BONN, Germany — With potentially far-reaching consequences, the bishops of Germany have voted by more than a two-thirds majority to relax Church labor laws to allow civilly remarried employees or those living in same-sex unions to retain their jobs with Church institutions.

In an announcement Tuesday, the German bishops’ conference in Bonn said the majority of bishops had ruled that immediate dismissal will only be a “last resort” for employees who are divorced and subsequently “remarry” or those living in a registered partnership.

Until now, such employees were required to be dismissed from such employment, although the rules were often ignored. The Church is the second-largest employer in Germany.

“An automatic dismissal may now in future be ruled as out of the question,” said Alois Glück, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics, the country’s top lay Catholic organization. From now on, he said, any public violation of loyalty to Church teachings must be examined on a case-by-case basis.

The amendment, when enacted by a bishop, explicitly overturns a 2002 ecclesiastical law, which stipulated that all Church employees need to be loyal to the magisterium. Glück said the change “represents a substantial paradigm shift in the application of ecclesiastical law,” adding that the new regulation will “open the way” for decisions to be made in accordance with “human justice.”

The lack of unanimity among bishops means the new regulation is left to Germany’s 27 bishops to implement the reform in their dioceses. But in practice, it could be unlikely that any bishop will be able to resist the new measures. According to the official statement, the bishops’ conference is setting up “an additional working group” to examine the question of whether the Church’s labor law can be “more institutionally oriented” in a bid to make it a nationwide and uniform labor structure. The bishops’ conference has also instructed dioceses to publicize the changes in their diocesan newsletters. This is required to formally enact the law.

“I expect and hope this will happen everywhere,” Cardinal Rainer Woelki, the archbishop of Cologne, said in a May 6 interview with Katholisch.de. The cardinal, who headed the committee that drew up the new law, said the first objective of the amendment is to ensure “compliance with lived practice,” but denied the amendment in any way undermines the principle of the indissolubility of marriage.

Caritas Germany, which employs 591,000 staff, welcomed the change. President Peter Neher said Church institutions need a “broader understanding of the concept of loyalty” and that ecclesiastical labor law should reflect how the Catholic Church “stands alongside” those who live broken lives.

 

Unilateral Action

The law reform is viewed as affirmation of recent remarks made by the president of the German bishops’ conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who said the German episcopate is “not just a subsidiary of Rome” and that it “cannot wait” until the upcoming synod on the family in October.

Some Church observers see the change as representing a kind of “gradualism” whereby the magisterium must continue to be upheld among those employed as “proclaimers of the Gospel” — that is, priests, deacons and pastoral workers — but not for others. The critics argue that it is instilling a kind of schizophrenia in the Church whereby an openly active homosexual Catholic can be employed in a Church institution but a pastoral assistant or catechist must “stick to the rules.” They also point out that faithful Catholics will now be supporting active homosexual employees and public adulterers through the Church tax.

For this reason, according to the critics, the move represents a striking break with fundamental Church teachings.

“What they are pushing is not Catholic anymore,” said one source close to the German hierarchy. “This is an arbitrary law that is against divine law, the natural law and ecclesiastical law. It’s Protestant what they are doing, and they must think we’re idiots not to realize this.”

The reform has been considered for years, the German bishops said. The episcopal conference had planned to vote on the new law last November but postponed it after a federal court ruled in favor of current Church labor law regarding dismissal of a divorced-and-civilly-remarried employee.

Following the announcement Tuesday, the bishops’ conference organized a campaign throughout the German Catholic media in support of the decision, drawing on members of Catholic institutions favorable to the decision.

And Jesuit Father Hans Langendörfer, secretary of the bishops’ conference and one of the key figures behind the new law, wrote a letter to all bishops instructing them on the change, stressing that the law should be implemented by Aug. 1.

The date is notable, as it is well before the October synod and just ahead of the German bishops’ ad limina visit to the Vatican in September. The visit fulfills the Church requirement that all bishops must report to the Vatican every five years on the status of their dioceses. With characteristic German efficiency, observers say, the bishops’ conference is working on presenting the change as a fait accompli in time for the synod.

 

Cardinal Woelki

The leading figure behind the labor reform is Cardinal Woelki, who has not only headed the commission on changing the labor law but also heads the bishops’ committee for overseeing Caritas Germany.

In 2012, when he was archbishop of Berlin, the cardinal caused controversy by saying that if two homosexuals “take responsibility for each other, if they take care of each other permanently and faithfully, this must be viewed in a similar manner as with heterosexual relationships.” During last year’s synod, a move to see positive aspects of such unions was roundly rejected by synod fathers. This latest development will therefore be viewed in some quarters as a victory for the homosexual-rights proponents.

The news of the change to labor law comes after the disclosure of a pre-synod questionnaire, which revealed that only 54% of priests there go to confession even once a year; only 58% of priests pray daily; 60% percent of parishioners don’t believe in life after death; and 66% don’t believe in Christ’s resurrection.

It also showed that German bishops hope that civil second marriages will be blessed in church, that holy Communion will be given to non-Catholic spouses and that “positive aspects” of homosexual relationships and same-sex unions will be recognized.

Whether the labor amendment really is in line with canon law and doctrine and, if it is not, how Rome will react has yet to be determined.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.