On a snowy Saturday in January, German bishops’ conference chairman Bishop Georg Bätzing joined protesters at a demonstration near his residence in Limburg, in the central state of Hesse.
Bätzing was one of the more than 100,000 people who took to the streets across Germany Jan. 20 in protest at the surging Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, which is commonly described as far-right.
Dressed in a flat cap and wearing warm winter layers, Bätzing was photographed holding a German Trade Union Confederation (DGB) banner that said “Our alternative is called… respect and solidarity.”
Nearby stood a man in a wide-brimmed hat — perhaps a photobomber — with a sign that spelled out “AfD” with the words “Apes Fascists Dummies.”
The Diocese of Limburg said that organizers had expected 300 people to attend the demonstration “against racism, fascism and the Alternative for Germany,” but 3,000 turned up.
“The cold, ice, and snow couldn’t stop us,” said Bätzing. “It is important to be here and set an example for democracy, diversity, and tolerance.”
So what is it, exactly, that prompted the head of Germany’s bishops to demonstrate against one of the country’s political parties?
‘Fascists and financiers’
The Limburg diocese had explained the demonstration’s rationale in a press release issued the day before the rally, which was supported by groups including Germany’s Left Party, Green Youth, and the DGB.
“The background to the protests is the recently revealed secret meeting between leading AfD members and fascists and financiers in Potsdam, in which plans for the mass deportation of people after the AfD came to power were discussed,” the press release said.
The diocese was referring to a Nov. 25, 2023, meeting at which the Austrian far-right activist Martin Sellner reportedly discussed a plan for the “remigration” — that is, deportation — of sections of Germany’s population.
The meeting was reported by the investigative news outlet Correctiv, in a Jan. 10 article entitled “Secret plan against Germany.” It said that Sellner had advocated moving three types of residents — “asylum seekers, non-Germans with residency rights, and ‘non-assimilated’ German citizens” — to “a so-called ‘model state’ in North Africa, that would apparently provide space for up to two million people.”
Correctiv suggested that the proposal was “eerily reminiscent of the Nazis’ 1940 plan to deport four million Jews to the island of Madagascar” — a reference to the Third Reich’s Madagascar Plan.
The outlet said that the meeting’s participants, who also included members of the center-right Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU), discussed “a ‘masterplan’ to deport German citizens because of their ‘ethnicity’ — a plan which would undermine Articles 3, 6 and 21 of the German constitution.”
The three articles concern equality before the law, the protection of marriage and family life, and the duty of political parties not to “seek to undermine or abolish the free democratic basic order.”
The AfD responded to the Correctiv report by saying that the issues Sellner discussed were not party policy. “The AfD won’t change its position on immigration policy because of a single opinion at a non-AfD meeting,” it said.
While Correctiv’s investigation was the trigger for this month’s demonstrations, concerns about what Germans call the nation’s “Rechtsruck,” or rightward shift, date back years.
At the risk of oversimplification, German politics after the Second World War was dominated by two major parties: the center-left Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and the CDU.
After the horrors of Nazism, there was a tacit agreement that there should be no significant political force further to the right of the CDU. But following the AfD’s creation in 2013, the arrival of a record 1.1 million asylum seekers in 2015, the coronavirus pandemic, the Ukraine war, and a cost of living crisis, Germany’s political landscape began to shift.
Meanwhile, the AfD has evolved since it was first established with a platform of abolishing the euro, the currency of 20 European member states. Its program for this year’s European Parliament election includes policies such as the creation of a “Fortress Europe,” an end to sanctions against Russia, and the reopening of recently closed nuclear power plants.
The debate about Germany’s “Rechtsruck” has gained new urgency following the AfD’s successful performance in October’s state elections in Bavaria and Hesse. The results were striking because the party was previously seen as being confined to the former East Germany, which has higher levels of poverty and unemployment three decades after German reunification.
Bavaria and Hesse are in western Germany, prompting the AfD’s co-chairwoman Alice Weidel to declare after the state elections that “the AfD is no longer an eastern phenomenon — it is an all-German, mainstream party.”
The AfD is also confident of doing well at the ballot box in 2024. In addition to June’s European Parliament election, there will be state elections in September in Saxony, Thuringia, and Brandenburg, in the former East Germany. The AfD is currently in the lead in all three states.
More strong showings would give the party momentum ahead of a federal election likely to be held in 2025, amid a growing debate over whether the party could be legally banned by being deemed in violation of Germany’s constitution.
An ‘ad extra’ challenge
The rise of the AfD presents both an ad extra (external) and an ad intra (internal) challenge to the Catholic Church in Germany.
The ad extra challenge is that a growing number of bishops think that the party represents a threat to the “free democratic basic order,” to which they are unequivocally committed. But to sound the alarm, they must break an unwritten ecclesiastical rule.
In the Western world since Vatican Council II, Church leaders have generally limited themselves to presenting Catholic voters with broad guiding principles ahead of elections. It’s rare for them to explicitly condemn parties by name.
But individual German bishops and regional groupings of bishops are increasingly denouncing the AfD in direct terms.
Members of the Freising Bishops’ Conference, in southern Germany, said in November that they were “concerned about democracy, as there are parties that use the free constitutional order to ultimately abolish it.”
“The Alternative for Germany must be counted among these parties,” they said.
On Jan. 19 this year, six German bishops whose dioceses cover the former East Germany issued a message entitled “Standing up for democracy.”
The bishops listed political opinions that they considered incompatible with the fundamental values of German society, including “crude expulsion fantasies” concerning migrants, the “denial of man-made climate change,” and the “blanket disparagement of political actors and institutions.”
They said: “We bishops therefore make it very clear that, against the background of our own conscience, we reject the positions of extreme parties such as the Third Path, The Homeland party, or the AfD.”
These criticisms of specific parties carry two big risks. The first is that the bishops could potentially be drawn further into party politics, possibly compromising their ability to minister to people of all political persuasions.
The second is that, although the appeals are eye-catching, they may not be effective.
Consider the statement by the six bishops in the former East Germany. Following 40 years of rigorously enforced state atheism, the Church is relatively weak in the east. In the three states holding elections in September, Catholics account for between 4% and 8% of the total population.
So even if the six bishops were able to persuade all Catholics to vote against the AfD, the Third Path, and The Homeland party, that might have little impact on the elections’ outcome.
It’s not only the eastern German bishops who are struggling to make their voices heard in the public square. With hundreds of thousands of Catholics formally leaving the Church each year, the whole German hierarchy is speaking on behalf ever fewer citizens.
This problem is not confined to Germany. Bishops in other heavily secularized European countries are also finding that their warnings about far-right parties are reaching a limited audience.
An ‘ad intra’ challenge
The German bishops cannot, in fact, count on Catholics to vote against the AfD.
When the party came in third place in October’s Bavarian state election, it reportedly won the support of 14% of Catholic voters, barely below the 14.6% that the AfD gained among all voters.
There are, unsurprisingly, numerous shades of opinion regarding the AfD among Germany’s 20.9 million Catholics. Many — perhaps the majority — agree with the most outspoken bishops that the party threatens the nation’s democratic fabric.
Others — it’s hard to say precisely what proportion — are attracted by what might be called the AfD’s “traditional family values.” The party’s current program promises measures to make Germany “more family- and child-friendly,” and states that “unborn children also have a right to life.”
Catholic AfD supporters typically dispute the “far-right” label widely applied to the party and question why German Church leaders don’t also criticize mainstream parties whose policies contravene Catholic teaching on issues such as abortion and assisted suicide.
Yet some Catholics who might otherwise be drawn to the party question whether it is sincerely committed to such policies or simply seeking to expand its electoral base. They sense a tendency among AfD figures to treat Christianity merely as a useful tool to achieve certain political goals.
Given that support for the AfD seems to be only slightly lower among Catholics than the wider population, some influential German Catholics worry that AfD sympathizers could become a force within the local Church.
Irme Stetter-Karp, president of the lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), proposed last year that AfD members be barred from holding Church offices. By “offices,” she meant all positions within Germany’s extensive world of Catholic associations, from parish councils to daycare centers.
Stetter-Karp argued that the party had “moved further and further to the right” since it was founded and “it is clear that anti-Semitic, racist, inhumane attitudes and statements have no place in a Catholic organization.”
“Active support for the AfD contradicts the basic values of Christianity,” she said, prompting a backlash from Catholic AfD members.
Stetter-Karp’s assessment has gained notable support in recent months. Cardinal Reinhard Marx, one of Germany’s most high-profile churchmen, said in November that he believed AfD membership was incompatible with holding Church offices.
But the Archbishop of Munich and Freising suggested that decisions concerning party members should be made at a local level, rather than via a blanket ban.
“I’m hesitant about putting the rules in writing at the moment,” he commented, highlighting the complexity of the ad intra challenge.
The Church’s position on the AfD could be a topic of discussion at the German bishops’ spring plenary assembly in Augsburg next month.
The bishops would no doubt be able to agree on a statement stressing the importance of upholding the country’s “free democratic basic order.” Yet it would likely be difficult for them to reach a consensus on a ban on AfD members holding Church offices.
Augsburg’s Bishop Bertram Meier, for instance, was asked in a September 2023 interview whether AfD members should be allowed to serve as lectors or help in the distribution of Holy Communion.
“Party membership alone is not a criterion for excluding people. In such cases, it’s about seeking a conversation,” he said. “If we start to exclude people, we are only pushing them into a perhaps extreme corner.”
In the absence of a clear common position on the AfD, individual German bishops can do little more than attend demonstrations and express their view that Catholics should not vote for the party.
The danger with this approach is that it could leave the bishops only preaching to the already converted.