The Catholic Church in Germany has dominated the headlines so far in 2023, thanks to its controversial “synodal way,” which concluded this month with endorsements of same-sex blessings, women deacons, and “gender diversity.”
Measured by international media attention alone, German Catholicism would appear to be a commanding presence on the world stage, pioneering radical changes to Church teachings and practices.
But could it be that, paradoxically, its influence within the wider Catholic Church is declining?
Consider the following developments:
When Pope Francis announced the new line-up of his Council of Cardinals March 7, a notable name was missing: that of German Cardinal Reinhard Marx. The Archbishop of Munich and Freising had served on the “C9” since its creation in 2013.
Following the election of new leaders of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE) March 22, the German Church no longer has a representative on the body’s presidency. Previously, Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen had served as one of four vice-presidents.
This could all be written off as a coincidence, but it might also be part of an emerging pattern in which Germans are perceived as either too controversial or lacking in team spirit to be selected for international Catholic bodies.
An economic force - but for how long?
The German Church’s wealth does, of course, ensure that it continues to wield significant global influence. Its generosity toward Latin America, Africa, and the Vatican no doubt create expectations of reciprocal support, or at least encourage tolerance of its contentious innovations.
And yet, there is widespread recognition in Germany that the peculiar situation in which church tax income keeps rising despite a record number of Catholics leaving the Church will not last forever.
The Diocese of Aachen is reportedly preparing for a scenario in which church taxes are halved by the middle of the 21st century. Meanwhile, the Diocese of Eichstätt in Bavaria has just announced strict cost-cutting measures.
Eichstätt diocesan official Thomas Schäfers said March 16: “The financial consequences of the ongoing Church crisis are hitting our diocese with a force that we did not expect on this scale.”
With German dioceses embracing austerity, it’s possible that German Catholicism may struggle to provide the same level of funding to the worldwide Church in the coming decades. That would have a knock-on effect on its influence, though obviously that’s a much less significant consideration than the impact it would have on Catholics in the developing world.
A land without an ambassador
In the years following the Second Vatican Council, German figures have always played a notable role on the Catholic world stage. Major personalities have included theologians such as Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI and Cardinal Walter Kasper, and well-connected churchmen such as Cardinal Karl Lehmann.
Following the departure of Cardinal Kasper and Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes in 2010, and Cardinal Gerhard Müller in 2017, Germany has lacked leading figures in the Roman Curia. Among its representatives today are the former Limburg Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst in the Dicastery for Evangelization and Fulda’s Msgr. Daniel Pacho at the Secretariat of State.
Today’s most influential German churchman is arguably Cardinal Marx. He is only 69 and holds the notable international role of coordinator of the Vatican’s Council for the Economy.
Yet in recent years, he has declined in visibility. In 2020, he announced that he would not seek another term as chairman of the German bishops’ conference, giving his age and a desire to spend more time in his archdiocese as reasons.
Then in May 2021, he submitted his resignation as archbishop of Munich and Freising, saying that he felt compelled to “draw personal consequences” from the abuse crisis engulfing the German Church and hoped to “send a personal signal for a new beginning, for a new awakening of the Church, not only in Germany.” The pope rejected Marx’s resignation a month later — denying him the opportunity to send a signal for a new awakening.
Marx’s decision to walk away from the chairmanship of the German bishops’ conference ensured that he was no longer the face of the country’s synodal way. That role fell to his successor, Bishop Georg Bätzing, who bulldozed a path forward but without Marx’s ability to mollify the Vatican.
The German bishops’ conference has usually been led by a cardinal (with the exception of Archbishop Robert Zollitsch in 2008 to 2014). Bätzing’s lack of a red hat arguably restricts his contact with other senior international Catholic leaders and limits his influence at the Vatican. (No German has been appointed to the College of Cardinals since the retired Cardinal Karl-Josef Rauber in 2015.)
So the German Church appears to lack a compelling ambassador just as it is facing a crucial test of its global status at October’s synod on synodality.
That event should make clear whether recent developments are mere coincidences or German influence truly is beginning to wane.