Influential German Bishops’ Official Discusses State of His Country’s Church

Jesuit Father Hans Langendörfer speaks to the Register about the Church tax, the German bishops’ controversial guidelines on Amoris Laetitia, and the general secularization of the German Church.

Father Hans Langendörfer, general secretary of the German bishops' conference.
Father Hans Langendörfer, general secretary of the German bishops' conference. (photo: YouTube)

In German Church circles, Jesuit Father Hans Langendörfer, general secretary of the German bishops’ conference, is said to be a highly influential figure in the country’s episcopate, directing many, if not all, of its most important decisions.

One of the most controversial of these in recent years has been the reform of the German Church’s labor laws which passed in 2015, allowing Church employees living in a homosexual relationship or divorced and civilly remarried to work in ecclesiastical institutions.

In this interview with the Register on the sidelines of a press conference in Rome Feb. 6, Father Langendörfer responded to criticisms of that reform, as well as concerns expressed about guidelines the bishops issued last week on Amoris Laetitia in which the bishops allowed some civilly remarried divorcees to receive Holy Communion on a case by case basis. He also addressed criticisms made against the Church tax, often labeled unjust, and accusations that the German Church’s wealth, mostly deriving from tax revenues, has led to its own internal corruption, secularization, and the need for what Benedict XVI termed Entweltlichung (to be rid of worldly influence).


Father Langendörfer, there’s concern about different interpretations of Amoris Laetitia around the world, especially regarding the issue of Holy Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried. Confraternities representing thousands of priests have said they want clarification. Are you concerned that the German bishops’ interpretation is at odds with the concerns of these priests and bishops?

As a matter of fact, the reflection and work of the German bishops was very intensive and we are very much convinced, at the end of our reflection and work, that it is not only in line with the Pope but that the principle of discernment that is used there should be acceptable in the Church for everyone. There are priests and bishops who deny acceptance, that is clear, but we tried to single out a position which we believe they can bear, and this is what we came to in the end.

Are you concerned that, by treating each case on an individual basis, there will be exceptions to the rule, and that those exceptions will become the rule? In other words, it’s a slippery slope to allowing all remarried divorcees to receive Holy Communion.

No, I mean as long as we talk about serious cases, serious people who really ask themselves: “Should I, or should I rather not, go to Communion?”. As long as you talk about these people, everything will be OK. Certainly, in many, many countries of this world, there will be Catholics who don’t ask any more. They simply go [to Communion] and this is not what we have in mind.

So could your guidelines perhaps make matters even stricter than before?

In a sense yes, because you have to ask yourself, you have to have scrutiny on yourself in a sense, discernment, which is the view of the Pope. Discernment is a very demanding process and this is what we have written into this.

There’s been much criticism over the years that the German Church has too much money, that it’s become too secular, that it needs “Entweltlichung” as Benedict XVI said. Is there anything being done to deal with this, to shore up the faith and make it more robust in the German Church?

Yes indeed. First of all evangelization as a concept, a strategy, is something we’re talking about intensively now in the bishops’ conference. [Cardinal Reinhard] Marx proposed that we re-evaluate many, many activities in the light of: is there really Christ at stake, the faith at stake, or not? And if you come to our country you would meet these many, many people volunteering in many areas: accompaniment, counseling, there is a new wave of interest in spiritual exercises, there are many people doing wonderful service in liturgy to assist there. I think it’s not fair to say they’re rich and that they don’t believe, they are not spiritual.

You’ve implemented changes such as a new labor law to allow divorced and remarried Catholics, homosexuals living in relationships, to be employed by the Church. People say this is just a further secularizing of the Church in Germany, that you seem to be heading in the opposite direction in these actions undertaken by the bishops. What do you say to this?

We really have to differentiate there. We have an obligation of loyalty which we demand from the people and we must in a sense, of course, keep the standards of labor law in Germany. We have certain privileges. We can ask more of the people but we have to have certain standards.

Aren’t these compromises?

Well of course.

But compromises on the Truth?

Well in which sense would it be? [We’re] talking about some 600,000 employees in the Church, and it’s not necessary, we think, to demand, to expect, the same behavior of a nurse in a Catholic hospital and a lay man or woman who serves in a parish. So the closer you are to proper pastoral work, the more you would be expected to have more of a personal witness, but one can always say the German system is bad.

A problem one often hears related to the German Church is the Church tax. Some have compared it to the Islamic jizya, the annual tax put on non-Muslims, in that to be Catholic, you have to pay the tax or leave the Church and risk excommunication. They also say this tax is corrupting the German Church, also because it’s making the Church so rich it’s weakening its ability to evangelize.

It’s one third of Catholics who pay the Church tax. The other two-thirds are not involved because they are too young, or too old, they don’t earn enough money.

But it’s still a lot of money.

It’s 5 billion euros every year, and we regard this, as you very well know, as a membership fee which is linked in our system to tax standards and it’s mandatory.

And you’re at risk of excommunication if you don’t pay it?

Yes. We regard this [non payment], as it always was, as a public withdrawal of Church attendance. No country at all can determine if someone is really a member of the Catholic Church unless they’re baptized, OK? You never get rid of the grace of your baptism, and this is very important for every human being. But you can refrain from being an active Catholic and you do so if you publicly declare you do not want to be a member of the Church.

By not paying the tax?

By going to the office which you have to go to, and declaring that you don’t want to be a member of the Catholic Church any longer. We need this, of course, because there is religious liberty, and one must have the freedom not to be a member of the Church. As long as [there] is public documentation of religious membership, you need also to have the opportunity to say you are not a religious man or woman, not a Christian.

But supposing you are a practicing Catholic but don’t want to pay the Church tax because you see the damage it is doing. What do you say to someone like that?

That is not up to the individual.

But isn’t that religious freedom too, to be able to say “I wish to donate to the Church as I see fit"?

Yes, [but] it’s a different system. You can [do this] in Switzerland, ask [Swiss] Cardinal [Kurt] Koch, where you are a member of the Catholic Church and don't pay money because the collection is separate from the Church. It’s in the hands not of the Church but of a civil institution, but this is not true in Germany. If you look back to the Nazi time, for example, people who left the Church wanted to separate themselves in a very formal way and the conviction of the German Church, or the bishops’ conference, is that in this country a Catholic has to accept these rules of the German Church, which are not the French ones, not the Spanish ones. If you want to exclude yourself, you exclude yourself from a proper Church membership.

There’s sometimes talk that the German Church, because it is so wealthy, has a lot of influence on the Vatican in terms of pushing your interpretation, for example, on the issue of Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried, and changes to other Church teaching. What do you think of this — that influence is being exerted because of the wealth of the German church?

Not at all. Do you really think the German Church is very influential here in Rome because of the money? It isn’t. I could go into more details but I don’t want to.