German Bishops’ Conference’s Dance With the Material World

NEWS ANALYSIS: Critics of the German bishops’ conference contend that the entity has become more of a temporal power than a spiritual one.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx is president of the bishops' conference of Germany
Cardinal Reinhard Marx is president of the bishops' conference of Germany (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

BERLIN — When the European Union issued a directive in January mandating the morning-after pill to be available over the counter in all member states, the Polish bishops issued a strong statement calling its use a “grave sin” and the EU directive a violation of Polish criminal law.

By contrast, the Catholic bishops of Germany were largely silent. Asked for their reaction to the directive, Matthias Kopp, spokesman for the German bishops’ conference, told the Register Jan. 26 that the prelates have “serious concerns,” but he didn’t elaborate.

Part of the reticence may be related to the German episcopate’s decision two years ago to allow use of the morning-after pill and other contraception methods for cases of rape, provided that the medication acts as a contraceptive and not an abortifacient (a chemical that induces an abortion). The decision was roundly criticized by pro-life advocates, who argued that it is impossible to guarantee the pill won’t cause an abortion.

Pressed for a bishops’ response on the latest development in the EU and whether the bishops still adhere to this position, Kopp referred to the German bishops’ statement issued two years ago. That statement stresses the woman’s decision “must be respected,” but also underlines the need for more study of the issue in consultation with the Vatican. This position hasn’t changed.

Furthermore, the contrasting statements in relation to the EU’s latest decision on the morning-after pill will merely underline how many perceive the German Church: as complacent due to its enormous wealth, derived from the state Church tax, from which it receives 70% of its income. Revenues in 2013 amounted to approximately $6.71 billion, making it one of the wealthiest entities, faith-based or otherwise, in the world.

It’s likely to become wealthier still, now that a new capital-gains tax levy has been introduced on Church members. News of the introduction, first given by the media and not the Church, has reportedly made Catholics and Protestants leave the pews in droves: 178,000 Catholics left in 2013, up 60,000 from the previous year, while more than 200,000 Protestants left that year — a rate not seen since the 1990s.

Some observers allege that its wealth and ties to the German state have excessively influenced the German Catholic Church, citing the fact that the bishops have made non-payment of Church taxes an excommunicable offense, while at the same time ignoring Catholics whose public actions and statements depart from Church teaching.

In a Dec. 29 article on the German Church in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, veteran journalist Markus Günther said the Church in Germany today is comparable to the former communist East Germany “in its later days.” It looks stable, he wrote, “but it stands on the verge of collapse.”

As they did in the dying days of the East German regime, many officials “are fooling themselves,” Günther added. “Pastors and bishops, as well as many active parishioners, see blooming landscapes where there is nothing but desert. Love, as they say, is blind. And where existential threats are concerned, a calculated optimism often clouds a sober view of reality.”

But despite appearances, the future looks bleak for the German Church, which is losing members from all sides.

As the second-largest employer in Germany, the Church offers more than 1 million people secure jobs, Günther explained, but it “has finally arrived at a level of legitimization equaled only by the local garbage dump.” Only a Church that is “a community of faith, and not merely an employer or a pillar of the social system, can be taken seriously,” he wrote.

So how does such a wealthy Church square with Pope Francis’ call for a “poor Church for the poor”?

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the archbishop of Munich, has come under attack for reportedly spending 130 million euros on a “service center” in his archdiocese. He recently renovated his apartment at a cost of 8 million euros, paid for by the state of Bavaria.

Furthermore, the German archbishop reportedly has an income of 11,500 euros per month, lives rent free, and his cars include a luxury 730i BMW. Meanwhile, the archdiocese says it has a guesthouse in Rome worth 9.7 million euros but denies it is a luxury and insists it was paid for by diocesan assets and not tax revenues.

Asked by the Register about this perceived excess spending in the context of Francis’ vision of a “poor Church,” archdiocesan spokesman Berhard Kellner underlined the “subsidiarity principle,” which is the “backbone of our social architecture in Germany” — in other words, taxes raised centrally can be spent locally as required. He then quoted Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga in an interview Jan 31 interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, who was asked to define the term “poor Church” in a European context. Cardinal Rodriguez answered: “Everything depends on how wealth is defined. The history of Europe means that the Church has many properties, even takes [a] church tax. I am convinced that the Catholic Church in Germany is not only one of the richest in the world, but probably also the most generous. Many churches help the poorest of the poor, but none of them on a par with the German Church.”

Regarding the diocesan service center, Kellner said the money for the building was spent by the archdiocese, not Cardinal Marx. The center was required to provide “efficient and timely” administration for clergy and laity working in parishes, schools, nursing homes and hospitals. But stressed above all in the documentation for the service center was the number of jobs it would provide: 400 in addition to the 8,000 already employed by the archdiocese.

Concerning the cardinal’s salary, Kellner did not dispute the figure, but said that, like that of other Catholic and Protestant church leaders, it is paid by the state of Bavaria. He added that this is in line with the Bavarian Concordat with the Holy See, which guarantees Palais Holnstein as Cardinal Marx’s official residence and serves as the official seat of the archbishop of Munich and Freising. “Palais Holnstein above all is an office building,” Kellner stressed. “The cardinal lives in a three-room flat (90 square meters) in the rear part of the building.”

The Rome guesthouse, meanwhile, was not only purchased at a cost of 9.7 million euro, but the archdiocese is also spending another 4.3 million euros renovating it, according to a diocesan factsheet. The guesthouse is to serve as a “meeting house” to strengthen the “community of believers” from different cultures and “promote mutual understanding of every life.” The building will be a “place of international exchange” and act as a “point of contact with the Holy See.” It will also be used to increase collaboration with the Pontifical Gregorian University as a center for global prevention against sexual violence.

Despite the high cost of the property, it will offer just 17 guestrooms, two suites, a chapel, dining room and living room for use of the archdiocese, as well as small pilgrimages and other visiting groups, and act as a base for the archdiocese in exercising its “diverse and global interdiocesan ecclesiastical duties.”

Then, curiously, there is a large and newly renovated palazzo in an area of prime real estate close to the Vatican, which is listed in the telephone directory as belonging to the German bishops’ conference. Its buzzer also bears the same label. Kopp said the conference owns no property in Rome and that the building is rented by a congregation of German sisters, but he did not say why it is identified as an office of the German bishops.

Responding to how all this expense is justified, Kopp explained that the Church in Germany “is working for the poor all over the world” and pointed to news that 27 German dioceses offered 73 million euros for refugees who have sought asylum in Germany.

But material costs aside, criticisms persist that the German hierarchy is adapting the Church’s doctrine to suit the secular world. The Register has learned from a senior source in the German Church that the country’s bishops are “very determined” to change the Church’s labor law to allow employment of divorced-and-remarried Catholics and those in same-sex relationships. Cardinal Marx said in January that the bishops’ position is clear on this and that they “want an opening.”

The bishops, the majority of whom wish to allow some remarried divorcees to receive holy Communion, are expected to pass the reform in a vote in April.

Cardinal Marx has said he wants the divorce-and-remarriage issue, important to the October synod on the family, debated among the faithful. German Church observers believe this is merely a token gesture, as the bishops have openly made up their minds on this issue. Kopp told the Register this is “not true” and that the bishops are “discussing the subject.” The Permanent Council of the German Bishops’ Conference published the discussion in December 2014, he said.

But it’s not only those Catholics inside the Church pressing for looser Church teaching. Those outside pushing a dissenting agenda feel emboldened. On the papal plane from the Philippines, the Pope fielded two questions on contraception. Both of the reporters were German. It’s believed the journalists asked these questions because they assumed the Pope would give more confusing answers, sources say. Although the Pope’s responses were in line with Church teaching, the German media interpreted them in an anti-family way, the German Church source said.

Some fear the German Church will exert more political influence over the universal Church, especially at the upcoming synod. Cardinal Marx has considerable influence as president of the German bishops’ conference, a member of the C9 group of cardinals on Curial reform and as head of the commission of bishops’ conferences at the European Commission (COMECE) in Brussels.

Just ahead of the October synod, in September this year, all of Germany’s bishops are to meet the Pope on their ad limina visit to Rome.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.

Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, shown speaking to the media on the opening day of a congress of the Synodal Way, Feb. 3, in Frankfurt, Germany, had his resignation accepted by Pope Francis March 25.

A Fore-Bode-ing Sign for the Synodal Way?

ANALYSIS: Pope Francis’ acceptance of the resignation of Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, a major proponent of the Synodal Way in Germany, is widely seen as a blow to the controversial process. But was this a ‘strategic element’ of the Vatican’s decision?