A a while ago, when a disgruntled Catholic priest in Germany clashed with the pope in Rome, the result was a bloody schism that, five centuries later, still divides Christians. The current rumblings between German Catholics and the Vatican seem less ominous. Yet the thing that bothered Martin Luther the most, the sale of “indulgences” to wash away sins, was arguably no greater outrage than the revelation of priestly sexual abuse that rocked the Catholic Church these last years.
As in the 16th century, anger against the priesthood prompted introspection and calls for reform. These happen to be particularly vocal among German Catholics, who make up about half of the country’s Christians (who in turn make up half of Germany’s population). The demand for changes such as allowing women to be priests, allowing same-sex marriages to be blessed, and revising teachings on sexuality has become so strong that much of the German Catholic clergy now supports them. This includes the majority of the country’s bishops, 62 of whom traveled to Rome in mid-November for a five-year visit to the Holy See.
Given that the number of German faithful is rapidly decreasing – a fifth of members have left the church since 2000 – the bishops’ concern is understandable. Yet their appeals to Rome seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Just before their visit, Pope Francis publicly joked that having a Protestant church in Germany was more than enough. He then snubbed the German delegation, only attending one of two scheduled meetings.
Speaking at the end of their visit, Georg Bätzing, Bishop of Limburg and head of the German Bishops’ Conference, described their talks with Vatican officials as “tough but civil”. He promised that the German Church would not go its own way, but also warned that it “wants and must provide answers to the questions posed by the faithful”. At home, the German church has fired what could be a warning shot, adopting a labor code for its own employees that is more accepting of divorced women and homosexuals, among other groups.
Partly because of tax rules that see the state collecting tithes for Protestant and Catholic churches, the German branches of both are exceptionally wealthy. The 8-9% of their income tax that German Catholics automatically pay to the church brought in about 6.7 billion euros ($7.0 billion) in 2021. That’s more than six times what Italians donate to the church each year, says Carsten Frerk, author of two books on church finances in Germany. A small part of the German church’s wealth goes directly to the Vatican, he said, but much of the money is used to subsidize church activities around the world. Pope Francis will not want to lose that.