Catholics debate same-sex marriage and the priesthood.

Ahead of a landmark meeting of 230 Catholic leaders and lay people in Germany last week, Renardo Schlegelmilch, editor-in-chief of the country’s largest Catholic radio station, tried to reassure anxious conservatives and dampen the hopes of aspiring reformers in the country. ‘church. Big ideas for debate – same-sex marriage, ordination of women, married priests – had sparked speculation that the German Catholic Church was on the verge of going rogue.

“So will Germany really abolish celibacy and ordain women priests?” No, of course not, ”he wrote on September 17 in the National Catholic Reporter. “And no one who goes through the process thinks that. … Some say that Germany must pave the way for a progressive church – and do it on its own in the worst case. However, for the most part, opinions will not win the majority.

“To be honest, I’m pessimistic here,” he added. “The factions have their strongest opinions. … All they can agree on will be a compromise that will seem calming to everyone involved but will not change anything in the long run.

After the meeting, Schlegelmilch admitted that he may have underestimated how eager his fellow Catholics were to disrupt the status quo. “I wrote that all the fears that there is a schism, that people are trying to fundamentally change the church, didn’t really have any roots in reality,” he said in an interview on Monday. . “But this week we saw that out of the 200 delegates, there were only 25 to 30 who voted against these ideas, ideas like letting the people of the diocese elect the bishop.

The assembly was part of what is called the “Synodal Path,” a bottom-up, multi-year process to examine issues in the church across the country. For three days, participants sat in non-hierarchical alphabetical order to discuss 13 proposed documents. Last week’s forum was one of five to deal with hot topics: power structures, sexual morality, the modern priesthood, and the role of women in the church. The German bishops promised the public that the whole affair would end with a series of “binding” votes.

None of these votes have yet taken place. But so far the tone of the discussion – and the votes to move some proposals to the next step – indicated more openness to radical change than many observers expected. The most surprising moment came when a slim majority voted to discuss, as one critical conservative publication put it, “whether the priesthood is really necessary.”

For many conservative Catholics, the German situation is proof of the danger of Pope Francis’ liberalizing pontificate and the logical end of his reform efforts: a seizure of power by the “radical progressives” who so despise tradition and doctrine that ‘they church the most key elements of his identity. For many progressives, this experimental process – and the wave of similar processes about to start in churches around the world – is their great hope of saving a deeply damaged institution.

In 2018, the Catholic Church in Germany released an explosive report that detailed thousands of cases of abuse and cover-up over the decades. In a country where Catholicism still exerts a profound influence on culture and society, the news hit particularly hard. (The report was one of the worst in Europe at the time; on Tuesday, a major investigation into the French church found that the country’s clergy had sexually assaulted some 330,000 children over the past 70 years.) Critics quickly rallied around the handling of the allegations. in the diocese of Cologne, in particular.

It was this crisis that prompted the German bishops to launch the “Synodal Way”, grasping the official support of the Pope to the concept of Church-wide debate. (Money also comes into play: In Germany, Catholics pay a mandatory tax on the church, which makes the church rich enough to invest resources in structures like these.) According to David Gibson, director of the church. Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University, the German church is acting at an unusually good time for disgruntled Catholics to speak out. “This ‘fortress Catholicism’ promoted by John Paul II brought nothing but scandal and defections,” said Gibson. “So this is a really risky strategy, but one worth adopting.”

Although he made this spirit of open and free discussion a special emphasis of his pontificate, it has long been rumored that Francis privately laments how things are going in Germany. (Francis recently put a damper on some of this speculation: “I wouldn’t be too tragic,” Francois said in a Sept. 1 interview in which he admitted he found the Germans’ style disturbing. “He didn’t. there is no ill will in many bishops I have spoken with. ”) In 2019, Francis wrote a letter to German Catholics congratulating them on their courage but warning them against letting politics take over of the process. “When you allow Catholics to come together and debate things openly, that is not how the Catholic Church likes to run things,” said Gibson, who also said Francis knows and accepts them. risks. “It’s going to be a tough race. When there is such pent-up frustration in the church for so long, there is a danger in allowing those frustrations to express itself.

In March, in a move seen as a warning to the German church that is pushing the boundaries, the Pope decreed that Catholic clergy cannot bless same-sex marriages. Two months later, more than a hundred Catholic churches across the country responded in a coordinated protest by blessing same-sex couples, often in front of cameras. According to Schlegelmilch, American Catholics would probably not understand how out of step German Catholics feel from Rome on this issue. “In every city I’ve been to this year, rainbow flags were flying over churches,” he said. An international outcry ensued; conservative commentators in the United States have said the Germans are already “in schism” with the Church. (The term schism is often presented as a sort of bogeyman, Gibson said, but the historical resonance of Martin Luther and the Reformation gives this warning a real advantage to international observers.)

Impatience towards Francis worsened with his handling of the abuse crisis in Cologne. At the end of September, just days before the start of the assembly, the Vatican announced that it would allow the Archbishop of Cologne, accused of having mismanaged the abuse crisis, to resume his duties after a sabbatical leave. To calm the air before the assembly began, the bishops allotted an hour for the laity to discuss – and express their anger – the decision, even while the Archbishop was in the room.

The Catholic Church in Germany is still in a difficult position. If the “synodal path” is too careful, Catholic homosexuals, victims of abuse and young people crucial to the future of the church will give up hope of finding a place there. If they act too boldly, they risk finding themselves face to face with the Vatican and plunging the world church into yet another crisis.

According to Schlegelmilch, there are three options, none of which will change the church enough to appease the most disillusioned worshipers. One possibility is that the progressives will win the vote, but the Vatican and local conservative bishops will not implement the changes, making it “a lot of time, money, spent for nothing.” Another option is for the Conservatives to win the votes, ending all changes, with a similar result. But he thinks the most likely outcome is that the combined Germans find a compromise that won’t change much. He is waiting to see if it is possible to find, by consensus, reforms dramatic enough to quell some of the worst anger, but not dramatic enough to frighten the Vatican with threats of schism.

Many disenchanted Germans have already armed themselves for a resurgence of the status quo. Recommendations that only address local issues are unlikely to raise eyebrows; those who question the structural rules of the church (married priests) or actual doctrine (same-sex marriages or female priests) should be forwarded as an official request to the Vatican, which might just shut things down. So, unless the Germans want to break up and form their own church (they don’t), they face the limits of working within a monarchical system.

And there is also opposition in Germany. “Some German bishops fear that this will lead the Church to heresy in Germany,” said Thomas Rausch, professor emeritus of Catholic theology at Loyola Marymount University. Conservative critics expressed fears that participants will “abuse” the sexual abuse crisis to push for the most radical proposals possible. And even those who support the reforms balk at the most controversial measures. According to Schlegelmilch, shortly after the vote to discuss the priesthood, the conference president gave a press conference reframing it as an opportunity to “positively recall the reasoning once again why and where the position of the priestly ministry is in the midst of the people of God. “

But many others remain hopeful, in part because church leaders have taken the time to listen to controversial opinions and bold ideas for reform, something few Catholics are used to. The chairman of the conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, concluded the week’s work with a note of optimism. “Texts were debated which are not just texts but dreams put into words about how we want to change the church in Germany: a participatory church, just for the gender and walking on this path with the people of God “, did he declare.

Katharina Westerhorstmann, a theology professor at the Franciscan University of Steubenville who participated in the synod process, seemed to recognize the conflicting thoughts with which many walked away: a feeling that things were spinning a little out of control, but an appreciation for a church trying, really, to do something new. She expressed concern about going too far too fast without proper deliberation, but even then she said she was always ready to be convinced. “In the history of the church there have always been times when we have had to make strong decisions,” she said. “And if the time is right for massive changes, I’ll be open to follow, of course. But I want to be convinced that it is in fact the Lord who is calling us.

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