German Catholic Church Debates Sexuality, Celibacy and Women’s Roles

BERLIN — The Roman Catholic Church in Germany has a cut up id. At residence, attendance is falling and many Germans say they regard the church’s instructing on social points as hopelessly out of contact.

But globally, the German church is among the strongest — and liberal — areas of the Catholic world, a participant whose wealth and theological affect is now making a problem for your complete church.

On Dec. 1, the German church’s worldwide affect might be on show when its bishops start a two-year lengthy sequence of conferences with lay leaders that may enable debate on hot-button points that in lots of different corners of the church can be off-limits, similar to whether or not to simply accept homosexuality, finish clerical celibacy and ordain ladies as clergymen.

The conferences carry no authority to truly change church doctrine. Nevertheless, the Vatican and conservative Catholics in Germany and elsewhere have repeatedly warned that the dialogue course of — which the German church calls “the synodal path” — may result in schism. Germany, in fact, was the place Martin Luther helped launch the Protestant Reformation along with his 95 theses condemning the Catholic church.

Tensions over the dialogue can be seen in the divide between Germany’s two cardinals: Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, archbishop of Cologne, a leading critic of the process, and Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the archbishop of Munich and Freising, who has called for opening the church to “new thinking.”

Cardinal Woelki, whose Cologne archdiocese is one of the world’s wealthiest, has warned his fellow bishops against stumbling into creating a “German national church,” distinct from the unified Catholic “universal church.”

“I do not want to support a special ‘German Way,’ nor should we as Germans pretend to know better than the rest of the church,” the cardinal said in an interview.

Cardinal Marx has championed the dialogue as head of the German Bishops Conference, and has spoken in the past of an openness to reconsidering issues like mandatory celibacy for priests. The cardinal is a particularly influential figure in the global church: He is a member of Francis’ small advisory council, and leads the same archdiocese once led by Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI (now pope emeritus).

“Faith can only grow and deepen,” Cardinal Marx said at a meeting of the bishop’s conference in March, “if one faces up to the free and open debate, and develops the ability to take new positions and to go new ways.”

For traditionalists, like Cardinal Woelki, the challenges facing the church require a recommitment to church teaching, not an effort to align the church with public opinion on sexual issues.

“Throughout history Christians have never been in sync with the world,” said the cardinal, who leads a diocese where fewer than 8 percent of parishioners regularly attend Mass, slightly lower than the 9.3 percent of Germany’s 23 million registered Catholics who regularly go.

Cardinal Woelki echoed that concern, saying in an email that the dialogue’s design, which gives bishops and lay leaders equal say in decision-making, “could easily lead to the misconception that we can ‘democratize’ the church.’”

“Bishops — the successors of the Apostles — are called to teach and defend the faith,” the cardinal said. “The democratization of the faith would be the end of the church by turning divine revelation into an endless political power struggle.”

The German church’s occupying a position of both great strength and weakness can be seen in two sets of numbers released in July in its annual report: The church has lost an average of 100,000 members a year since 1990, with more than 216,000 leaving in 2018.

But the bishops conference also said it had brought in over $6.5 billion in net revenue each year since 2016, thanks to a tithe on registered Catholics of up to 9 percent collected by the German government as a “church tax.

Since the 19th century, Germany has collected the tax from registered members of established religions, including both Catholics and Protestants, and then distributed the revenue back to the churches.

The German church sends hundreds of millions of dollars each year to Catholic charities and church projects around the world. German Catholics are also major funders of the Vatican; the bishops conference sends almost $7 million a year, and each of Germany’s 27 dioceses sends its own contributions, said Matthias Kopp, a spokesman for the bishops conference.

“The German Church is very influential because of its financial might,” said Father Brüntrup, the Jesuit spokesman. “But it also has had a great influence on the intellectual life of the church, because German theology was and still is a leading force intellectually.”

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