German Catholics challenge Vatican with sweeping reform drive

Germany's Catholic Church has ended a landmark renewal project by agreeing a slew of reforms including blessing same-sex marriages and allowing female deacons, at the risk of angering the Vatican.

Aachen Cathedral in Aachen, Germany.
Aachen Cathedral in Aachen, Germany. Germany's Catholic Church has voted on several reforms, including on blessing same-sex marriages and allowing female deacons. Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash

Bishops, priests, nuns and lay representatives of the Church gathered in Frankfurt from March 9-11 for the last assembly of Germany’s “Synodal Path”, a process launched in 2019 in response to the clerical sex abuse scandal.

Some 200 delegates voted on 15 separate issues, among the most high-profile of which was the overwhelming agreement to ordain women into the diaconate.

Deacons can assist priests during Mass, perform baptisms and bless marriages.

The final decision on whether to allow female deacons remains with Pope Francis.

The delegates in Frankfurt did not go so far as to vote in favour of female priests, a far more contentious issue.

The “Synodal Path” participants also backed offering blessings for same-sex couples, in defiance of the Vatican which considers homosexuality a sin.

Crucially, the measure was supported by a majority of German bishops, who have the authority to perform the ceremonies in their diocese without Vatican approval.

The result was welcomed by the head of the German Bishops’ Conference Georg Baetzing as a “very good” outcome.

Blessings for same-sex relationships are already offered in Germany by some Catholic priests, but the public show of support is likely to encourage more such ceremonies.

‘Can’t stay the same’

The German reform drive, which has included controversial discussions about priestly celibacy and changing the decision-making structure in Church, has sparked deep tensions with Rome and even triggered fears of a schism.

Baetzing played down those concerns in Frankfurt.

“The Synodal Path neither leads to a division nor is it the beginning of a national Church,” he told delegates.

Baetzing hopes the German proposals will be incorporated in Pope Francis’s global synod, which will see a discussion about Church reforms in October.

Germany’s Catholic Church remains the country’s largest religion, counting 21.6 million members in 2021.

But it has lost around three million members over the last decade and struggled to recruit new priests, spurring calls for modernisation and renewal.

Much of the exodus came in the wake of revelations of child sex abuse by clergy, mirroring similar scandals around the world.

A study commissioned by the German Bishops’ Conference and released in 2018 showed that 1,670 clergymen had committed some type of sexual attack against 3,677 minors, mostly boys, between 1946 and 2014.

However, the authors said the actual number of victims was almost certainly much higher.

The president of the lay-run Central Council of German Catholics, Irme Stetter-Karp, said she had “wished for more” change after the Frankfurt assembly.

“The Church cannot remain as it is,” said Stetter-Karp, also the co-president of the “Synodal Path”.

She praised the decision on female deacons, as well as a proposal to ask Pope Francis to re-examine priestly celibacy.

But she regretted that no progress had been made on overhauling the power structure within Germany’s Catholic Church, given a lack of the required support from bishops.

“Anyone who takes the abuse scandal seriously, must work on structural changes,” she said.


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Record number of Catholics leave German Church

More than half a million people in Germany left the Catholic Church last year, the country's bishops' conference said Wednesday, topping a record set in 2021 amid rampant sexual abuse scandals.

Record number of Catholics leave German Church

In a development described by a Catholic members’ group as a “serious crisis”, 522,821 people turned their backs on the Church in 2022, with the strife-racked Cologne diocese — Germany’s largest — the hardest hit.

It was the largest number to walk away from the Church in a single year, topping the previous high of 359,338 set in 2021.

By the end of 2022, 24.8 percent of the EU’s largest nation was registered as Catholic, with some 20.9 million members.

Irme Stetter-Karp, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics, called the figures “sad if not very surprising”.

Noting that the Church had squandered a lot of “trust” with rampant molestation of children by priests, she said the Church would have to work hard to return the faithful to the flock.

The Church “is not being decisive enough in implementing visions for a future of being Christian”, Stetter-Karp criticised in a statement.

“People leaving the Church is a sign of a serious crisis and a push for change.”

READ ALSO: ‘Historic break’: Church-goers now a minority in Germany

Georg Bätzing, head of the German Bishops’ Conference, said the Church was on a path of reform and urged members “not to be discouraged”.

The Protestant Church in Germany counted some 19.1 million members at the end of 2022, with some 380,000 people leaving last year.

Germany’s Catholic Church has been rocked by a long series of allegations of predatory priests abusing children and youths in their congregations. 

READ ALSO: German Catholics challenge Vatican with sweeping reform drive

A study commissioned by the German Bishops’ Conference in 2018 concluded that 1,670 clergymen had committed some form of sexual attack against 3,677 minors between 1946 and 2014.

The real number of victims is thought to be much higher.

On Tuesday, German investigators staged raids in the archdiocese of Cologne in a perjury probe against its Cardinal Rainer Maria Wölki linked to media coverage of the Church’s sex abuse scandals.