German bishops want to modernise the church. Are they getting too far ahead of Pope Francis?

Among those who believe the Catholic Church must modernise to save itself from perpetual decline, some of the staunchest advocates are church leaders here in Germany.

Some German bishops have spoken in favour of abandoning the celibacy requirement for priests and vaulting women into leadership roles now off-limits.

Some have urged updating the religion’s stern sexual morality, saying the church can’t afford to be out of touch or alienating. Earlier this year, one bishop spoke so understandingly of homosexuality that a 53-year-old priest in a nearby town came out as gay and thanked the bishop for opening the door.

“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 for 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.

“The German bishops continue [to] move toward schism from the universal Church,” Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila said recently on Twitter.

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 reforms 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 systematic sex crimes and coverup 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.

The agenda goes much further than a just-concluded Vatican synod, at which bishops recommended allowing married deacons to become priests in the Amazon region.

“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 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 favour 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 favour reforms.

Only a few German prelates, most notably Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, have been critical of the country’s plans.

“People from the old system saw it was broken,” Hoff said. “To be honest, this might be the last chance to change it.” Continue reading

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