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The battle for Catholicism’s soul in Germany: An interview with Emeka Ani

Dr. Emeka Ani is deeply involved in the life of the Catholic Church in Germany.

The synodal way’s final assembly in Frankfurt, Germany, on March 11, 2023. © Synodal Way/Maximilian von Lachner.

He is the chairman of the country’s Federal Pastoral Council for Catholics with Other Mother Tongues and Rites (BPR), which represents the growing number of Catholics in the country whose mother tongue is not German.

He is, in addition, a member of the steering committee of the influential lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK).

He was also one of the participants in Germany’s synodal way, the controversial three-year initiative that brought together bishops and lay representatives to discuss far-reaching changes to Church teaching and practice amid a shattering abuse crisis. 

The synodal way focused on four areas — power, the priesthood, women in the Church, and sexuality — and culminated in a series of votes that set the local Church on a collision course with the Vatican.

In this interview, Dr. Ani reflects on his experience with the synodal way, which formally ended in March with resolutions supporting women deacons, a re-examination of priestly celibacy, lay preaching at Masses, and same-sex blessings.

He also considers the state of the Church in Germany and the possible role of Catholics with other mother tongues in its renewal.

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Synodal way participant Dr. Emeka Ani. Courtesy photo.

How do you assess the current state of the Church in Germany?

The Catholic Church in Germany is currently going through a very turbulent phase. Not least because of the results of the MHG Study, which examined the sexual abuse of minors by clerics in German dioceses, but also because of the creeping signs of fatigue in matters of faith in the wake of secularization, clericalism, and a pronounced, sometimes quite intrusive ultraliberalism. All of this threatens the foundation and existence of the Catholic Church in Germany. 

In the midst of these developments are the Catholics with other mother tongues, who rightly cultivate their own tendencies on the issues.

First, however, it is apparent that the Church in Germany is splitting. One notices that the divide is widening between the “lay elite,” who are increasingly committed exclusively to matters of ecclesiastical politics, and local Church members, who are interested in pastoral matters. It is important to keep both aspects in proper balance so that everyone finds their place in the Church.

Even the largest lay body in the Church in Germany, the Central Committee of German Catholics, does not seem to notice how, in the search for solutions to the problems, it is gradually developing in such a way that it can hardly be distinguished from a normal political institution. Often one gets caught up in self-pity for Church structures and yet with conspicuous overconfidence in terms of one’s influence and representative role for local Church members.

On the other hand, it is sad to see how the bishops, presumably under pressure from within and without, allow themselves to be divided, so that they can hardly express a common opinion on many Church issues. One sometimes expects in vain that the bishops, as shepherds of the people of God, will act in a unified manner with regard to the Magisterium of the Church. This leads to disappointment and uncertainty among many Catholics.

As chairman of the BPR, you represent the growing number of Catholics in Germany whose mother tongue is not German. How is their presence affecting the local Church?

In the course of globalization, Germany is experiencing increasing immigration from all over the world. We have certainly rightly become an immigration country with many advantages. The Catholic Church has also benefited greatly from this. The Catholic Church in Germany is increasingly dependent on pastors from abroad. 

The proportion of Catholics with other mother tongues in Germany has risen to a remarkable 16.7%. In some dioceses, for example in the Diocese of Limburg, the proportion of Catholics with other mother tongues is over 25%.

While the local congregations are seeing fewer Church members and churchgoers, congregations of Catholics with other mother tongues are seeing steady growth in membership. 

In this respect, Catholics with other mother tongues have organized themselves in the BPR to represent the more than 3.7 million members in various Church bodies. The aim is to give Catholics with other mother tongues an appropriate voice in shaping the Church in Germany. 

This positive development was also recognized by the Central Committee of German Catholics and acknowledged by a change to its statutes. Since 2013, there have therefore been three representatives from the communities with other mother tongues in this important body, even if they are underrepresented for the moment.

What do the Catholics you represent make of this situation? 

This unfortunate development in the Church in Germany is viewed with great concern by many Catholics with other mother tongues. There is a concern for the unity of the Church and for Christian-Catholic values. 

It is increasingly troubling when the search for common ground between the communities with other mother tongues and the classic Catholic Church in Germany becomes ever more difficult.

This is because the focal points of Catholicism for Catholics with other mother tongues — namely evangelization, spirituality, prayer, and the family — are increasingly taking a back seat in the local Church in Germany or are gradually being faded out. Especially on the subject of family, the promotion and support of the classical family, ecclesiastically and socially, are considered to be of existential importance.

The widespread persecution of Christians in many parts of the world is also a focus of Catholics with other mother tongues that, unfortunately, rarely gets the attention and commitment it deserves.

Spirituality is increasingly relativized or sometimes completely redirected to supplementary orientations, e.g. the environment. No, the environment is only a fraction of spirituality.

Spirituality, as a treasure of Catholicism, underlines that we are pilgrims on the way to God — a path that requires detailed and continual preparations, both internally and externally, especially in difficult times. “Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” emphasizes Christ in Matthew 26:41. And in Matthew 6:9-13, he even taught his disciples how to pray. In many instances, the Scriptures emphasize how Christ repeatedly withdrew to pray. 

This different perception of spirituality adds to the discrepancy in faith practice between the territorial Church in Germany and the community of Catholics with other mother tongues. I’m not denying anyone’s personal spirituality, but spirituality must also be lived out in communion; “Do this in memory of me,” Christ stresses in Luke 22:19

These gaps in perception should be closed as far as possible. How good it would be if, for example, we rebuilt our numerous pilgrimage sites in Germany to promote the living out of Catholic spirituality and piety.

The synodal way’s final assembly in Frankfurt, Germany, on March 10, 2023. © Synodal Way/Maximilian von Lachner.

Do you think the synodal way is contributing to the Church’s renewal?

Spirituality and prayer are the soul of the Church. The Church enjoys a monopoly on this compared to political organizations. In the end, we have to assess whether the Church in Germany will derive practical benefits from the synodal way that is still ongoing or whether it will continue to be on the downward trend even afterward. 

While questions of power, structural reforms, and sexual morality were the focus of the debates, other Christian-Catholic values ​​such as reconciliation, mercy, and spiritual renewal found almost no place in the discussions. It remains to be seen how many people will ultimately find a spiritual home in the Catholic Church through the synodal way.

Some expressions in debates, like the description of the Church of Christ as a “perpetrators’ organization” [Täterorganisation], are wrong, provocative, and completely disrespectful, and certainly do not lead to presenting the Church attractively again. Or when the Holy Catholic Church in Germany is publicly accused of being close to Nazis. 

Such statements create commotion and resentment in the congregations of Catholics with other mother tongues. Whether the Church in Germany succeeds in “cleaning its soiled porcelain without breaking it” is part of the challenge of the synodal way, which can certainly be assessed as a very good initiative.

We mustn’t allow the Church to be talked into the ground because of the misconduct of some clerics or even because of certain errors in the structure. Because, besides the victims of this criminal activity, the Church as a whole also suffers.

It is also necessary to assess how the Church in Germany stands in relation to the wider Church with regard to parts of the desired reforms that are dependent on the universal Church. After all, the Church in Germany is part of the universal Church and not the other way around. However, the progress that has already been made in dealing with sexual abuse by some clergy is commendable.

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You spoke during a debate that preceded  the synodal way’s vote in favor of same-sex blessings. What did you make of that resolution?

I can understand the majority attitude towards the blessing of same-sex couples at the synodal assembly. But I criticize how the assembly dealt with their attitude. I think the resolution failed to appreciate its own significance for the universal Church.

If it had been decided as a request for review, like many other resolutions, I would have abstained, in the worst case. To me, it was totally unacceptable for the synodal assembly to decide on the immediate implementation of the blessings, regardless of the forthcoming synod on synodality

I thought it unwise not to wait for results from the world synod. That’s why I had to cast a clear vote against it with a justification, regardless of the expected criticisms, and insult upon insults that I have received to date. It was a matter of conscience for me. 

By way of comparison, an African Church assembly could have decided on topics such as polygamy (which has actually proven itself for African ancestors over generations), the integration of voodoo practices, etc., into the Christian faith, for immediate implementation.

The global Church viewed the synodal way with skepticism in advance. Through individual engagement and also through the Central Committee of German Catholics advocating for our positions in the wider Church, we meanwhile gained some sympathy for it in the global Church. This sympathy was largely squandered in the end by the only vote that did not take into account the gray area of a schism.

Shortly afterward, as expected, the decision was quashed by the Vatican. This cast a great shadow over the whole enterprise of the synodal way. In a schism, the Church in Germany has no friends and no sympathy in the universal Church. 

I was particularly surprised that many synodal way members, including many bishops, seem to have ignored this fact, and in my opinion, behaved unwisely toward the Holy See.

Personally, I consider the synodal way a minimal success, if not failure, in relation to the expectations that were spread in advance. Not even the idea of ​​a synodal council, which has already been rejected by the Vatican, should give much hope. For as long as all bishops and all dioceses are not on the same page, the synodal council is doomed to failure. 

The synodal council cannot and must not be only an alliance of the willing. Especially for some communities and rites that are organized and administered across dioceses, it becomes difficult, if not inconsistent, when some dioceses or some bishops decline to participate in the synodal council.

That is precisely why we are focusing on dialogue and inclusion. Even in the run-up to the synodal way, there was intensive dialogue with the bishops and the Holy See. Dialogue as a prerequisite for establishing the synodal way is important in order to eventually reach the necessary compromises.

With regard to Catholics with other mother tongues and rites, it is to be feared that the synodal way has not succeeded in closing the gaps between them and the classical German (or rather, territorial) communities; the opposite seems to be the case, especially with regard to the topics that are determined by the Magisterium.

What do you think is at stake in the current struggle over the direction of the Church in Germany? 

I personally fear that the Church in Germany is in danger of losing its soul. The soul of the Church is spiritual. As long as this part of the Church is not emphasized, in parallel with other reforms, the Church in Germany faces a difficult evolution that could even alienate it from the universal Church. 

Ultimately, the Church has been given a mission by Christ, to be accomplished through communal effort, purposefulness, and the working of the Holy Spirit: “He said to them, ‘Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature’” (Mark 16:15).

The Catholic Church is not a market organization and should not be treated as such in its structure or authority: “And to those who sold doves he said, ‘Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace’” (John 2:16). 

At its core, the Church is not a democracy either, and rightly so. Populism, doing things just for the sake of it, and activism threaten to make the debate in the Church fruitless. 

A new culture of debate, based exclusively on Christian values ​​and Christian manners, must be reintroduced. A discussion with a predetermined result does not lead to sustainable implementation. That’s why I sometimes miss open-ended conversations in our discussions. Christ must be at the center of the debates. A church that gives or even owes more account to the media than to the People of God is, in my opinion, on the wrong path.

Can Catholics with other mother tongues play a role in the renewal of German Catholicism?

Part of the hope of Catholicism in Germany lies with the Catholics with other mother tongues. They are the voice from the center that is so often missing in current discussions and positioning.

The “us-versus-them”/“them-versus-us” attitude as a mode of behavior between lay structures and the Church structure is flawed, ineffective, and unchristian. Clergy and laity must act together as God’s people in the pilgrimage to God, led by the Holy Spirit. 

At the beginning of the German synodal way, many voices presented it as the last chance for the Church in Germany. Such voices were wrong, fortunately, because they obviously do not take Christ’s verdict into account in the development of His Church. The last chance for the Church is not determined by us or by the synodal way in Germany. The decision rests with Jesus Christ, who founded the Church and is always with it.

The latest statistics show that membership in the Catholic Church worldwide has increased by over 15 million in the past year, while Catholic membership in Germany is falling dramatically. Seen in this light, the question arises as to whether we are not doing something wrong in Germany.

This statistic also shows that the focus of the universal Church has shifted. That too must be recognized. This means that the Church in Germany could learn from the universal Church, and possibly correct mistakes in religious instruction and the practice of the faith. 

The universal Church is represented in Germany by Catholics with other mother tongues. The vitality in the life of faith and in practice in the communities of Catholics with other mother tongues, including youth work, could be a point of reference for the Church in Germany.

We need a rethink, a reorientation, and more togetherness in Christ. Above all, a new culture of dialogue must be practiced in our public discussions about the Church of Christ, to which we are privileged to belong. This ensures participation and inclusion. The role of the media in Church debates also deserves a reassessment.

The recognition of the influx of Christians of different denominations with appropriate structures in the churches in Germany is a plus point for ecumenism if it succeeds locally. 

Many migrants come from countries where Christians are persecuted. They are used to finding identification and protection under the one Christ without getting involved in a false ecumenism. For ecumenism recognizes the commonalities of faith, which abound, but also the boundaries of others, which are equally to be respected.

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