A some time ago when a disaffected Catholic priest in Germany clashed with the Pope in Rome, the result was a bloody schism that still divides Christians five centuries later. The current spat between German Catholics and the Vatican sounds less ominous. However, what most troubled Martin Luther, the sale of “indulgences” to wash away sins, was perhaps no bigger scandal than the revelations of sexual abuse by priests that have engulfed the Catholic Church in recent years.
As in the 16th century, anger at the priesthood prompted introspection and calls for reform. It happens to be especially noisy among German Catholics, who make up about half of the country’s Christians (who in turn make up half of Germany’s population). Demand for changes such as allowing women to be priests, allowing gay marriages to be blessed and revising teachings on sexuality has grown so much that a large part of the German Catholic clergy now supports them. This includes most of the country’s bishops, 62 of whom traveled to Rome in mid-November for a five-year visit to the Holy See.
Given that the number of German believers is rapidly declining – a fifth of members have left the church since 2000 – the bishops’ concern is understandable. Nevertheless, their pleas seem to have gone unheeded in Rome. Just before their visit, Pope Francis publicly joked that having one Protestant church in Germany was enough. He then snubbed the German delegation by attending only one of the two scheduled meetings.
Speaking at the end of the visit, Georg Betzing, bishop of Limburg and president of the German Bishops’ Conference, described their talks with Vatican officials as “tough but civil”. He promised that the German church would not go its own way, but also warned that it “wants and must give answers to the questions that the faithful ask.” Back home, the German church fired what could have been a warning shot, adopting a labor code for its employees that is more accepting of divorced women and gays, among other groups.
Partly because of the tax rules under which the state collects tithes for both the Protestant and Catholic churches, the German branches of both are unusually wealthy. The 8-9% of their income tax that German Catholics automatically give to the church brought in an estimated €6.7 billion ($7.0 billion) in 2021. This is more than six times what Italians donate to the church each year, according to Carsten Frerk, author of two books on church finances in Germany. Little of the German church’s wealth goes directly to the Vatican, he says, but much of the money is used to subsidize church activities around the world. Pope Francis will not want to lose that.
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