Bishop Felix Genn of Munster, Germany, swings a censer as he celebrates Mass during Catholic Church Day May 10, 2018. The German Catholic Church is "in deep distress," said Thomas Sternberg, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics. CNS photo/Leon Kuegeler, Reuters

German Catholics 'passing through a deep valley', says prominent lay leader

By 
  • March 19, 2019
The German Catholic Church is "in deep distress," said Thomas Sternberg, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics, the coordinating body of official German Catholic lay organizations.

"The trust of many Catholics in their church is deeply shaken. They are wondering how they can live their faith in light of the current situation and share it with others," Sternberg told Catholic News Service. "They live in the feeling of passing through a deep valley."

The Catholic faith in Germany was strong enough to survive the Protestant Reformation, several bitter religious wars and the Nazi era. Now, Germany's Catholics are struggling to keep their faith amid an atmosphere of mistrust and confusion in the church owing to recent financial scandals, an acute priest shortage and restructuring of parishes, demands for modern interpretations of the Gospel, high numbers of Catholics leaving the church, and the recent sexual abuse cover-up.

Nearly 30 percent of Germans are Catholic, and although the nation's Catholic population does not often appear in large turnout for regular weekly Mass, German Catholics are deeply rooted in principle, said Sternberg.

"There is a strong spiritual life of the Catholic Church in our country," said Sternberg, adding that Germans today adhere to the Catholic faith due to inner belief rather than out of feelings of cultural or social obligation. "Those who are active in the church do so out of deep inner conviction; that is an immovable foundation."

That strong spiritual conviction is now being sorely tested, said Sternberg.

"Especially the church's handling of the horrifying crimes of abuse has led to a hard-hitting, deep loss of faith in the church – even among the ranks of the most loyal church members," said Sternberg.

The search for solutions to address the unique challenges facing the church in Germany and provide concrete forms of redress following the sexual abuse crisis has led to increasing fragmentation and dissent among the German clergy. Some priests and bishops, including Bishop Gerhard Feige of Magdeburg, have expressed openness to the future ordination of women to the priesthood.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, head of the bishops' conference, has come under fire for his leadership style during the various crises facing the church. In mid-March, at the end of the bishops' general meeting, the cardinal said the Catholic Church in Germany is at a point where serious debate – including on priestly celibacy and the role of women – and openness to doing things in a new way must be encouraged.

"His agenda is certainly more sociological than theological," said Father Frank Unterhalt, spokesman for the Paderborn-based priest association Communio Veritatis, which recently made a public demand for Cardinal Marx's resignation. "He speaks and behaves often like a left-liberal politician and not like a shepherd of the holy church of God. Whoever sets the cross aside and wishes to serve the dictatorship of relativism should accept the consequences."

The Communio Veritatis association was founded Feb. 22, 2018, the feast of the throne of St. Peter, by 10 priests from the diocese of Paderborn in response to the current unrest in the German church. The group, according to Father Unterhalt, is a free association of priests who meet monthly to pray and write theological publications together in response to current issues.

Thomas Throenle, spokesman for the Diocese of Paderborn, said the Communio Veritatis priest association is a private group not affiliated with or endorsed by the diocese.

In its open letter to Cardinal Marx publicized Jan.14, the group leveled sharp criticism at the cardinal: "We reject the instrumentalization of our religion. You use this in a falsifying secularization for the spread of mainstream left-liberal political ideology."

"We want to approach the challenges together to remain true to the Lord amid the great abandoning of belief and a widespread secularized situation," said Father Unterhalt. "Therefore, the association of priests is an answer to the crisis of our time."

Invoking St. John Paul II, Communio Veritatis opposes changes to church tradition.

"We have positioned ourselves clearly against giving communion to Protestant spouses of Catholics in interchurch marriages and have rejected a corresponding directive from our archbishop as unacceptable," said Father Unterhalt, who said that the group also opposes changes to priestly celibacy.

Meanwhile, Sternberg and the Central Committee of German Catholics propose different ideas for solutions.

"We in the (central committee) are convinced that trustworthiness can only be restored through sustainable steps in reform," said Sternberg. "Against a backdrop of numerous demands, we are in favor of the supplementary consecration of married men and opening consecrated offices – presently, the diaconate – to women, for fair administrative structures, for a church management and criminal penal jurisdiction system, and last but not least for more of a synodal leadership responsibility among all believers in the church."

Sternberg said the proposals for reform address more than the issue of sexual abuse.

"These are questions for the future sustainability of the church as a space for the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ in our time," he said.

He said the sexual abuse cover-up in Germany's church, leaked in a confidential church study document to the media Sept. 12, has brought Germany's Catholic Church to a point of no return.

"The church in Germany has taken an irreversible turn toward sexual abuse reforms due to this study. This study has shown everyone what structures in the church have fostered abuse, how the church itself committed sins here," he said. "These structures – false clericalism, intransparency, an absence of conscience and much more – must now be changed."

Although many different opinions abound, there is one thing that all parties involved seem to agree on – Germany's Catholic Church, scattered and divided, is beginning to fall apart at the seams.

"Many believers are very disturbed about the glaring spread of confusion in Germany and worldwide," said Father Unterhalt.

In addition to faith dilemmas, Sternberg says local Catholic communities are now being by threatened by widespread parish restructuring "due to a catastrophic lack of priests and a tendency to centralize in the vicariates of the dioceses."

He said Catholic believers in Germany are ready and willing to take a stand to rebuild their crumbling church, but, rather than leave it to the higher-ups, they want to achieve this by working with their own hands.

"They (laity) want to share responsibility in the body of the church and are ready to win back lost trust together in a community," said Sternberg. "As to whether this will be achieved, many people are skeptical."

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