Germans reflect on Pope Benedict's resignation

The surprising decision of Pope Benedict XVI to resign from the papacy hit the Church of his homeland in a moment of deep crisis. Suddenly all conflicts and controversies in the Church came to a standstill, and his papacy, as well as the weight of the present dissent, came into consideration.  

According to an opinion poll, two-thirds of German Catholics now regard the eight years Pope Benedict spent as a “humble worker in the vineyard of God” no longer as critically as in past years. They even believe that by resigning, he opened ways for a basic reform of the Church. Chances for a renewal by a new pope are seen as debatable: Would (and could) he modernize the mission of the Church in a secularized world while taking into account the variety and diversity of local Churches and their problems?

Lasting effects of scandal

As far as the German Church is concerned, there are still at stake the problems that led the Church into heavy turbulence. In the weeks before the announcement of the pope’s resignation, the reputation of the bishops reached a new low point by two incidents concerning the abuse of minors by priests and the refusal to treat a rape victim in two Catholic hospitals. 

When, in 2010, it was revealed that hundreds of priests had abused minors, the bishops reacted with hesitant and half-hearted actions and lost much of their authority. It took quite some time before they started to apologize to the victims, offering them psychological help and financial compensation.  

They then established systems for abuse prevention and commissioned an independent criminal research institute with reviewing all abuse cases since 1945. 

However, earlier this year, the bishops withdrew the contract from the independent institute because of “insolvable differences about the process of the research.” The institute in return accused the bishops of an attempt to censor the publication of the results. It also became known that some bishops refused to hand over the files of priests because of data protection and that some diocesan files were destroyed. Now the bishops will commission another institute to do the review, but their withdrawal increased the suspicion that they really do not want total transparency.

Morning-after controversy

Almost at the same time, another scandal came to light. Two Catholic hospitals refused to treat a woman who was kidnapped, intoxicated and raped, because doctors were forbidden to distribute the morning-after pill. After a public uproar, Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne surprised the public by not only apologizing, but also announcing that in special cases, the new morning-after pill preventing impregnation before ovulation could be distributed in Catholic hospitals. 

On Feb. 21, after a plenary session (see sidebar), the German bishops’ conference announced it would allow Catholic hospitals to distribute the morning-after pill “as long as this has a prophylactic and not an abortive effect,” according to a statement released by Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg im Breisgau. 

Church tax

Another reason for the crisis of the German Church is connected with the historic church-state relationship.  

The state not only collects church taxes from every Catholic (active and inactive), but also finances the leading personnel of the Church and subsidizes Catholic schools, charities and social work. This stirred up the public after the financial crash in 2008. In order to save taxes, a Catholic could declare at the appropriate state office that he wanted to leave the Church, which would mean automatic excommunication.  

Against this regulation, a retired professor for theology had taken legal actions, arguing that being a member of the Church is founded by baptism and not by paying taxes.  

Last year, a German court upheld the right of German Catholics to not pay the tax, reasoning that the Church itself must regulate membership. Now the bishops have to rectify why Church membership cannot be regulated in other ways as in other countries. 

As the shortage of finances fell together with the increasing lack of priests, the bishops also saw themselves being forced to merge up to eight parishes into new “communities” with just two priests. Local parishioners criticized that they lost their “religious home” and now not only have to check each Sunday in what parish and at what time Mass is celebrated but also have to drive long distances.

Dissent from teachings

Archbishop Zollitsch CNS

The bishops also had neglected for years the call by the laity for reforms in theological and pastoral questions like sacraments for remarried persons, more participation of laymen and women in Church administration and liturgy, as well as in moral questions like birth control and premarital sex. Finally the bishops started a three-year dialogue process for discussing with lay representatives all controversial themes. Participants of the first meetings reported an open atmhosphere but no concrete results. At the Catholics’ Day of the Central Committee of the Laity 2012, ways to a “new awakening” for a responsible shaping of modern society as a culture of justice and respect for life were explored. In Advent 2012 the bishops started several programs for the Year of Faith concentrating on strengthening the sacraments and liturgy. They are also preparing a national Eucharistic Congress in Cologne and a week of social actions for Catholic youths. 

In order to get a realistic view on the present situation of the Church in Germany, the bishops had commissioned a study about Church participation in different segments of present society. When the results were published in January, the bishops were disappointed and at a loss for words. Results show there is only a small number of conservative middle age and older Catholics who stay true to the Church and its teachings. The majority of Catholics, though, do not leave the Church, but are living individual forms of the Faith according to their own conscience and their special needs of age and family and society. Even worse: The majority of the younger generation is living in total distance from the Church.  

Ferdinand Oertel writes from Germany.