As polls tighten ahead of Germany’s upcoming federal elections, focus has fallen on the Catholic beliefs of a senior staffer in the Christian Democratic Union, the party leading in the polls.
A campaign spotlight on the religious beliefs of a politician not running for office is highly unusual in German politics; open criticism of the staffer’s Catholic faith likely points to a flagging social perception of the Catholic faith in Germany.
Nathanael Liminski, a key aide to CDU party leader Armin Laschet, was featured in an online ad posted this week by the Social Democratic Party, which derided Liminski as an “ultra-Catholic” for whom sex before marriage is “taboo.”
The move has been widely seen as a breach of a German campaigning convention to avoid personal attacks on religious belief, but it has also put Liminski’s Catholicism under a harsh spotlight.
The 35-year-old married father of four works as Laschet’s chief-of-staff in the North Rhine-Wesphalian parliament.
Laschet, his boss, is the designated successor of German Chancellor and former CDU leader Angela Merkel, who is expected to step down following next month’s elections.
While polls have narrowed in recent weeks, the CDU is still on course to emerge as the largest single party after the election, making Laschet likely the next German chancellor. Liminski is widely expected to be appointed Minister of the Chancellery in a Laschet-led government.
Liminski has spent years working in German politics, including stints at the federal departments of defense and the interior, but media profiles have focused on his history of Catholic activism as a young man in his 20s. And those profiles are usually critical.
After the 2005 visit to Germany of Pope Benedict XVI for the World Youth Day meeting in Cologne, Liminski was a founder and leading voice of the Generation Benedict initiative, which sought to better represent the voice of young, faithful Catholics in the public square. In that capacity, Liminski appeared frequently on television to defend Church teaching on the sanctity of human life and the dignity of human sexuality from a Catholic perspective, drawing criticism for his opposition to pornography and his characterization of sex within marriage as a promise of “you, only you, and you forever.”
Liminski has kept a low public profile since beginning a career as a political staffer, but his previous public statements about his Catholic faith have drawn critical attention now that he is potentially in line for a senior government role.
In March, the German daily newspaper Taz profiled Liminski as the potential next chancellor’s “right hand” and “mastermind,” and at the same time accused him of “homophobia,” citing 2007 remarks in which Liminske said same-sex relationships were not “a perfect form of sexuality.”
Liminski has also faced criticized for his previously expressed opposition to abortion.
In his time prior to starting a career in politics, Liminski has said that he does not believe abortion to be “ethically justifiable” but that he can “understand” support for legal abortion in cases of a risk to the health of the mother or following instances of rape.
But the Taz profile said that his view, and his participation in Germany’s March for Life, was linked to “Christian fundamentalism” and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
The senior staffer’s Catholic background has also garnered criticism from official Catholic media outlets in Germany.
Shortly after the SDP video was posted, Katholisch.de, the official website of the German bishops’ conference, published a critical profile of Liminski, which said he came from what “some would call an arch-Catholic family,” citing his parents’ affiliation with the “controversial community Opus Dei.”
Seemingly aiming to accuse Liminski of hypocrisy for his previous public affirmation of Church teaching, the Katholisch.de report also made reference to Liminski’s wife and children, noting that the couple’s first child was “by the way, born two years before [his] marriage.”
“It remains to be seen whether the ambitious Catholic will be able to continue his rapid political ascent and how he - then possibly in Berlin - will bring his personal beliefs into politics in the future,” the article concluded.
Ads and media coverage identifying Liminski’s Catholic values have set them against changing German social mores during a period of institutional disaffiliation, as German Catholics have been leaving the practice of the faith in large numbers for several years.
Last year, more than 220,000 Catholics left the practice of the faith, according to figures from the German bishops’ conference, with more than a quarter of a million leaving the year before.
The Church in Germany also saw a decline of nearly 30% in the number of baptisms in 2020 compared to the previous year; the number of children baptized Catholic in the country is expected to drop below 100,000 this year.
The Catholic Church in Germany is itself involved in the final stage of a controversial multi-year “synodal path,” a program for renewal of the local Church following the sexual abuse crisis.
The German bishops are conducting the synodal process in partnership with the Central Committee of German Catholics, a prominent campaign group which advocates for change across a range of doctrinal and disciplinary issues in the Church.
Synodal participants have openly called for an end to priestly celibacy, the ordination of women, Church blessings for same-sex unions, and inter-Communion with Protestant denominations. Senior Vatican figures, including Pope Francis, have expressed repeated concerns at the direction of the synodal process, insisted that it is not authentically “synodal” in its constitution, and vetoed key proposals.
Despite this, German bishops, including Bishop Georg Bätzing, the leader of the German bishops’ conference, have called repeatedly for changes to Church teaching.