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Reform Movement Widens Even More: German Priests’ Group Makes Statement of Support for Theologians’ Reform Petition

As a continuation of Terry Weldon’s excellent series of postings on the recent petition for reform issued by a significant number of Catholic theologians in Germany, I’d like to offer a summary of an article that appeared several days ago in the Badische Zeitung newspaper.  The article, by Jens Schmitz, notes that a group of priests in the diocese of Freiburg, Germany, are calling for open dialogue in the German Catholic church following the theologians’ reform petition, which they welcome as a valuable initiative.  As the Facebook page of the group Kirche Braucht Veränderung notes yesterday, the endorsement of the theologians’ reform petition by a group of German Catholic priests is yet another sign that the reform movement represented by the reform petition is widening.

Here’s what has taken place, in brief: some 15 priests of the Freiburg diocese, under the leadership of the pastor of the Freiburg Catholic cathedral, Fr. Claudius Stoffel, have called for a public discussion of the current state of the Catholic church in Germany.  In issuing their call for dialogue, they cite the German theologians’ reform petition.

Schmitz notes that by the end of last week, more than 250 German-speaking theologians had signed the call for reform and dialogue about the future of the German Catholic church.  This is part of a wider wave of support, the article also notes–a wave represented by some 17,000 signatures of those in solidarity with the reform petition, gathered from a network of groups endorsing the reform petition.  These 17,000 signatures of solidarity include those of about 123 priests and deacons of the Archdiocese of Freiburg.

In their statement of support for the theologians’ call for reform and dialogue, the group of priests led by Fr. Claudius Stoffel state that the theologians’ reform petition ought not to be viewed as an attack on the church, but as a valuable appeal for public dialogue about the state of the church in Germany.  The Freiburg diocesan priests make this claim knowing that a group opposing the theologians’ petition has also issued a public statement characterizing the call for reform an attack on the church.  This does not deter priests in the diocese of Freiburg from standing in solidarity with those calling for dialogue and reform.

The Freiburg priests’ group also notes that the Archbishop of Freiburg Robert Zollitsch has himself called for public dialogue about the state of the German church at this point in its history.  In issuing their own appeal for dialogue, the Freiburg priests consider themselves to be standing as well with their archbishop.   When the Freiburg priests made their statement public last Thursday, they created a website to publicize their statement, and on the first day following the website’s creation, around 100 clergy of the archdiocese signed a statement of support for the document.  The number of signatories is now 213.

As the priests made their statement public last week, Archbishop Zollitsch also made a public statement through his press representative Georg Auer, noting that the reform petition of the German theologians is clearly a contribution to initiatives for dialogue in the German church sponsored by the German Catholic bishops themselves.  Archbishop Zollitsch also notes that the petition is motivated by concern about the future of the church, and that it has support in both the theological community, but also in the church at large, among lay Catholics concerned about the future of the church.  This underscores the need for public dialogue, and Archbishop Zollitsch is seeking to sponsor formal dialogue opportunities in the diocese beginning in March.  The German bishops hope to receive comments from all sectors of the church prior to their next plenary meeting.

Some concluding remarks of my own, following the preceding summary of Schmitz’s article: as with many other Catholic dioceses in Germany and Austria, the diocese of Freiburg has been very hard-hit by the mass exodus of Catholics officially resigning from the church in the past year.  In March alone last year, over 2,000 Catholics officially resigned from the church in the Freiburg diocese.  As the reform petition of the German theologians notes, it is imperative that anyone with pastoral concern for and pastoral responsibility in the German Catholic church address this situation immediately, if the German Catholic church is to have a viable future.

Freiburg has also been in the news in the past several years because of a challenge issued in that diocese by a professor of canon law, Hartmut Zapp, to the system of tax support for churches in Germany.  That system requires all citizens to register their church affiliation so that a portion of their taxes can be allocated to the church to which they belong, for support of the church.

Under the laws now regulating this system, if one officially resigns from the church, one not only ceases to pay taxes to that particular church, but is also excommunicated from it.  Zapp is challenging the law with an appeal that would permit Catholics to stop having their tax payments made in support of the Catholic church, while they remain official members of the church.

It’s also important to note the widespread support for the theologians’ appeal for dialogue and reform because right-wing American groups, both political and religious, immediately began to attack the German theologians’ reform petition after it was issued, with spurious claims that the theologians who wrote and signed the petition were an insignificant group of nobodies, old hippies, and that they did not include priests and did not have clerical support.  As the widespread support of the petition by priests’ groups illustrates, these bogus claims are quite misplaced, and they overlook the concern being demonstrated by every sector of the Catholic church in Germany to foster dialogue about the future of the church, as Catholics leave the church in droves–and, as the theologians note, before it is too late.

It would be interesting to ask, as the dialogue proceeds, precisely why right-wing political groups in the U.S. that have no ties to the Catholic church and little understanding of Catholic issues have felt it necessary to take a public stand against this intra-ecclesial reform movement in a national Catholic church.  And why some American Catholics who profess to be hyper-Catholic and who frequently characterize other Catholics as unorthodox dissidents seem insistent on taking their talking points from these right-wing political groups with little understanding of or demonstrable concern for the Catholic church and its future.


2 Responses

  1. If there is one clear point, well taken, in the many critical points affirmed in this excellent article by Dr. Lindsey, it is the point that the call for dialogue in the church today on important issues is not a “marginal” or “fringe” movement! Rather it is movement from deep within the church itself, within the priesthood, leadership as well as the laity. It is a “working of the Spirit,” if you will, which is calling forth a church that will live up to the values, virtues and ideals that it preaches. In short, what we see happening in Germany is an inspiration of the Spirit happening precisely within the heart and soul of our church community.

    Thank you, once again, for such clear discussions of these important issues.

  2. Thank you, Steve. And Terry Weldon has done the really important work here, in building and publicizing this important story.

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