Dr Merkel suggested in early February that the Vatican had “not done enough” to date to distance itself from Williamson and suggested the Bavarian pontiff “make very clear that there can be no denial”.
Within days the Vatican had acted and Williamson has apologised, but the affair refuses to go away in Germany and continues to fill letter and opinion pages.
The reasons for the lingering resentment vary across the generations: older Catholics find it unconscionable for a politician – and a Protestant pastor’s daughter at that – to give unsolicited advice to the pope. Younger Catholics say they are unhappy that Dr Merkel, whose silence on issues often speaks volumes, in this case chose what they perceive as megaphone diplomacy.
Dr Merkel has defended her decision to speak out, saying that a German chancellor’s obligation to speak out against public Holocaust denial superseded her personal preference of not commenting publicly on church matters.
But even some Merkel supporters have wondered aloud why it was only after her public remarks that she sought to make contact with Pope Benedict.
CDU party strategists are concerned that the ongoing discussion among Catholics could cost them support in September’s general election among the country’s most solid voting bloc.
That would be just what the party does not need, amid the defection to the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) of CDU economic conservative voters unhappy with the party’s interventionist approach to the financial crisis.
The most outspoken critic of the CDU in the Williamson affair is the arch-conservative archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Joachim Meisner. He is an old CDU sparring partner who, for years, has questioned just what in the party’s programme entitles it to continue to use the letter “C” in its name.
No stranger to controversy, he has called Dr Merkel’s remarks her “biggest mistake”, adding: “I can only say, do the right thing and excuse yourself, Madam Chancellor.” Considering the ongoing row, expectations were high that Dr Merkel would use a long-planned appearance last week at the Catholic Academy in Berlin to smooth things over.
But in a speech filled with examples of her “reverence for God”, Dr Merkel did not mention, even obliquely, the Williamson episode and earned only mild applause from the packed auditorium.
Political strategists are divided over the CDU strategy. Some see it as a calculated move by Dr Merkel to appeal to younger, urban voters with no religious convictions.
That gamble, that there was more to win than lose by criticising the Vatican, goes back to the statistical certainty that the CDU’s traditional voter base is dwindling.
“The classic CDU voters were Catholics with close ties to the church, a group that is shrinking,” said political analyst Andrea Wolf in Die Zeit weekly. “They are no longer enough to win an election. But the CDU has to remember that they cannot win an election without them either.”
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