German Bishops to Unveil 'Hidden Bombshell'

Father Hans Langendörfer SJ, secretary of Germany's bishops' conference, is said to be spearheading changes to the Church's labor laws.
Father Hans Langendörfer SJ, secretary of Germany's bishops' conference, is said to be spearheading changes to the Church's labor laws. (photo:

In the latest in a series of attempts by German bishops to align Church teaching with secular values, a sub-committee of the German episcopal conference is planning to amend Church labor law to allow Church employees who are homosexual or divorced and civilly remarried to work in ecclesiastical institutions.

Until now, those employed in the German Church – the second largest employer in the country – are required to adhere to lifestyles consistent with Church teaching.

But on Nov. 24th, a majority of bishops are expected to vote to introduce changes to Church rules to allow such employees to continue working in administrative positions or as heads of departments, or to employ them in the future. The move has been devised in secret and will have important ramifications if enacted, Church observers say.

Given that many homosexuals and divorced and civilly remarried Catholics are already working for the Church, and that the German Church is such a vast operation, proponents argue that these employees must be retained if the Church is continue functioning and offering the services people need.

But opponents dismiss this, saying the proposed changes are part of a highly skilled, secretive and finely tuned plan, devised by some members within the German bishops’ conference to circumvent Church teaching.

A key factor is the notorious Church tax in Germany which has led to complacency. Many dissenting bishops say “it’s simply enough to pay the tax,” said a German Church source. “They feel there’s no need to scrutinize people’s private lives.”

Opponents also dismiss the argument about requiring manpower for services: 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, they say. 

The pastoral consequences of changing the Church’s rules on this issue would be significant. Those living in what the Church has always viewed as sinful relationships would henceforth have those lifestyles implicitly affirmed. Furthermore, it would be difficult to say to someone they must confess such sins when their colleagues, who might even be in positions of authority in the Church, are known to be living sinful private lives.  

“It would send the message that we don’t really care about the background of new employees and how they live, so we can essentially employ everyone,” said an opponent of the new law.  

The proposed changes, allegedly being spearheaded by Jesuit Father Hans Langendörfer, Secretary of the German Bishops’ Conference, have been considered in secret for a relatively long time, possibly the past 18 months, according to sources. “It’s like a hidden bombshell”, one informed source close to the German Church says.

The language they will also use will be purposefully nebulous, presenting formulations that are “like jelly, not very concrete and therefore open to interpretations.” This could be used, opponents fear, to dismiss those employees who are upholding Church teaching and being “too Catholic” on the grounds that they are the ones causing scandal by creating a “negative atmosphere.” 

Sources say the proposed law is expected to achieve the requisite two thirds majority. Only a few bishops are likely to try to obstruct it.

Ironically, in contrast to German bishops pushing for change, Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court ruled this week that a Catholic hospital in Düsseldorf had the right to dismiss a senior doctor who was divorced and remarried.

The judges overturned a prior judgment of the Federal Labor Court which 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.

German bishops have publicly welcomed the constitutional court’s ruling, but played it down and are expected to spin their new law as “more merciful”. The court ruling has shown, however, the country's judges to be arguably more Catholic (even though some are not Catholic) than many of the country’s bishops.

The timing of the ruling is also interesting as many of the bishops hoped the court would have given the ruling after they had met and decided on the new changes to the Church’s labor law.

The motives behind the court’s decision are said to be a willingness among Germany’s judiciary to uphold religious freedom in the face of Islamist threats and riots in Germany involving supporters of the Islamic State militant group. Realizing the Islamist threat is increasing, they have reportedly opted for a way that strengthens the Church and religious freedom. The ruling also follows a similar decision taken in June this year by the European Court of Human Rights to uphold Church autonomy.

If the German Church goes ahead with its proposed adaptation to labor law, it will be just the latest in a series of efforts on the part of the German Church to accommodate the Church’s teaching to secularist trends.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the country’s episcopal conference, told reporters during the synod on the family last month that a strong majority of German bishops supported Cardinal Walter Kasper’s proposal to allow some divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion.  

“They’re trying to change doctrine through these subtle means,” a source in the German Church said. “It’s therefore important these efforts are exposed as this year, ahead of the next synod, will be decisive.”

This general attitude of many of Germany’s bishops also runs contrary to what Benedict XVI said during his famous “Entweltlichung” speech when visiting his homeland in 2011. In that address to ecclesiastical and civic leaders in Freiburg im Breisgau, he said the Church “must constantly renew the effort to detach herself from her tendency towards worldliness and once again to become open towards God.”

The Church’s charitable activity “needs to be constantly exposed to the demands of due detachment from worldliness, if it is not to wither away at the roots in the face of increasing erosion of its ecclesial character,” he added.

“History has shown that, when the Church becomes less worldly, her missionary witness shines more brightly,” he said.