From top to bottom, Catholic Church in Germany pushing for liberal reform

The announcement on March 14 by Cardinal Reinhard Marx that the Catholic Church in Germany would start a “synodal process” to deal with issues of priestly celibacy, teachings on sexual morality, and clerical power marks an attempt to assert its peculiar identity and to promote a reform agenda of its own, writes Jean Bernard in the conservative Catholic monthly La Nef (May). Initiatives of the German Catholic Church have a special significance due its financial strength and intellectual resources (maintaining an important network of theological faculties)—despite the drop in priestly ordinations (there were twice as many priests in Germany in 1970, with the number down from 26,000 to 13,000) and the large number of people leaving the church (around 160,000 per year on average in recent years). According to Bernard’s assessment, a majority of the German Catholic leadership can be considered as “progressive.” While the election of Pope Francis, which was “widely encouraged by German cardinals,” might have seemed to bring dominant trends in the German Catholic Church into harmony with impulses coming from Rome, and while Cardinal Marx gave the assurance that the synodal process was in line with Pope Francis, there have been several misunderstandings in recent years, such as over the issue of access to the Eucharist for divorced Catholics who have married again or for Protestant spouses of Catholic faithful, as well as debates over homosexuality.

The serious crisis around the issue of sexual abuse has been identified as an outcome of “clericalism” and has offered an opportunity to raise questions about power in the church, sexual morality and priestly life—topics which will be addressed by three forums that will involve laypeople through the participation of the powerful (and rather progressive) Zentralkomitee der deutschen Katholiken (Central Committee of German Catholics).

Demonstration der Initiative “Maria 2.0” nach einer Priesterweihe im Freiburger Münster. Sie kämpft dafür, dass Frauen ALLE Ämter in der römisch-katholischen Kirche bekleiden können.

Some of the demands that are  likely to come out of the synodal process might create frictions with Rome, but the result will most probably not create a break but rather lead both sides to make some concessions, thus actually pushing reforms forward while (temporarily) giving up the most radical demands (e.g., the ordination of women). Bernard concludes that developments in German Catholicism during the coming months may have deep consequences for the future orientation of the entire Catholic Church.

The pressure for reform is coming not only from the church leadership but also from activists on the ground, as seen in the emergence of a new Catholic protest movement among women of German-speaking countries, known as Maria 2.0, that is calling for greater roles for women in the church. The Economist (May 13) reports that the movement started in Münster, a bastion of German Catholicism, and extended to 100 other locations in Germany, with strong support in Austria and Switzerland, mainly through a “strike” where participants stayed away from Mass, held outdoor services, and withdrew from their voluntary work in church institutions. The women in the movement have pushed for (and have been promised) a 30 percent quota for management positions in the church, but they have also aimed higher and are pushing for Maria 2.0 supporters in front of the cathedral of Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, in May 2019 after the ordination of a priest (Andreas Schwarzkopf [CC BY-SA 4.0,]). “ordained ministry” [which could mean ordination into the priesthood or the diaconate, a move that Pope Francis has been considering in recent years]. Although such decisions obviously are made at the Vatican level, the movement reflects the conflicted state of German-speaking Catholicism. The two mainstream German Catholic women organizations have shown considerable support for Maria 2.0.

(La Nef,