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German bishops to obey papal behest -- later

NCR Staff

Catholics in Germany demonstrated in late January, protesting against a Vatican decree asking German bishops to stop issuing certificates to women in problem pregnancies.

Meanwhile, German bishops called an emergency meeting at a monastery in Bavaria, where, after two days in closed debate, they decided to comply with the pope’s request, but not immediately.

Under German law, the certificates, indicating that a woman has sought counseling, are required before she can get an abortion. Pope John Paul II issued an “urgent request” Jan. 27 to German bishops to stop issuing the certificates, arguing that the certificates have the effect of giving women permission to abort.

The pope, in a five-page letter, urged the bishops to take steps to ensure that “the church’s freedom is not constrained and ecclesial institutions made co-responsible in the killing of innocent children.”

During the first trimester of pregnancy, abortions are legal in Germany -- a country highly sensitive since the Holocaust to any form of discrimination.

“We will meet the pope’s request,” Bishop Karl Lehman, president of the German Bishops’ Conference said after the closed meeting. But first, the bishops plan to establish a commission to study the issue. Their goal is to comply by the beginning of next year.

“You can’t change a system overnight,” Lehman said.

The papal order was a conundrum for bishops, who fear that they will be shut out of the counseling process altogether if they refuse to issue certificates. If removed from the process, which is partially supported with state funds, the church would lose that chance to dissuade women from having abortions, they argued. The pope gave no deadline for meeting his demand.

According to news sources, Catholic Charities operates 264 of some 1,700 counseling centers that issue the certificates under the law, which is less than three years old. Those who support Catholic bishops’ participation note that the certificates state only that the woman has received counseling. While the certificates allow her to get an abortion under the law, they do not require her to do so.

Other counseling centers in Germany are operated by other churches, the Red Cross and the state.