BERLIN — The Roman Catholic Church in Germany has a split identity. At home, attendance is falling and many Germans say they regard the church’s teaching on social issues as hopelessly out of touch.
But globally, the German church is one of the most powerful — and liberal — regions of the Catholic world, a player whose wealth and theological influence are now creating a challenge for the entire church.
On Dec. 1, the German church’s international influence will be on display when its bishops begin a two-year-long series of meetings with lay leaders that will allow debate on hot-button issues that in many other corners of the church would be off limits, such as whether to accept homosexuality, end clerical celibacy and ordain women as priests.
The meetings carry no authority to actually change church doctrine. Nevertheless, the Vatican and conservative Catholics in Germany and elsewhere have repeatedly warned that the dialogue process — which the German church calls “the synodal path” — could lead to schism. Germany, of course, was where Martin Luther helped begin the Protestant Reformation with his 95 theses condemning the Catholic church.
Some critics “feel that the Germans brought on the Reformation 500 years ago and divided the Catholic Church, and now the Germans are again up to no good trying to change the church,” said the Rev. Godehard Brüntrup, a spokesman for the Jesuit religious order in Germany and vice president of the Munich School of Philosophy.
Organizers of the dialogue say schism is not their goal. The dialogue grew out of the response to the clergy sexual abuse scandal in Germany, and Catholic leaders say it is meant to bridge the cultural divide between the church and many of its followers, and to explore whether church teachings set the stage for abuse.
Priests are set to read a letter to parishioners at Mass this Sunday acknowledging that the church’s message “has been obscured and even terribly damaged” by the sexual abuse scandal, and calling the dialogue a process of “change and renewal.”
The dialogue has nonetheless become a proxy war in the conflict between conservatives and liberals that has consumed much of Pope Francis’ tenure. And it strikes at core questions facing the church: What caused the abuse crisis and how should Catholics respond to it?
Tensions over the dialogue can be seen in the divide between Germany’s cardinals: Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, archbishop of Cologne, a critic of the process, and Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the archbishop of Munich and Freising, who has called for opening the church to “new thinking.”
Cardinal Woelki, whose Cologne archdiocese is one of the world’s wealthiest, has warned bishops against stumbling into creating a “German national church,” distinct from the unified Catholic “universal church.”
“I do not want to support a special ‘German Way,’ nor should we as Germans pretend to know better than the rest of the church,” the cardinal said in an interview.
Cardinal Marx has championed the dialogue as head of the German Bishops Conference, and has spoken in the past of an openness to reconsidering issues like mandatory celibacy for priests. The cardinal is a particularly influential figure in the global church: He is a member of Francis’ small advisory council and leads the same archdiocese once led by Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI (now pope emeritus).
“Faith can only grow and deepen,” Cardinal Marx said at a meeting of the bishop’s conference in March, “if one faces up to the free and open debate, and develops the ability to take new positions and to go new ways.”
For traditionalists, like Cardinal Woelki, the challenges facing the church require a recommitment to church teaching, not an effort to align the church with public opinion on sexual issues.
“Throughout history Christians have never been in sync with the world,” said the cardinal, who leads a diocese where fewer than 8 percent of parishioners regularly attend Mass, slightly lower than the 9.3 percent of Germany’s 23 million registered Catholics who regularly go.
But the “synodal path” is based on the opposite view, articulated by a study commissioned by the bishops conference that said church teachings and practices should be examined because they had set the stage for abuse.
Those factors include “the management of power, the priestly ways of life, sexual morals detached from reality and, finally, the role of women in the church,” Thomas Sternberg, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics, a lay group that has collaborated with the bishop’s conference on the dialogue, wrote in an email.
“We also have to find new models for priestly forms of life,” he said, suggesting “significantly more participation of women, including in leadership functions and liturgical workings.”
Statements like that have caused a stir at the Vatican. In a letter in June, Francis encouraged the German church to focus on evangelization and “walk together” with the larger church so as to avoid “increasing and perpetuating the evils it sought to to solve.”
If regional churches “find themselves separated” from the universal Catholic Church, the pope wrote, “they weaken, rot and die.”
The Vatican delivered an even more forceful message in September, reminding the German bishops in a letter that they do not determine church policy, and rebuking them for partnering as equals with laypeople.
Cardinal Woelki echoed that concern, saying in an email that the dialogue’s design, which gives bishops and lay leaders equal say in decision-making, “could easily lead to the misconception that we can ‘democratize’ the church.’”
“Bishops — the successors of the Apostles — are called to teach and defend the faith,” the cardinal said. “The democratization of the faith would be the end of the church by turning divine revelation into an endless political power struggle.”
The German church’s occupying a position of both great strength and weakness can be seen in two sets of numbers released in July in its annual report: The church has lost an average of 100,000 members a year since 1990, with more than 216,000 leaving in 2018.
But the bishops conference also said it had brought in over $6.5 billion in net revenue each year since 2016, thanks to a tithe on registered Catholics of up to 9 percent collected by the German government as a “church tax.”
Since the 19th century, Germany has collected the tax from registered members of established religions, including both Catholics and Protestants, and then distributed the revenue back to the churches.
The German church sends hundreds of millions of dollars each year to Catholic charities and church projects around the world. German Catholics are also major funders of the Vatican; the bishops conference sends almost $7 million a year, and each of Germany’s 27 dioceses sends its own contributions, said Matthias Kopp, a spokesman for the bishops conference.
“The German church is very influential because of its financial might,” said Father Brüntrup, the Jesuit spokesman. “But it also has had a great influence on the intellectual life of the church, because German theology was and still is a leading force intellectually.”
He described talk of a schism as “a politically motivated exaggeration,” but said conservative Catholics might still be troubled by the possible long-term impact of the bishops’ plan.
“What they want to start is a process of dialogue, listening to what the people and the experts and the laypeople have to say, so that the hierarchy gets from a mode of teaching to a mode of listening,” Father Brüntrup said. “And then this process might lead 10, 20 or 30 years down the road to a universal council in which maybe a few things change.”
Stuck in the middle of the debate are sexual abuse survivors, who say the dialogue is both a victory and a source of worry.
The sex abuse crisis exploded in Germany in 2010 when alumni of a Berlin high school, Canisius College, said teachers abused them in the 1970s and 1980s. The crisis deepened in 2016 when an investigator said more than 200 boys in a choir led by the brother of Benedict XVI were abused over almost four decades.
Abuse survivors say the church has never before shown such high-level interest in their concerns. But embedding their demands in a thicket of culture war conflicts could make the road to justice tougher, said Matthias Katsch, a Canisius alumnus who in 2010 told of his abuse.
“I’m afraid that the church is starting this conversation and this dialogue about the reform of the church and they forget that first they have to deal with the survivors,” Mr. Katsch said.