Anyone following the news over the past few months could be forgiven for thinking that German Catholicism is uniformly liberal. Fifty years after the Second Vatican Council, it appears that the Rhine may once again be flowing into the Tiber, to paraphrase Fr Ralph Wiltgen’s historic account of that council, in the lead-up to this year’s critical family synod.
But a closer look at the actual situation of the Church in Germany not only reveals clues as to why German clergy, theologians and others are wielding such enormous influence in Rome ahead of the synod. It also shows that the Rhine’s waters are far from the fast-running liberal current that they appear to many outside observers.
In fact, the Church in Germany, though fed by several different streams and sources, to a large extent is dissipating into its secular environs. The vast majority of the 24 million German Catholics in 2015 are neither practising their faith nor sufficiently aware of its teachings.
Church attendance hovers around the 12 per cent mark. More alarming still, a recent study showed that almost half of all priests neither pray daily nor go to Confession. To be sure, other Western countries are registering similar numbers and trends. What is different in German-speaking Europe, however, are three important factors that need to be reckoned with in preparation for the synod.
First, while the Faith may continue to dissipate and membership decline, the Catholic community in Germany – in no small part due to the Church tax – is materially very rich and socially rather powerful, as well as politically influential.
The Church is the country’s second-largest employer, running everything from childcare centres to schools, retirement homes, libraries and hospitals. Catholic clergy belong to important public institutions such as the National Ethics Committee. The contribution of German Catholic relief organisations to the world, meanwhile, is rightfully legendary.
The financial contribution to the Universal Church, particularly in Rome, is also highly significant. The second thing to bear in mind is that Germany’s relationship with Catholicism is, to an important degree, one of deep suspicion.The country’s identity is marked by distrust of the papacy and the Church’s claims to any type of authority, even a moral one. Modern Germany is built on a heritage that is, at best, uneasy with Catholicism.
This sentiment dates back to the days of the “Holy Roman Empire” and was reinforced by the Reformation, the subsequent horrors of the Thirty Years War, the Napoleonic invasions, Prussia’s rabid Kulturkampf, the Nazi terror and the Second World War. In fact, Germany as a nation and culture is to a large extent defined by its centuries of tension with Rome.
These tensions range from open conflict to more subtle, but also more common anti-Catholic stereotypes and misrepresentations. They draw on decades of anti-Church propaganda, from the earnest Luther to the savvy Bismarck right down to the incomparably nastier Goebbels.
In its current secular form, anti-Catholic propaganda portrays orthodox Catholics as suspect and requiring state surveillance, since they are “ultraconservative” (ie Right-wing, which is a modern German taboo). They are presented as a potential threat to open society in general and democracy in particular.
The third thing to remember is that, at the risk of overgeneralising, the German national character emphasises earnest debate and rational thought at the expense of moderation, temperance and other virtues. As one visiting priest from Africa said: “German Catholics no longer know how to pray the Ave Maria. But they know very well what their bishop is doing wrong.”
Sharing critical opinions with others is considered a good thing in German culture and is not regarded as being scandalous or constituting gossip. While this attitude has its advantages, it makes Germans – including German theologians and cardinals – come across as rather forthright and even abrupt.
This is even the case with shy introverts such as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that Catholicism in Germany runs in three currents that intermingle but remain distinct.
At the centre, but beneath the surface, runs the slow and cool, if not lukewarm, current of the disaffected majority. Above it, and fed by it, is the liberal stream, drawing on the shallow but plentiful waters of the Church tax. Along the banks, finally, are the marginal but strong currents of practising, orthodox Catholics.
This last current may sometimes run parallel or even counter to the official structures and institutions. But from it are drawn influential bishops commonly labelled as “conservative”, such as the young Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau and Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It is worth bearing this in mind the next time you hear someone speaking as if there were nothing more to the German Church than liberalism.
Anian Christoph Wimmer is a German-Australian broadcaster, writer and journalist. He is editor-in-chief of the weekly Munich newspaper Münchner Kirchenzeitung
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (17/7/15). Take up our special subscription offer – 12 issues currently available for just £12!
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