“The old times are over,” that bishop, Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, had written to the members of his diocese, saying that his own views were evolving amid the church’s “dramatic loss of credibility and trust.”
But as Germany tests the boundaries of how much Catholicism can bend to the modern age, it is emerging as a center of tension within the divided global church.
Much of the concern originates in the United States, where some traditionalist bishops, along with Catholic conservative media outlets, are opposed to Pope Francis’s advocacy of a more inclusive faith. They say Francis is diluting moral teaching, pushing an anti-capitalist, pro-migrant agenda, and sowing confusion about what the church stands for. And Germany, they say, is a country whose appetite for change threatens to outpace that of the pontiff himself.
Others conservative higher-ups have warned that developments in Germany could coerce changes in global Catholicism that should instead be guided by the Vatican.
But German prelates and other church leaders, in interviews with The Washington Post, said they see a different risk: that their changes won’t go far enough.
These leaders have watched as more than 100,000 Germans leave the Catholic Church every year. They recognize that the sexual abuse crisis has intensified the discontent. A report released last year found sex crimes and coverups going back seven decades in Germany.
With the hope of making the church more relevant to people’s lives, German bishops have finalized plans for a two-year program of meetings that begins in December and aims to reexamine some of the church’s most contentious positions and teachings, including its restrictions on female leaders and its stance on sexuality.
“Do we want to be a closed church or one that embraces life and culture?” the bishop of Osnabrück, Franz-Josef Bode, said in an interview with The Washington Post.
Catholics in Germany have long been known for their liberal leanings. That comes partly from the influence of Protestantism, even centuries after the Reformation. It also comes from newer factors: post-Cold War freedoms, protests from women’s groups, emptying seminaries, the reform demands of large and deep-pocketed lay Catholic organizations.
Gregor Maria Hoff, a theologian who is consulting with the bishops on their meetings and is in favor of significant changes, said that “nine or 10” of Germany’s 69 bishops have become forcefully liberal in recent years. Even a handful of the country’s conservative bishops — schooled in the mode of traditionalist Pope Benedict XVI, Germany’s most famous modern Catholic — have moved to favor reforms. Only a few German prelates, most notably Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, have been critical of those plans.
“People from the old system saw it was broken,” Hoff said. “To be honest, this might be the last chance to change it.”
Even as German Catholicism has lost followers, it has retained an outsize global influence, thanks to a state-backed church tax that allows German groups to spread hundreds of millions in aid across the Catholic world. About 27 percent of Germany’s 83 million people belong to the church.
The German church has been politically ascendant, too, during much of Francis’s papacy. In 2014, the pope called on retired Cardinal Walter Kasper to give a tone-setting address to a major meeting of bishops, one that reopened the debate about Communion for divorced Catholics. More recently, Francis has leaned on Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the archbishop of Munich, one of six people in the pope’s cabinet, who has helped guide Francis on issues from sexual abuse to Vatican financial reform.
But Vatican watchers say Francis is now in the delicate position of deciding whether to rein in bishops whose views he largely subscribes to.
In June, after the German bishops had proposed their idea for the reform meetings, Francis took the unusual step of writing a letter to the country’s Catholics, offering vague support for their efforts but cautioning against trying to resolve problems “alone.”
The letter was open to interpretation, but a subsequent message from the Vatican was clearer. In September, a close papal lieutenant sent a warning that included a Vatican legal assessment of the German plans, which was obtained and published by the Catholic News Agency.
That assessment, from the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, said the themes the Germans planned to discuss also “affect” the universal church and “cannot be the object of the deliberations or decisions of a particular Church without contravening what is expressed by the Holy Father in his letter.”
Marx, nonetheless, has forged ahead, shuttling to Rome for a meeting with Francis that he called “constructive,” without elaborating. Officials involved in the German plans say the Vatican’s concerns are off-base, because any decisions the bishops reach won’t be binding. They say they’ll consult with Rome about the process. And they say they are simply taking their cue from Francis, who has spoken about the need for more decentralized decision-making.
“Nobody who is participating in this process wants a national church,” said Thomas Sternberg, the president of the Central Committee of German Catholics, a massive lay group that is participating with the German bishops in their meetings.
The German synod, as the meeting process is known, is officially designed to take up four topics: the exercise of authority, the priestly way of life, the role of women in the church and sexual morality.
But already, diocese by diocese, bishops are remaking the German religious landscape. Bode, who oversees the largest German diocese, last year placed a woman in charge of managing a parish. A priest still holds Sunday Mass, but only as a “quarter-time job.”
“It went well — accepted by the parish,” said Bode, who added that he would approve if the church allowed married priests.
In another shrinking diocese, Overbeck says he has changed his own views — a “reconsideration” that came from “noticing people moving away from the faith.” Several years ago, during a TV program, the bishop called homosexuality a “sin” that “contradicts nature.” Then, writing in January for a German publication, Overbeck reversed course, saying that the “prejudices of bygone times” had a “fatal effect” and needed to be overcome.
“One thing is for sure,” Overbeck wrote. “Every person can enter into extremely respectful and loving human relationships.”
One of the people who read Overbeck’s article was a priest who had been through four years of therapy and who said he had never felt the courage to come out as gay. Overbeck’s article made him feel as though he had the approval of a church authority figure, the priest, Bernd Mönkebüscher, said in an interview.
“If not now, when?” Mönkebüscher said.
Soon, the priest was on Facebook, writing about the “overdue” green light from a bishop, describing how Catholicism’s own teachings made him feel “masochistic” and even suicidal at points, and disclosing how he’d never told his parents about his sexual orientation, because they were good Catholics, and he thought they’d be ashamed.
“I’m sorry, but I hold the Church responsible,” Mönkebüscher wrote.
In the next months, Mönkebüscher received hundreds of emails and letters, only a few of them critical. He said that the most important thing was that people were debating, at last, where the church should stand.
“If you’re not grappling with these questions, nobody is going to take you seriously,” he said. “And then what is the point of existing?”
William Glucroft in Essen and Luisa Beck in Berlin contributed to this report.