“Other criteria determine the vitality of a church”

The debate about celibacy continues. Responsible for the priest shortage – or not? Catholic publicist Andreas Puttmann weighs the arguments on both sides and ventures a look at the Catholic Church 50 years from now.

Interviewer: ZDK President Thomas Sternberg said in a newspaper interview Monday, "If we bleed out in pastoral care, we have to relax celibacy" Would there then suddenly be more priests?

Andreas Puttmann (Political scientist, Catholic publicist): First of all, it has to be said that pastoral care is, after all, not only provided by priests. We have at the moment about 14.000 priests, including 9.000 in active pastoral ministry. But we have just as many pastoral assistants, parish workers and deacons who have grown in number over the last 20 years to such an extent that they have compensated quantitatively for the decline in the number of priests. One could even go further and say that pastoral care also happens in church marriage counseling centers or in church youth work.

There would probably be a little more priests if we abandoned celibacy. But the professional image would also change. It would be a bourgeois profession like others, without this existential renunciation. There would perhaps even be an expectation for marriage. One is that in some congregations, you might also want a pastor's wife, as used to be the case in the Lutheran church, to then help out. In doing so, the Church would again get itself into the divorce problem, because we have not only a problem of priestly vocation, but also a crisis in sacramental marriage.

The priests, who have dedicated their lives entirely to Jesus Christ and the church in celibacy, could feel somewhat fooled after decades in this way of life, if one would so light-footedly bring about a technical solution to solve the problem of the shortage of priests. It is a question in which many different criteria have to be weighed up. Personally, I conclude that the risks and the downsides would be greater than the upsides after all.

Interviewer: This is a discussion that has been going on at least since the end of the Second Vatican Council 50 years ago. Why can't we find a solution?? We abolish celibacy and all is well…
Puttmann: For the Church, celibacy is not a purely socio-technical measure. The Second Vatican Council, to which everyone always refers, speaks of a source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world and a drive of pastoral love. Celibacy is in many ways appropriate to the priesthood and a precious gift of divine grace. We cannot simply ignore this – especially the symbolic character that the priesthood has for a future world in which human love will only find its definitive fulfillment. Cardinal Woelki has rightly spoken of a resistant sign of God's love. It is one thing that celibacy has a high value – also for the universal church, in which one cannot make arbitrarily different regulations.

One should perhaps also consider that, according to surveys by the Allensbach Institute among German Catholics, 44 percent say they have good contact with priests, religious or other active members of the parish community. That's more than the number of those who feel close or medium ties to the Church. That is, the communicative penetration through contacts of principal officials, including priests, with the faithful is still quite large. The number of worshippers has decreased by about 50 percent in the last twenty years, the number of priests by only 25 percent. Priest shortage discussion masks a more fundamental problem. One could say: There have never been so many priests per worshipper. Although priests are responsible not only for these, but for all Catholics and, more sensibly, for other people who do not belong to the church, the laity will simply have to take on more responsibility here.

Interviewer: As a counter-argument, one could argue that there are other churches that do not have celibacy. There is the Protestant Church, the Anglican Church and the Old Catholics, which overlaps with the Catholic Church in almost every respect, except for the women's priesthood and celibacy. It works for them, too, doesn't it?
Puttmann: Yes, but they are by no means spiritually more expansive, vital or successful. In the Protestant church, which has shrunk by about half since 1950, we have about 30 percent of people leaving the church. By the way, there is now a shortage of pastors there as well. The success criteria of a church should not be based on the right to sex and partnership for everyone. Other criteria determine the vitality of a church. The Protestant Church may have a better image, but its share of those who have left in recent decades is much higher than that of the Catholic Church. The example of the other denominations is not necessarily encouraging if one expects a revitalization of parish life.
Interviewer: Let's venture another look into the future. Parish life in 50 years in the Catholic Church, what will it look like??
Puttmann: That's difficult to predict, because Christianity can also gain plausibility again through historical development. But presumably the percentage of Christians in our country, which is currently still just under 60 percent, will decline in the course of two generations to perhaps 20 percent of the population, at best valued as bearers of the occidental tradition and as an elite of humanity – if the Christians themselves do not isolate themselves and succumb to a Wagenburg syndrome. Such tendencies do exist. But if they remain the salt of the earth, then minorities can also achieve a great deal in a secular society. We experienced this after the fall of communism in the GDR, where 25 percent Christians populated the parliaments. We will have large congregations in cities. Sometimes you have to drive 20 to 30 kilometers on Sundays to go to mass. Monasteries will presumably retain their great supraregional charisma as spiritual centers. Locally, there will be house groups and, in the smaller churches, services of the word and concerts. Commissioned laymen will hold funerals, baptisms and weddings. Priests will continue to come from the flourishing churches in other regions of the world church. This will increase the international flair of the church in our country.

The interview was conducted by Renardo Schlegelmilch.

Dr. Andreas Puttmann – Biography

Andreas Puttmann, born 1964 in Dinslaken, studied political science, history and constitutional law at the University of Bonn and at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris. He was a scholarship holder of the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation and the DAAD. In 1993 he was awarded a prize for his work "Civil disobedience and Christian civic loyalty. Confession and State Attitude in the Democracy of the Basic Law" with Wolfgang Bergsdorf. After freelancing at WDR radio (1987-89), he was editor at Rheinischer Merkur from 1989 to 1991. In 1991, he was awarded the Catholic Journalism Prize. He has been a research associate at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation since 1993. There he worked first as a consultant in the journalistic promotion of young academics, and since 1995 as head of the department for the southwestern German universities in the German student promotion as well as in the working group Church and politics and in the works council (1998-2002) of the foundation. Since 2002, he has been in poor health after contracting Lyme disease and has been active only on a limited basis as a freelance publicist and lecturer. He lives in Bonn.

Puttmann is a board member of the "Society of Catholic Publicists" and the "Foundation for the Promotion of Catholic Social Teaching," a member of the board of trustees of the Christian Media Association KEP, and in 2014 he was appointed to the CDU "Future Commission" on social cohesion headed by Armin Laschet.

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