaust-denying bishop into the Church in 2009, she called on him to make it clear the Vatican was not anti-Semitic.
Last weekend, Merkel said ecumenical cooperation should be a main theme of Benedict’s visit. In the land of Martin Luther and the 16th-century Reformation, most media attention on the visit focuses on issues affecting Catholics and Protestants.
She stressed the need to promote peace among religions, a remark that raised eyebrows because the pope’s last German visit in 2006 was followed by furious Muslim protests at his speech in
Regensburg referring to Islam as a violent and irrational faith.
In a recent survey for the Bertelsmann Foundation, only 37 percent of the Catholics and 14 percent of Protestants polled thought what the pope said during his trip would be important.
Nearly three quarters of Catholics polled wanted the Church to liberalize and only 13 percent supported the return of traditions fostered by Benedict.
Catholics and Protestants agree to almost the same degree -- 45 and 43 percent -- that his visit should improve relations between their churches.
This parity means one of the strongest reform demands is permission for joint eucharistic services, which Protestants allow but the Vatican bans because of different views on what the ceremony means.
Another demand is to allow communion for Catholics who are divorced and remarried, like President Wulff. The Church bans this because it only recognizes the first marriage and therefore considers the second one a sin.
Even Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, 73, head of the German Bishops Conference, recently said he hoped to see some change on this point within his lifetime.
Other reform calls heard in Germany for decades urge an end to obligatory celibacy for priests, permission for women to become priests and an option for older laymen to be ordained. Benedict has firmly rejected all of these and shows no sign of changing.
Haering said the scandal of sexual abuse of young people by priests, which has shaken Germany and other countries over the past two years, had plunged the Church into “its worst crisis since the Reformation.”
But with so many other long-standing demands competing for attention, the abuse scandals focus less public attention here than they would if the pope visited Ireland or Belgium, where the issue dominates any discussion of the Church and its role.
Reporting By Tom Heneghan; Editing by Michael Roddy