Trust instead of bans

Trust instead of bans

Pope Francis © Paul Haring (KNA)

Abuse scandal, loss of trust, dwindling membership – the Catholic Church in Germany has reacted and prescribed itself a reform debate. Now the pope intervenes, writes a long letter. How to proceed now?

After Pope Francis' mail, the church in Germany shifts up a gear – and intensifies its search for a future course. The reactions to the letter from Rome came promptly and from many directions. Most bishops and committed Catholics apparently feel encouraged to continue on the path of reform initiated in March. But there are also other interpretations.

Of course, this is not a "standard letter". The text published on the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul is the first comparable papal letter to the church in Germany in decades. A good 20 years ago, John Paul II. ordered the withdrawal of Catholic agencies from statutory pregnancy counseling – against the declared will of most German bishops.

Trust instead of prohibitions

The current letter with the papal signature does not read like a power word. Francis thanks Catholics in Germany at length for their generosity and responsibility, he writes very personally, emphasizes common ground – pointedly put: Trust instead of prohibitions. At the same time, the pope does set guidelines on the 28 pages. Thus it urges unity with the universal church. And finds as Pontifex ("bridge builder") in the same breath uplifting words for own tasks of the particular churches with their own problems.

Even though Pope Francis has not yet visited Germany, he describes the ecclesiastical situation in this country accurately and knowledgeably. Without blinkers, he takes a look at the decline of faith even in traditionally Catholic areas, and even speaks of a "turning point in time". However, he does not comment directly here on specific ies and hot potatoes, such as the louder calls for women to be ordained.

The occasion for the rather surprising letter is the "binding synodal path" that the German bishops decided on in the spring in the wake of the abuse scandal. With the collaboration of the Central Committee of Catholics and external experts, they want to discuss topics such as power, sexual morality and the way of life of priests. These and similar ies are strongly contested between more conservative Catholics and reform-oriented forces such as the Maria 2 initiative.0. The church in Germany seems to be in a quandary.

Also taken as a reminder

Even now all groups feel confirmed. Many bishops and lay representatives have spoken out in response – sometimes in emphatic unity, which fits well with a "synodal path. Here's what Cardinal Reinhard Marx and Thomas Sternberg had to say together. The chairman of the Bishops' Conference and the president of the ZdK speak of words of orientation and see themselves invited to "continue the initiated process in this sense".

Cologne Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki stresses that the pope is not sugarcoating anything and is pointing to the primacy of evangelization. Archbishop Ludwig Schick of Bamberg and other bishops express similar sentiments. Church must be missionary.

In addition to all the praise and encouragement, the letter from Rome is also seen as a warning to the Church in this country, for example in the diocese of Regensburg. "Surely, after this letter of the Pope, there can be no 'more of the same', neither in content nor in form," demands Vicar General Michael Fuchs with regard to the synodal path. The letter actually urges a "complete restart of such a process".

Pope speaks not only to bishops

Pope Francis himself does not address his thoughts to the bishops, but – and this is unusual enough: "To the pilgrim people of God in Germany". A sign to the strengthened role of the so-called laity. In controversy over reforms, church leader tries to build bridges and broaden view. He does not mention the abuse scandal, concrete disputes are not addressed and thought prohibitions are not pronounced.

Francis describes the broad lines: Not pandering to the zeitgeist, polls and media should determine the process, he stresses to reformers. But neither is an attempt to return to old habits from other times effective, he says, addressing conservatives. Central, she said, is a common "path under the guidance of the Holy Spirit".

What this means for the "synodal way" in Germany? Francis acknowledges that the concept is still unclear and certainly needs to be considered more deeply. Did not put up a stop sign – feared by some and hoped for by others. The journey continues.

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Christina Cherry
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