Disillusioned German Catholics The Pope's Difficult Visit to His Homeland
Part 4: Rise of the Neocatechumenate Movement
But a shift is underway, especially among young Catholics. At the World Youth Day in Cologne in 2005, more than 100,000 visitors were members of an organization called the Neocatechumenal Way, or NC Way. "And there were already 250,000 at the meeting in Madrid a few weeks ago," says Gianpaolo Carpanese of NC Way. "Our path is inspired by God," he adds. NC Way is a fast-growing neoconservative movement that is relatively unknown outside the Church. But with its roughly 100 groups in Germany, it already maintains a presence in most major cities.
The term neocatechumenate means "preparation for baptism." Neocatechumens are especially devout believers who hope to become true Christians through a rediscovery of baptism. To achieve this, they must pass through various stages lasting several decades, not unlike born-again Christians in the United States.
Gertrud Brück, 62, experienced how "Neocats" can change a congregation. Unable to imagine a life without the Catholic Church, Brück was involved in the parish office of the St. Marien parish in Cologne's Nippes neighborhood, was a member of the board of the church women's group, organized floral arrangements in the church and did readings during Sunday mass.
'I Was a Bad Person'
One day, her pastor returned from a priests' council meeting where he had become enthusiastic about the Neocatechumens. He urged Brück to join "the Way," and told her: "Whoever doesn't join is merely religious and not Catholic."
Brück followed his advice at first. "The pattern was always the same in many meetings," she says. "You stood up front and said: I was a bad person, and it was only through the Neocatechumenate that I was led to the path of improvement." When she had questions, they were quickly dismissed.
The Cologne native, feeling as if she had come upon a sect within her own church, distanced herself from the movement. "There is no evidence of liberal faith within the Neocatechumenate," says Brück.
"No matter where the Neocatechumens turn up, they divide congregations and drive away other believers," says Johannes Krautkrämer, an assistant vicar in the southern section of Cologne. After voicing his concerns over the pious supporters of baptism in a letter to Cardinal Meisner, he was no longer offered positions as an independent vicar. The church leader is apparently not about to accept criticism of the conservative movement. Despite fierce arguments in the priests' council in his archdiocese, Meisner approved a seminar run by the Neocatechumenal Way in Bonn.
The deterioration of the climate among the faithful is also evident in the aggressive criticism with which Christians, ranging from the conservative to the reactionary, pounce on almost anyone who does not wholeheartedly support the orthodox camp.
Jesuit priest Mertes, who exposed sexual abuse at Berlin's Canisius College high school, speaks of "shadow Catholics" who vilify their opponents with denunciations and vile attacks. "Parts of the hierarchy knuckle under to these loudmouths, because they're afraid of being berated themselves," he told SPIEGEL in a recent interview.
Perhaps the most active mouthpiece of this movement is the website kreuz.net, where generally anonymous authors berate their respective enemies on a daily basis. In their world, Mertes is a "decadent German Jesuit" and "abuse propagandist" whose only goal is to harm the holy church.
The gay theologian David Berger, a member of the orthodox Catholic scene himself for years, has been called a "professional faggot," among other insults, after having published a tell-all book about conservative Catholicism. His home address soon appeared on kreuz.net. Berger considered stopping his critical remarks about the church, but then he decided against the idea. "Then the gay-baiters would have achieved what they wanted," he says. SPIEGEL is also regularly assailed as a "Kirchenkampf magazine" -- a reference to the struggle between the Nazi regime and the Catholic Church -- which supposedly agitates against true Christians "in the style of Goebbels."
Are reformist Catholics fighting a lost cause? Have their conservative opponents already won the battle for control of the faith they supposedly share?
Subjected to Hate Mail
Monika Grütters is a member of the German Bundestag for the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). On a morning two weeks before the pope's visit, she is sitting in her office, talking about how difficult it is to be a devout Catholic.
Every year, in the first week of January, she and about 50 other national politicians attend a retreat at the Maria Laach monastery in the Eifel Mountains of western Germany. On Sundays, Grütters attends mass at St. Ludwig's church in Berlin's Wilmersdorf neighborhood. "Four open-minded, humorous, down-to-earth Franciscans have created a meeting place for spiritual Berlin there," she says. The five services held at the church each weekend are always full, and when a minister recently spoke of "reforms that are urgently needed" in the Catholic Church in his sermon, he received spontaneous, vigorous applause from the congregation.
Grütters rummages angrily through a stack of letters and printed emails. "Here!" she says. She has been showered with a stream of insults, merely because she told the Berlin daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel that she hoped that rumors about Berlin Archbishop Woelki's ties to Opus Dei were untrue. "It would be devastating," she told the newspaper.
In one of the letters, she is berated as a "zeitgeist dominatrix." Devout Catholics write that they will do their best to ensure that she no longer appears on the list for a Bundestag mandate at the next election. Others have written directly to the CDU's leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, demanding that the party leadership bring exclusion proceedings against Grütters unless she resigns her seat immediately.
"In such a large organization as the Catholic Church, the diversity of opinions can and should be equally large," says the Catholic politician. "But the large number of open-minded, future-oriented Catholics and reform-oriented lay people cannot allow themselves to be intimidated by the energetic presence of the conservatives and traditionalists, their level of organization and the ruthlessness of some."
Jesuit priest Mertes, with whom Grütters is in contact, finds it "tragic that such circles within the Church have been promoted by the hierarchy in recent years, thereby attaining a high institutional legitimacy." Mertes believes that it is high time that the issue be discussed with the bishops and other hierarchies.
Many pastors in Cologne have been trying to do this for years. In early September, five of them met in an apartment in the Ehrenfeld neighborhood. They spent hours discussing their disappointments, the dark power of the clergy, the tone of orders within their diocese and the many taboo subjects. They also talked about the fear that pervades the atmosphere in their church.
Pastor Michael Jung from Meckenheim, on the edge of the Eifel Mountains, was one of the five pastors. In a letter to Cardinal Meisner, he had politely asked for more transparency and dialogue in connection with the upcoming consolidation of parishes. It was apparently a mistake, given that transparency and dialogue are not welcome concepts in the Cologne archdiocese. Only a week after sending the letter, Jung was asked to resign from his position as pastor -- at 41. "There is a growing fear among employees and priests of being shot down," says Jung.
Even trivial matters are sometimes exaggerated in the conservative religious community. Did the priest read the archbishop's pastoral letter out loud, or did he merely offer his interpretation of it? Does he wear sweaters and jeans, or does he consistently wear a priest's collar? In German rectories, and not just in the Cologne archdiocese, self-proclaimed "faith police" use even such minor external details to monitor the purity of doctrine.
Is this today's Catholic Church?
In the summer of 2010, Munich author Peter Seewald conducted several days' worth of interviews with Benedict, which he turned into a book. "The crisis within the Church is one thing, and the crisis within society is another. The two things are not unconnected," Seewald writes in the preface.
He discusses the illusory worlds of the financial markets, a modern age that is losing its standards, an environmental catastrophe, a fast-paced life that makes people sick, and the universe of the Internet, in which there are still no answers.
These are important issues and debates to which the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics could contribute. But Pope Benedict's opinion on these subjects is hardly even noticed, because he is too caught up with his battered official church and its purification.
For the book, the pontiff and his interviewer spent hours discussing God and the world at the papal summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, in the summer of 2010. In the end, what made headlines was a slight shift in Benedict's emphasis on the use of condoms. He conceded that perhaps condoms could, after all, be used in rare, strictly defined, exceptional cases. It was yet another sign of the deep divide between the pope and secular society.
'Our Troubles Will Continue'
The disenchanted Catholics are nearing the end of their discussion in the apartment in Cologne's Ehrenfeld neighborhood. They have spent four hours airing their frustrations. None of them expects the pope's visit to yield any new impetus for change.
"For a few days, Benedict's visit will hide the true condition of the Church," says one man. "After that, our troubles will continue."'
REPORTED BY FRANK HORNIG, ANNA LOLL, ULRICH SCHWARZ AND PETER WENSIERSKI
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: The Pope's Difficult Visit to His Homeland
- Part 2: From Liberal to Conservative
- Part 3: 'A Poisoning of the Atmosphere Within the Church'
- Part 4: Rise of the Neocatechumenate Movement