VATICAN CITY — Despite a postponed vote last month, a German prelate has said he is confident the country’s bishops will change Church rules to allow employment of remarried divorcees and men and women living in same-sex relationships, despite growing opposition to the move.

Archbishop Stephan Burger of Freiburg im Breisgau said the German bishops’ conference “will revise” the ecclesiastical labor laws (Kirchliches Arbeitsrecht), according to a Dec. 9 interview with the German news website Morgenweb. He said the changes will be made in the interests of maintaining the Church’s “credibility” in the eyes of the general public.

According to Church sources in Germany who ask to remain anonymous, the bishops were to vote unanimously in favor of change on Nov. 24, but they decided to postpone the decision until April, after a federal court ruling supported the Church’s current laws that forbid employing staff whose lifestyles run contrary to Church teaching.  

Until now, those seeking employment in the German Church — the second-largest employer in the country — are required to adhere to lifestyles consistent with Church teaching.

But a majority of bishops, led by the president of the conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, are in favor of giving the green light for such employees to continue to work in dioceses or Church-owned-and-run institutions or to employ them in the future. Cardinal Marx said Nov. 24 that such employees already are not “automatically dismissed” on account of their lifestyles.

Until last month’s vote, the proposal had been devised without publicity for nearly two years under the leadership of Jesuit Father Hans Langendörfer, secretary of the German bishops’ conference. If enacted, those living in what the Church has always taught as sinful relationships would henceforth have those lifestyles implicitly affirmed.

Furthermore, those opposed to the reform fear it would make it difficult to offer pastoral care and recommend confession when colleagues, who might even be in positions of authority in the Church, are known to be living sinful private lives.  

 

Reasons for Reform

The Register asked officials at the German bishops’ conference if they would like to share their reasons for proposing such reform and whether they are aware of the concerns surrounding the proposal. Matthias Kopp, the German bishops’ head of communications, declined to answer specific questions Dec. 7, saying that, “until now, there has been no decision on it.”

He added, “Therefore, I ask your understanding that there is no answer to your questions until a decision of the renewal has been made.”

However, Kopp noted in a Register interview the role played by a Nov. 20 federal-court ruling, which decided that a Catholic hospital in Düsseldorf had the right to dismiss a senior doctor who was divorced and civilly remarried. The judges overturned a prior judgment of the Federal Labor Court that had declared the dismissal of the doctor invalid. The constitutional court ruled that the labor court had not “sufficiently taken into account” the meaning and scope of the Church’s autonomy.

In view of this case, Kopp said, “The bishops decided to study this decision of the Bundesverfassungsgericht [Federal Constitutional Court] and to look for a solution by the end of April 2015.”

Ironically, the court ruling has shown the country’s judges to be arguably more Catholic (even though some are non-Catholics) than many of the country’s bishops. For their part, the bishops actually played down the ruling and, as some observers predicted, offered that their proposed new law was “more merciful.”

The Register has learned that members of the bishops’ conference arranged for an article Unter Handlungsdruck (“Under Pressure to Act”), backing the reform proposal, to be published in Katholisch.de, a publication with close links to the conference, and a tactic often used, according to informed sources. The Nov. 26 article includes comments from an elderly nun, Sister Maria Basina Kloos, who heads a Church support institution called Marienhaus Gesundheits und Sozialholding. The 74-year-old sister said she backs the reform proposal on the grounds that “we are becoming a more multicultural and pluralistic society.”

 

Widespread Divorce

The article also advocates change on the grounds that divorce and remarriage is so widespread in Germany (citing that, in 2012, there were around 179,100 divorces). It further argues that the Church’s credibility is at stake, as it is “often perceived as ruthless.” And even though Church law can never be in contradiction with divine law — Catholic hospitals, for instance, can never allow abortion or euthanasia — it goes so far as to suggest that Church labor law does not touch on questions of the universal Church or dogma and that German Church labor law is unique.

Such an approach is consistent with a general move within the Church in Germany to push for decentralization, thereby weakening the authority of Rome and some bishops and strengthening the autonomy of episcopal conferences. Observers say it also highlights what many, including doctrinal prefect Cardinal Gerhard Müller, see as a dangerous push to separate doctrine from pastoral practice. 

And yet this German model is increasingly being heard in Rome. Cardinal Marx is a member of the "Group of Nine" cardinals advising the Pope on Curial reform and Church governance. Jesuit Father Bernd Hagenkord, director of the German section of Vatican Radio, said in comments last week that Cardinal Marx’s experience of handling funds and labor will “certainly” be listened to by the Pope. 

 

Church Tax

Critics of the reform say a key factor is the notorious Church tax in Germany that has ended up promoting complacency and a willingness to compromise with the state to maintain revenue at a time when many congregations are dwindling. Many dissenting bishops say “it’s simply enough to pay the tax,” said a German Church source who asked to remain anonymous. “They feel there’s no need to scrutinize people’s private lives.”

The country’s Church tax has made the Church in Germany the wealthiest in the world, with revenues in 2013 amounting to approximately $6.71 billion.

Proponents of the change in local Church law argue that there’s a need for manpower to maintain the enormous number of services it provides in Germany. But opponents reject this, saying that, with a Catholic population of 23 million, it is surely not so difficult to find suitable employees who could adhere to Church teaching on these matters.  

During his visit to his homeland in 2011, Pope Benedict XVI warned the German faithful of the dangers of a Church that becomes “self-satisfied” and “settles down in this world,” becoming “self-sufficient” and adapting herself “to the standards of the world.” Instead, he said, she must detach herself from worldliness to allow her “missionary witness” to shine “more brightly”; otherwise, she faces having her roots withered away. 

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.