Saturday, April 16, 2011

Record Number of German Catholics Leave in 2010: The Costly Moral Backdrop to the Beatification of John Paul II

The response to my posting earlier today about the Catholic church in Belgium has sparked ongoing discussion of why people are now leaving the Catholic church in many places, and what it means to remain connected to it at this point in history.  And this reminds me to update readers on the situation in Germany: 

A study undertaken recently by the German Catholic weekly Christ und Welt finds that in 2010, over 180,000 German Catholics officially resigned from the Catholic church.  This represents an increase of 40% over the official resignations in 2009, and is being attributed to the revelations of abuse and its cover-up in the German Catholic church in the past year.  As readers of this blog will know, those revelations involved even news that the current pope, when Joseph Ratzinger was archbishop of Munich, had reassigned to active ministry a priest who had been found to have abused minors.

In an article by Christa Pongratz-Lippitt in the latest issue of the British Catholic paper The Tablet, which appears to be behind a firewall, but a copy of which Jim McCrea has kindly emailed me, it's noted that in some parts of heavily Catholic Bavaria, the increase in resignations from the church was 70% over the figures of 2009.  Pongratz-Lippitt states, "Several Catholics in senior positions in Germany have expressed their concern that the exodus had now reached 'the inner core of German Catholicism' and that many committed Catholics were leaving."  This observation is echoed, she notes, by sociology professor Michael Ebertz of the Catholic University of Freiburg, who says that many of those now leaving the Catholic church in Germany are "seriously concerned" about the church: in other words, they are among the most committed of German Catholics, who have stuck with the church through thick and thin up to now.

To underscore his point, Ebertz notes that many of these Catholics are now joining the Lutheran church.  They do not, in other words, want to be unchurched.  The Catholic church has simply become not viable for them as an ecclesial communion any longer.  It has become in key respects a countersign to the gospel it proclaims, and it is precisely their desire to live lives faithful to the gospel that propels them from the church at this point in its history. 

This echoes the observation of Cathleen Kaveny about which I blogged back in October that she hears of increasing numbers of American Catholics leaving the Catholic church as a matter of conscience.  They are concerned about what their remaining in the church means by way of complicity with evil that they see as systemic and as not being addressed effectively, honestly, or willingly by the current pastoral leaders of the Catholic church.

As Ebertz notes, when the behavior of the pastoral leaders of a church results in these levels of disaffection, we're speaking about more than a loss of credibility: we're speaking of a crisis affecting a church's "entire status in society."  Pongratz-Lippitt also quotes the Dominican vicar general of Cologne, Fr. Dominik Schwaderlapp,who tells Christ und Welt that the current mass exodus of German Catholics represents a "protest and deep disgust at the sex abuse scandals."

My intuition is that it represents more, however.  It represents the increasing inability of many of us who are Catholic to continue to support or even be associated with a church whose leaders (and often, whose key spokespersons, à la Bill Donohue) so grossly contradict the mandates of the gospel the church proclaims, that we don't know where to go except outside the walls of the church, in order to find that gospel meaningful in our own lives.  This is what I mean when I say that the church is becoming a countersign to the gospel it proclaims, for many of us, at this historical moment.

As the petition for reform sent by a significant proportion of Catholic theologians teaching in Catholic universities in Germany to the Vatican early this year notes, if the situation in the German Catholic church is not addressed quickly and proactively by church officials, it will soon be too late to reverse the mass exodus or recover any credibility for the Catholic church in Germany society.  The theologians who sent this petition to the Vatican note that their intent in doing so is pastoral: they care about the church and the message it proclaims.  They want that message to mean something of significance to those who hear it (for more information and commentary about this petition, see here, here, here, here, here, and here).

And to repeat my point of earlier today, as Rome gears up for the big spectacle of the beatification of the pope on whose watch the abuse crisis first broke wide open in the Catholic church, and who did nothing to address this crisis, while shielding the notorious Marcial Maciel of the Legion of Christ: that spectacle will in no way restore the shaken confidence of many Catholics who are raising serious questions about the moral example and integrity of church leaders.  It will do, rather, the opposite.

It will do as much to restore the church and set it on solid foundations again as, say, a huge, expensive royal wedding will do to restore traditional heterosexual marriage and set it on solid foundations again. Or about as much as Bill Donohue's expensive ad in tomorrow's Chicago Tribune will do to make right-thinking people imagine that the gays and not the bishops are responsible for the abuse situation.  Sound and fury frequently signify nothing, when staged by leaders intent on diverting attention from the emptiness inhabiting the heart of the costly show. 

No comments: