It's not just about abuse

It's not just about abuse

Against the backdrop of a downward spiral in public opinion, the Catholic bishops meet in Emsland for their spring plenary session. Much is at stake. In Lingen, there are also discussions about visions for the future of the church.

The chief shepherds are under the impression of the anti-abuse summit in the Vatican, which brought a significant change in the intra-Catholic debate and yet did not give the impression that the church has the problem under control. In addition, there are the recent convictions of the Vatican's ex-finance minister Cardinal George Pell in Australia and of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin in France.

"Systemic" evil

All of this solidified the picture that public opinion in Germany was already forming in September 2018. At that time, a study of church files from the past 70 years was presented, which dealt with thousands of actual and suspected cases of abuse. It has been commented on as a revelation of a widespread and "systemic" evil in the Catholic Church. At the time, the German Bishops' Conference announced that it would adopt the researchers' recommendations.

Since then, the bishops have been dragging along two very different homework assignments. One concerns improvements in combating and prevention, the other is summarized under the catchword "addressing the systemic causes of abuse". The concrete side is unattractive and contains tedious trivia.

Reappraisal and "compensation payments"

These include meetings with those affected, a reappraisal of the cases with external experts, and a new approach to the ie of "compensation payments," whose previous level of generally 5.000 euros is taken as sheer mockery by some of those concerned. But also such unspectacular things as the "improvement of the church's personnel file management in accordance with the standard of state agencies" and a "supra-diocesan monitoring for the areas of prevention and intervention" are part of it.

These tasks, for which the bishop of Trier, Stephan Ackermann, is particularly active, are thankless because they often fall through the cracks in the media's perception. But which, whenever they don't work, lead to major scandals – such as when files disappear precisely because record keeping is sloppy.

"Aspects of Catholic Sexual Morality."

More applause in the media goes to those who address "systemic ies". According to the bishops' conference, these include "challenges specific to the Catholic Church, such as questions about the celibate lifestyle of priests and various aspects of Catholic sexual morality". This has long since become a public demand for the "abolition of compulsory celibacy" and a liberal sexual morality.

Europe's largest tabloid newspaper underscored this last week with a "theses attack" addressed to the pope. Of the 12 theses in the "Bild" newspaper, four were about the Catholic Church finally having to adapt to the Protestant Church – for example, by abolishing celibacy and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith or democratizing the church.

Reformer in the Church

Such an advance by a mass media would have been unthinkable in Germany just a few years ago. The climate of discussion has also changed within the Bishops' Conference. More and more bishops are thinking aloud about changes in celibacy, sexual morality and women's priesthood. Among the driving forces are Osnabruck Bishop Franz-Josef Bode and his Hildesheim neighbor Heiner Wilmer. But the bishops of Magdeburg, Limburg and Essen, and with some reservations those of Berlin, Mainz, Munster and Freiburg, have also positioned themselves as reformers in the turbulent debates of recent months.

Meanwhile, nearly half of Germany's diocesan bishops seem open to debating changes that only a small minority would have considered worthy of discussion just a few years ago. Opposed to them are those who warn against "reinventing the church" and remind us of the mandate to pass on the traditional teachings. They are rallying around Cologne Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki and Regensburg Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer. The undecided middle, on the other hand, seems to be getting smaller.

Cardinal Marx as "moderator"

For the Munich Cardinal Reinhard Marx as conference chairman a new role arises. Until recently, he often played the role of a "motor" trying to push a conference that was not very willing to reform, but now he plays the role of a "moderator" mediating between a boisterous reform wing and a conservative direction. In addition, he must succeed in the feat of finally drawing the public's attention back to other ies as well.

"The future of democracy"

These include a new push for more women in leadership positions in church administration and guidelines for dealing with populists. On this pressing ie, the Catholic Church is seeking to close ranks with the Protestant side. A month after Lingen, a joint paper on the "Future of Democracy" is to be presented by the two not-so-large churches. Without a modicum of moral credibility of his own, however, this will have little effect.

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Christina Cherry
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