Benedict’s woes come as pressure on German church reform mounts

BERLIN – A report on decades of clergy sex abuse in Germany that has shone an unflattering spotlight on retired Pope Benedict XVI has added to already strong pressure for the church to reconsider Catholic rules on issues such as than homosexuality and the role of women, creating a growing sense of impatience.

The latest flare-up in the sex abuse scandal in Germany’s church, one of the world’s wealthiest, comes as a groundbreaking reform process launched in 2019 in response to the abuse crisis begins to call for concrete change.

The “synodal path”, which brings together Catholic bishops and lay representatives, approved at an assembly last week, calls for allowing blessings for same-sex couples, married priests and the ordination of women as deacons. He also called for the church’s employment law to be revised so that gay employees are not at risk of being made redundant.

Many of these reform plans still need formal approval at future assemblies, but they put the German church on a potential collision course with the Vatican, whose approval would in most cases be needed to put them implemented.

Growing pressures for reform coincide with a turbulent year in the German church. First, the furor over the conservative Archbishop of Cologne’s handling of reports of how church officials were handling cases of abuse, leading Pope Francis to grant him “time spiritual death”.

Then, last month, came a long-awaited independent report commissioned by the Archdiocese of Munich into decades of abuse cases there. This blamed their stewardship by a range of past and present church officials, including Benedict, who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger served as archbishop there from 1977 to 1982.

German-born Benedict XVI on Tuesday asked for forgiveness for any “serious misconduct” in his handling of clergy sex abuse cases, but denied any personal or specific wrongdoing.

Reform advocates and victim support groups criticized what they saw as a tone-deaf response that evaded accountability. The head of the German Bishops’ Conference, Limburg Bishop Georg Baetzing, posted a low-key tweet saying Benedict “deserves respect” for responding.

And the Bishop of Essen, Franz-Josef Overbeck, told the Catholic newspaper Neues Ruhrwort that he feared Benedict XVI’s statement would not help victims of abuse overcome what happened to them.

Overbeck said he notes with concern that “those affected by the sexual violence have reached with disappointment and in some cases also outrage at the former Pope’s comments on his time as Archbishop of Munich and Freising” .

The current Archbishop of Munich, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, welcomed Benedict XVI’s response and again stressed that he himself takes the report “very seriously”.

Marx is a leading reformist ally of Francis. One of the main thrusts of his response to the report, in which he himself was blamed, was to insist that the church needs a “really deep renewal” to emerge from the crisis of the abuse.

Last week, Marx made his clearest call yet to relax the celibacy requirement for priests, saying there is a ‘question mark’ over ‘whether this should be considered a prerequisite fundamental for every priest”. Another leading European progressive, Jesuit Cardinal Jean Claude Hollerich, Archbishop of Luxembourg and head of the EU Bishops’ Conferences Commission, has called for changes in the Catholic Church‘s stance on homosexuality and sexual abuse. priestly celibacy.

Meanwhile, the German Bishops’ Conference last month welcomed a move by 125 church workers who publicly came out as gay, saying they wanted to ‘live openly without fear’ in the church and pushing demands for reform.

At its weekend meeting, delegates to the “Synodal Path” strongly supported calls for a “culture change” in church labor law, Baetzing said. They also asked that the faithful have a greater say in the choice of new bishops.

However, it is not known how many of the reforms proposed by the “Synodal Way”, whose next assembly is scheduled for September 8-10, will become reality.

Sessions so far have indicated a clear pro-reform majority, including among German bishops. But the process has been met with fierce resistance within the church, mostly from conservatives opposed to opening any debate on burning issues.

It is being watched closely in Rome, where Francis encouraged such “synodal” deliberations by national churches, but also issued a strong warning not to go beyond established Catholic doctrine.

While progressives applaud calls for changes in church stances on celibacy and homosexuality, conservatives have expressed concern that the German church is headed for schism or a formal break with Rome . And while Francis launched groundbreaking gestures of openness and welcome to gay Catholics, he did not alter the church’s teaching that homosexual acts are “inherently disordered.”

Francis also avoided taking a position on allowing married priests or female deacons.

Phyllis Zagano of Hofstra University, who served on Francis’ first study commission on women deacons, applauded the German vote for them and said the church as a whole needs them. The vote, she said, “comes at a time when the church continues to grapple with its history of abuse and entrenched clericalism, which combine to drive out women and their families.”

But the papal nuncio to Germany, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, offered no encouragement to the synodal assembly in a statement that stressed the importance of the wider global church, German news agency dpa reported. .

He noted that “the pope is, so to speak, the point of reference and the center of unity for more than 1.3 billion Catholics in the world, of whom 22.6 million live in Germany.”

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Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.

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