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Vatican laments ‘weakness’ in German church

NCR Staff

In two recent moves, the Vatican has underscored its displeasure with the German-speaking Catholic church, despite the installation of four new German cardinals at a consistory Feb. 21. Some observers had suggested that the new appointments signaled a softening of Vatican discontent.

In mid-March, German press reported that all nine German cardinals, including the four new ones, were handed copies of a letter from Pope John Paul II during consistory proceedings Feb. 21. The letter lamented the “weakness” of the German church, notably what the Vatican criticizes as its overly liberal approach to doctrine, ecumenism, family issues and collaboration between priests and laity.

It was the only such letter distributed to a national delegation of cardinals at the consistory.

In the second case indicating that Vatican umbrage remains strong, the Vatican ignored wishes of a German-speaking local church in choosing a bishop for the Austrian diocese of Graz. Moderate Bishop Johann Weber, stepping down after a series of confrontations with Rome, had collected names of possible successors in wide consultation across the diocese. The Vatican pick, however, was not on the list.

The moves are the latest in a string of recent battles between Rome and German-speaking Catholics, a block of 32 million believers spread over Germany, Austria and Switzerland. It is considered the most liberal zone in the Catholic world.

A 1996 poll showed that 85 percent of Germans question the doctrine of papal infallibility, and 75 percent consider the Catholic church to be “anti-sex.”

In a characteristic gesture of independence, 49 Catholic priests in the Freiburg archdiocese took out an ad in a national publication in early March, announcing their refusal to swear a loyalty oath. The oath was imposed on pastors by Rome in 1989. (In a typical maneuver, the German bishops had not required the oath for 11 years because there was no official translation from Latin. Finally German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope’s top doctrinal officer, personally supplied one).

The priests decried the 1989 oath as requiring assent to virtually everything the pope says. Moreover, they argued, the Bible forbids swearing oaths.

The Vatican regards the German-speaking church as important for two reasons. A state-collected church tax ensures that the church has abundant financial resources, and Germany’s rich intellectual tradition makes it a theological trendsetter.

In his letter, John Paul warned of “confusion and abuse” in practice of ecumenism, especially the practice of intercommunion. Germany is roughly evenly split between Catholics and Protestants.

Sharing Communion with Protestants is a violation of canon law, but it is an increasingly common practice in Germany, according to many observers. This is especially so in the wake of a 1999 Catholic-Lutheran agreement that declared void mutual excommunications deriving from the era of Martin Luther.

In a few cases, such intercommunion is highly public. At a national Catholic gathering in Hamburg on June 2, 2000, for example, a Catholic priest led a joint communion service along with a Lutheran minister, an Old Catholic priest and a Hussite bishop. The Catholic priest, Fr. Hermann Muenzel, justified his act by saying: “It is Jesus, not the bishop, who invites us to the meal.”

Muenzel later backed down when threatened with suspension, agreeing not to lead joint services again.

Catholics and Protestants in Germany are planning a joint national celebration in Berlin in 2003, and organizers have announced hopes to hold an intercommunion service. The papal letter appears to dampen hopes for that prospect.

On the family, John Paul called for enforcement of the rule barring divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, who have not received an annulment, from receiving the sacraments.

Vatican observers noted that this was the precise issue in a 1993 dispute between Ratzinger and then-Bishop Karl Lehmann of Mainz, with the latter arguing for a more liberal approach. Lehmann became a cardinal Feb. 21, but the letter suggests that his nomination was not universally applauded in the curia.

Meanwhile, Austrian Catholic leaders find themselves grieved with the Vatican over the way Weber’s replacement was selected.

“Rome isn’t hearing the local churches,” Austrian theologian Paul Zulehner told NCR. “This is clearly not the appointment the local church wanted.”

Bishop Egon Kapellari of Klagenfurt, the Vatican’s choice for Graz, is seen as open and conciliatory, but also reflexively loyal to Rome, Zulehner said. He will be a “surprise-free bishop,” he said.

Weber, 74, who was bishop of Graz since 1969, has long been caught up in discontent in the Austrian church. He was at the center of a storm over former Vienna Cardinal Hans Gröer, who resigned in 1995 amid allegations of sexual abuse, but without ever acknowledging wrongdoing. Weber pushed for a public declaration of sympathy for the accusers from the pope, but none was ever forthcoming.

Weber was the chair, and the key episcopal supporter, of 1998’s “Dialogue for Austria,” a national assembly of Catholics that endorsed sweeping reforms. Weber carried the assembly’s proposals to Rome, but met with a frosty curial reception.

Both Weber and fellow Austrian Bishop Alois Kothgasser of Innsbruck until recently employed a system of consultation involving priests, religious communities and laity in order to draw up lists of nominees as potential successors. In April 2000, however, a Vatican letter ordered the two men to stop. The pope must be free to name whomever he wishes without any sort of “pressure,” the letter from the Congregation for Bishops asserted.

As it happened, Kapellari was not on Weber’s list. Weber told Austrian media that he learned of the choice just before it was announced.

Ironically, these Vatican signs of displeasure come in a moment in which the German-speaking church’s approach seems to be paying some ecumenical dividends. Lutheran Bishop Johannes Friedrich of Bavaria recently said he could envision a role for the Catholic pontiff as “spokesperson” for all Christians in a globalized world.

The papacy “does not have to constitute, in the future, an element of separation between Catholics and Protestants,” Friedrich said.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 30, 2001