A prominent German lay leader has provoked debate with a call for members of a surging hard-right political party to be excluded from holding Church offices.
Irme Stetter-Karp, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), made the appeal in an Aug. 15 interview with Kirche und Leben, the online magazine of the Diocese of Münster.
She said that members of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party should not be allowed to hold lay offices within the Church.
Stetter-Karp argued that the party had “moved further and further to the right” since it was founded 10 years ago 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.
The interview was conducted after the AfD rose to a new high of 21% in opinion polls, meaning that it would be the country’s second-strongest party, behind the center-right Christian democratic CDU/CSU, in the event of a federal election.
Stetter-Karp’s remarks prompted a swift backlash from AfD members.
Maximilian Krah, a Catholic who represents the AfD in the European Parliament (a legislative body of the European Union), strongly criticized the ZdK, Germany’s most influential lay group and a driving force behind the country’s controversial “synodal way.”
“The ‘Central Committee of Catholics’ … does not emerge from elections at all, but is a club of functionaries who mostly live full-time from church taxes, are unemployable on the first job market, and therefore hate themselves, the Church, and the faith,” Krah wrote Aug. 16 on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
Stetter-Karp clarified, in comments to Bayerischer Rundfunk, that by “offices” she meant all positions within Germany’s expansive world of Catholic associations, from parish councils to daycare centers.
The Munich-based public service broadcaster quoted the canon lawyer Thomas Schüller, who said that Catholic associations had a right not only to bar AfD members from holding office, but also from membership itself.
He said that it would be possible for both Catholic youth associations and organizations for Catholic adults to alter their statutes to bar members of the AfD.
But he suggested it would be more prudent to adopt general wording in the statutes.
Schüller said that an amendment might say: “Applicants for admission to the Catholic association or those already in it who behave in a manner detrimental to the association, in the sense of making racist, anti-Semitic statements, will either not be admitted or can be dismissed from the association.”
Stefan Korioth, professor of public law and ecclesiastical law at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, said that, although the Church was able to assess compatibility with its views when appointing candidates to offices, “to pre-select in such a sweeping way is not unproblematic.”
He noted that the Church encourages Catholics to engage in politics and the AfD is not a banned party.
Germany is not the only European country where far-right political parties are perceived to be making inroads among Catholic voters.
Spain’s Vox party, also founded in 2013, has sought to appeal to the country’s Catholics with its rejection of abortion and euthanasia. But its success has prompted concern among bishops’ conference officials, particularly for its opposition to immigration.
According to the Catholic newspaper La Croix, 40% of practicing Catholics voted for the extreme right in the first round of France’s 2022 presidential election, compared to a national average of 32%.
Italy, meanwhile, has its most right-wing government since the Second World War following the triumph of Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy party in last September’s general election. Meloni, who promised to “defend God, country, and family,” is believed to have secured the votes of many Catholics.
The AfD was founded in Germany in February 2013 to compete in that year’s federal election on a platform of abolishing the euro, the currency of 20 European member states. It narrowly missed the 5% electoral threshold necessary to enter the Bundestag.
In the 2017 federal election, it gained 12.6% of the vote, earning 94 seats in the Bundestag and becoming the third-largest party, with a focus on immigration in the wake of the 2015 European migrant crisis.
Going into the 2021 federal election, the AfD campaigned against further coronavirus lockdowns, receiving 10.3% of votes but emerging as the largest party in the states of Saxony and Thuringia, located in former East Germany.
Among the policies in its current program is a commitment to preserving “the sovereign, democratic nation-state,” introducing Swiss-style referendums, the immediate closure of borders to end “unregulated mass immigration,” and measures to make Germany “more family- and child-friendly.”
Stetter-Karp’s Kirche und Leben interviewer noted that Thomas Haldenwang, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, has said that there are “right-wing extremist” and “anti-constitutional positions” within the AfD.
The agency is on high alert following the arrest last year of 25 members of a far-right terrorist group suspected of planning a coup d’état in Germany.
In May this year, Germany’s anti-Semitism commissioner Felix Klein accused the AfD of condoning anti-Semitism and supporting forces that have sought to downplay the Holocaust.
Stetter-Karp told Kirche und Leben that the current situation in Germany was dangerous.
“Anyone who looks closely has been observing for some time that not only do populist simple answers to complex challenges catch on, but that trust in democratic parties and processes is also being eroded step by step,” she said.
“2024, with the European elections and the elections in Brandenburg, Saxony, and Thuringia, will be a litmus test as to whether the seeds of right-wing forces will take root. All democratic parties are now called upon to actively tackle the competition for the trust of the population and to actively prevent AfD participation in government.”
Stetter-Karp renewed her call for a ban on AfD members holding Church posts in an Aug. 31 interview with the Christ & Welt supplement of Die Zeit newspaper.
“My position is clear: Whoever is in the AfD must not be given power in the Church,” she said.
She also said that no elected AfD officials would be invited to speak at next year’s Katholikentag (Catholics Day) in the party’s stronghold of Erfurt.
“In the Catholic Church, extreme right-wing tones are becoming louder and shriller. Even members of our Church increasingly represent restorationist points of view, want to emphasize the traditional, and are susceptible to agitation from the right,” she commented.
Writing for the Catholic weekly Die Tagespost, journalist Sebastian Sasse argued that Stetter-Karp’s reference to restorationist tendencies in the Church showed the “actual thrust” of her comments.
“So that’s what it’s all about: The ZdK president wants to pillory her Church-political opponents, the critics of the synodal way,” he wrote.
“By linking these critics with AfD supporters, she is proving to be an unwilling PR agent for the party.”