Austere Example: Pope's Message at Odds with Bishops' Lifestyle


In recent years, the tendency in many parts of Germany has been in the opposite direction. Joseph Ratzinger's constant warnings against the "relativism" of modern life encouraged a withdrawal into devout niches and promoted a Catholic Church that was small, pure and refined, a delight for fundamentalists.

The controversial Society of St. Pius X was to be readmitted, and archconservative Benedict devotees celebrated the Latin mass, mumbled by the priest with his back turned to the congregation, as a beneficial "scandal of faith." Critics and reformers, on the other hand, were ignored, pushed aside or ejected.

Disappointed by the official church in Germany, many laymen are now pinning their hopes on the new man in Rome. Alois Glück, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics, would like to see Francis exert more influence on German bishops. He is calling for more courage and an end to silence, especially "on questions of sexual ethics." According to Glück, the overwhelming majority of Catholics strongly favor necessary changes. "No one can claim anymore that the pressing issues are merely of interest to fringe groups," says Glück. "They have arrived at the center of the church."

Changing the Nature of Discourse

The spirit of optimism among ordinary churchgoers has grown with virtually every gesture coming from the new pope. In his interview with Civiltà Cattolica, published last week, Francis made it clear that he is fundamentally changing the nature of discourse in the Catholic Church. According to Francis, the church should not constantly focus on controversies surrounding gays, women and celibacy. "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible," he said. "The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently."

For Jesuit priest Klaus Mertes, who, as principal of Berlin's Canisius School, unleashed the abuse scandal in Germany, the position of his fellow Jesuit and now pope is still revolutionary, even if Francis hasn't abandoned any of the church's strict principles. "If there is a change in the church's practices, as well as in the way we interact with each other and with parishioners, the theory will also change in the end, and not the other way around." Many others share his hope.

In their sermons, German bishops have repeatedly called upon pastors and parishioners alike to accept the church's doctrine without question. "Obedience is love and not compulsion," Limburg Bishop Tebartz-van Elst said at an ordination ceremony for new priests.

Ironically Francis who, as a Jesuit, was taught to be obedient and who, as pope, is entitled to demand obedience from every Catholic, is now breaking with this doctrine. "People get tired of authoritarianism," he said in his historic interview last week. "I lived a time of great interior crisis," he noted, only to recognize that "my authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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