The crisis as a turning point

After the abuse scandal, the debate about the future of the Catholic Church in Germany is gaining momentum. At the start of the autumn plenary assembly of the bishops in Fulda, the conference chairman Robert Zollitsch gave a speech to his confreres marked by radical episcopal self-criticism.

Not only that the Archbishop of Freiburg again admitted mistakes of the church in dealing with the abuse scandal, a little fraternal internal communication and a great loss of trust to the outside world. According to his analysis, the crisis goes deeper. "People say about the Church – and often mean us bishops specifically – that we act too much as knowers and teachers and too little as learners," the Freiburg archbishop concluded. "It is said that our own lifeworld is too far removed from the lifeworld of the people."

According to the archbishop, the crisis of credibility has also been caused by "a serious narrowing of our understanding of human beings. We too often forget the weakness and need for redemption of mankind. We allow ourselves to be guided all too much by an unrealistic optimism."The church must focus more on a "theology of failure". And Zollitsch, referring to the abuse scandal, asks, "Have we not stylized the image of ourselves and of priests in such a way as to overlook the human abyss that consecrated persons inevitably face as well?"

It is also clear to the archbishop that the abuse scandal has flushed up a number of ies that have long been virulent among the people of the church: "For example, probing doubts about one or another of the church's teachings – for example, in the area of human sexuality." Many also massively questioned the celibacy of priests or Catholic positions in ecumenism. Bishops would have to decide how to deal with these ies, even uncomfortable ones.

Open doors for offensive
Zollitsch's proposal: he pleads for a "broad process of reflection" by bishops, priests and laity in the Federal Republic. "Why should we not invite many to participate in this reflection with truthfulness, courage and prudence – namely the priests, deacons, religious and the laity who are often experts. The Council expressly instructed the laity to contribute their expertise for the good of the church." How this discussion process should look concretely, the archbishop still left open. It is also open whether the time is already ripe for such a process and whether the chairman will receive the approval of his confreres for his proposals. The so-called steering group, formed by the comparatively young bishops Reinhard Marx (Munich), Franz-Josef Overbeck (Essen) and Franz-Josef Bode (Osnabruck), plays a central role in the process.

Bode has already initiated a dialogue process at the diocesan level. A meeting of 60 representatives of the diocese leadership, the priests' council as well as various committees and professional groups met last week under the motto "Trust – Church – Future". Ways to restore lost trust in the church were discussed, said Bode, who is also chairman of the pastoral commission of the bishops' conference. For example, it should be examined how women can be more involved in church leadership functions. On questions of sexuality, the bishop pleaded for a "fear-free" dialogue. People would be taken seriously with their different life plans, but at the same time the church would also have to better communicate its value orientation.

The bishops, who are willing to engage in dialogue, should find an open door with their offensive at the Central Committee of German Catholics. Its president, Alois Gluck, has long called for a joint forum to discuss the future of the church in Germany. The church has to think about how it can serve the people of today. All structures, offices and tasks would have to be aligned with this goal.

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Christina Cherry
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