Disillusioned German Catholics The Pope's Difficult Visit to His Homeland

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Part 3: 'A Poisoning of the Atmosphere Within the Church'


The spiritual leaders ought to be guiding their congregations and exercising Christian brotherly love, but in reality they are often preoccupied with themselves and their ideological disputes. Conservative groups and subgroups, sects and sectarians are shaping the debate, complains one of the bishops. Even the secretary of the German Bishops' Conference, Jesuit priest Hans Langendörfer, likens the current situation to a "poisoning of the atmosphere within the Church."

Through the bishops, Benedict's conservative reversal now encompasses large segments of German Catholicism. The traditionalists, who have strong networks, are working across Germany to promote a renunciation of liberal society, more piety and uncritical submission to the Roman hierarchy.

The number of backward-looking groups is in the hundreds, and many of them have now joined forces. The Forum of German Catholics, for example, sees itself as a conservative antithesis to the Central Committee of German Catholics, a liberal organization of lay people.

Handing Out Plastic Embryos

Just how influential these groups have become was evident at a meeting in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe a week ago. About 1,000 traditionalists had come together to mobilize for the upcoming papal visit, in a campaign dubbed "Germany for the Pope."

The attendees included Andreas Laun, an auxiliary bishop from the Austrian city of Salzburg who has garnered praise for his ideas about what he calls the "homosexualization of society." Werner Münch, the former governor of the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, raged against the "de-Christianization of politics."

Even the ultraconservative Legionaires of Christ, who see themselves as a spiritual militia, had come to Karlsruhe to bring Germans back to the right path of faith. Their friends with the SSPX campaigned for the Latin mass, in which priests stand with their backs to the congregation as they mumble the Lord's Prayer. Representatives of the Catholic Scouts of Europe tried to drum up enthusiasm for folk dancing among young people, calling it "Your Alternative to Disco." Abortion opponents worked their way through the crowd, handing out small plastic embryos, reflecting the strategy of forum organizer Hubert Gindert.

Gindert recently called upon all Catholics in Germany to remove their children from religion classes if their teachers were sympathetic to reform-oriented theologians. He also said that parents should take their children out of sex education classes, which he characterized as nothing but the "manipulative and innocence-destroying sexual education of children by the government."

Pressure from the Conservatives

A look at the board of trustees of the Forum of German Catholics reveals that these are not insignificant breakaway groups. The board includes confidants of the pope, like retired Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes, as well as Cardinal Meisner and German bishops like Heinz Josef Algermissen from the central city of Fulda. "We are in the midst of a culture war," Algermissen told his supporters at an earlier meeting of the Forum. The Church, he said, must defend itself against the "mistakes of the present day."

Even Robert Zollitsch, the archbishop of the southwestern city of Freiburg and chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, gave his blessing to the Forum at an opening service in Karlsruhe. Although Zollitsch is not one of the conservatives, he can no longer ignore their call. "Those who know me know that I want to build bridges," says Zollitsch.

In reality, conservatives and traditionalists are exerting influence on the bishops' conference. When Zollitsch recently expressed sympathy for the problems of remarried Catholics like President Wulff in the newspaper Die Zeit, and then suggested that a solution to the problem might be in the works, supporters of the opposing camp promptly attacked him. "The circus horse is applauded when it does the right pirouettes," author Alexander Kissler, popular among traditional Catholics, wrote spitefully.

Return of the SSPX

In the past, archconservative church groups were left to their own devices, forming a closed circle that was either ignored or ridiculed by the base.

That has now changed, partly because of the signals coming from Benedict. The protagonists of this movement are beginning to stir up congregations throughout Germany and shape them as they see fit.

Take, for example, the long excommunicated bishops of the SSPX, who were ostracized in the Church until Ratzinger became pope. "We have done our homework," a leading member of the society says today. The group's leadership admonished Holocaust denier Richard Williamson, while three other priests were forced to leave the SSPX because of anti-Semitic remarks they had made.

"There is now absolutely no reason for Rome to keep our society out of the Church," says Bishop Bernard Fellay, the head of the society. As a sign of recognition from the top, his priests, after two years of negotiations, were even permitted to celebrate a Latin mass at St. Peter's Basilica a few weeks ago. "Because of us, conservative Catholicism has gained strength and unity," raves a representative of the society, which rejects ecumenism and seeks to lead the faithful back into a pious religious world that predates the Second Vatican Council.

If the pope, as is being discussed in Rome, recognizes the society as a world diocese in the near future, some of the 500 SSPX priests worldwide could soon arrive in Germany to compete with local ministers with their retro masses. Parish priests who incorporate lay people in their services and permit discussions about the Church already hold little standing in conservative circles, where they are sometimes berated as "leftist Council priests."

Rise of Opus Dei

Opus Dei, whose name means "Work of God," is a conservative lay organization whose members, depending on their status, are encouraged to practice self-chastisement, as well as daily communion and frequent prayer. It has also entered the mainstream of the Church.

There is hardly a German bishop who does not regard the organization, founded in Spain, with favor. The new Berlin archbishop, Rainer Woelki, obtained his doctorate at Opus Dei's Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome. His patron and former boss, Cardinal Meisner, holds masses in Cologne for the Opus Dei founder. Even the pope revealed his sympathy for the organization at the beginning of his papacy. The only parish he visited during the 2005 World Youth Day was the St. Pantaleon Opus Dei congregation in Cologne.

Prelate Christoph Bockamp has been the German head of the organization since 1996. SPIEGEL met with him in the fireplace lounge at Campus Muengersdorf in Cologne, a dormitory for female students run by a foundation affiliated with Opus Dei.

It is a rare event, because Bockamp and his group normally keep as great a distance from the public as possible. As an adolescent, says Bockamp with a slight smile, he associated Opus Dei with clandestine organizations and the Mafia. Which of course was nonsense, he adds.

Active in Many Dioceses

Like the leader of SSPX, Bockamp also emphasizes his group's complete unity with the pope and the Roman Catholic Church. "We are having trouble opening enough new centers worldwide," he says, as evidence of how important the work of Opus Dei is to the Church these days.

At the beginning of the month, Opus Dei members sued the state of Brandenburg in eastern Germany over the right to open a boys' high school in Potsdam outside Berlin. Opus Dei is now active in many German dioceses, and Bockamp says that he is in contact with all German bishops. "We meet at receptions, or I request meetings to tell them about what we are up to in their diocese."

In the past, Catholic grassroots groups in Germany were also known for sympathizing with the peace and environmental movement, and Church youth groups enthusiastically traveled to Taizé in France to celebrate ecumenical Christianity with young believers of various denominations. It was taken for granted that girls could be altar servers. On Sundays, lay people helped distribute the host to the congregation and structure services.

Much of this world is still in existence today. Many parishes are diverse places, because priests and the members of their congregations become involved without paying much attention to conservative crusades.

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Foxglove1 09/21/2011
1. The Pope's Difficult Trip to Germany
What the Pope is trying to prevent is the morphing of the Catholic Church in Germany away from its traditional doctrinal bearings into something like a German Episcopal Church. That Church in the USA has transformed itself into a parody of the Unitarian Church which denies the divinity of Jesus Christ, regards the Bible as a fairy tale, and has little religious unperpinning beyond the solization of coffee-drinking gatherings after services. The ECUSA has lost 10s of thousands of members and is increasingly regarded as a joke by serious Christians of all demoninations.
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