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Pressure grows on German bishops over ‘synodal way’ co-president’s abortion stance

Irme Stetter-Karp, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics. Christian Pulfrich via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Pressure is growing on Germany’s bishops to cut ties with the co-president of the country’s controversial “synodal way” after she called for the nationwide provision of abortion.

On Monday, the Catholic group Maria 1.0 criticized a response from the German bishops’ conference to its open letter urging bishops to sever links with Irme Stetter-Karp, president of the powerful lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK).

Maria 1.0, an initiative dedicated to “the unity of the universal Church and fidelity to the papal magisterium,” described the conference’s reply as “remarkably meaningless.”

The abortion controversy began when Stetter-Karp wrote a newspaper article responding to the German Bundestag’s decision in June to approve the deletion of a section of the country’s criminal code prohibiting abortion advertising.

Stetter-Karp said that the ZdK believed that abortion should not be considered a “regular medical service.”

But she added that “it must be ensured that the medical intervention of an abortion should be made possible nationwide.”

She noted that “this is currently not the case, because especially in rural areas - regardless of their denominational character - gynecological care is lacking.”

She said that the ZdK ultimately considered the section’s repeal to be “positive in that it removes legal uncertainties for physicians and expands information opportunities for women.”

The German bishops’ conference, which said in June that it regretted the deletion from the criminal code, immediately sought to distance itself from Stetter-Karp’s remarks.

Spokesman Matthias Kopp said: “The position presented by ZdK President Irme Stetter-Karp on the need for a nationwide offer of abortions contradicts the position of the German bishops’ conference. Instead of a nationwide possibility for abortions, we need a nationwide qualified counseling service for women.”

The ZdK issued a statement defending Stetter-Karp’s article, which it said was focused on supporting Section 218 of the criminal code, which generally prohibits abortions, which are permitted only in circumstances specified in the code’s following sections.

Maria 1.0 responded to Stetter-Karp’s article by calling for her resignation from the ZdK, which is funded by Germany’s church tax and has long campaigned for changes in Catholic teaching and practice.

“That representatives of Catholic lay bodies in Germany repeatedly oppose the teachings of the Church they claim to represent is sadly nothing new,” the initiative said on July 18. “But that one of the highest representatives of ‘committee Catholicism’ so explicitly opposes the official teaching of the Catholic Church on the sensitive and important subject of ‘protection of life’ is shocking.”

A petition calling for Stetter-Karp’s resignation had gathered more than 4,000 signatures as of Aug. 16.

Stetter-Karp’s comments reportedly also provoked criticism within the ZdK. But she received support from the Catholic Women’s Association of Germany (KFD), Germany’s largest Catholic women’s organization.

Since Stetter-Karp was elected head of the ZdK in November 2021, she has played a leading role in the German synodal way, a multi-year initiative bringing together lay people and bishops to discuss four main topics: power, the priesthood, women in the Church, and sexual morality.

The Vatican implicitly criticized the synodal way’s trajectory in a July 21 declaration underlining that the initiative had no power “to compel the bishops and the faithful to adopt new ways of governance and new approaches to doctrine and morals.”

Stetter-Karp and German bishops’ conference chairman Bishop Georg Bätzing issued a joint statement expressing “astonishment” at the unsigned intervention, which Pope Francis later said was issued by the Secretariat of State.

On Aug. 3, Maria 1.0 wrote an open letter to Bätzing - co-president of the synodal way alongside Stetter-Karp - asking him to cease cooperation with the ZdK leader.

The letter, which has almost 2,000 signatories, said that Stetter-Karp had “crossed a red line.” It accused her of misusing “her position as the highest-ranking lay representative of the Catholic Church and co-president of the synodal way in order to lobby for a personal, sociopolitical cause.”

Maria 1.0 claimed that Bätzing was maintaining a “deafening” silence on the abortion controversy.

“In view of the continuing German conflict with Rome, do you want to avoid at all costs that the monstrous statements by Dr. Stetter-Karp become a wedge between the DBK [bishops’ conference] and ZdK and thus weaken the synodal way?” it asked.

It went on: “It is true that your influence on the choice of president of the ZdK is limited, but it is your duty as the president of the German Conference of Bishops to decide whether or not, under these circumstances, you are still prepared to work together with Dr. Stetter-Karp.”

It concluded: “To us, the signatories of this letter, the thought would be unbearable that you and Dr. Stetter-Karp might one day travel to Rome together as representatives of the Catholic Church in Germany; or, if it really came to that, that she as co-president of the planned synodal council would decide the fate of the ‘German Catholic Church’ along with you.”

“Bishop Bätzing, we ask you and your fellow bishops, all of whom promised at their episcopal consecration that the deposit of faith that was handed down to them from the apostles would be passed on in a pure and unabbreviated condition, to terminate your cooperation with Dr. Stetter-Karp permanently if she is not prepared to publicly recant her position and to return to the teachings of the Church on the protection of unborn children.”

The bishops’ conference responded to Maria 1.0 in a letter dated Aug. 11. It thanked the group for its “comments and suggestions,” which it promised to take on board “critically.” It also underlined the German bishops’ consistent defense of human life from conception until natural death, including through the annual “Week for Life” initiative.

Maria 1.0 criticized the response, which was signed by Frank Ronge, head of the faith and education department within the German bishops’ conference secretariat.

The lay group said: “A discussion of the contents of the letter does not actually take place in the present answer. In only one sentence it is said that one wants to critically receive the ‘open letter.’”

“Whatever this may mean, we note that the German Catholics, but also the representatives of the universal Church and the public have a right to know why the president of the German bishops’ conference continues to remain silent and continues to cling to the cooperation with Dr. Stetter-Karp in such an exposed position and why Bishop Dr. Bätzing wants to shape the future of the Catholic Church in Germany alongside a woman who places the right to life of the most vulnerable and defenseless people under the precondition of the woman’s right to self-determination and thus openly violates the teachings of the Church, as well as with the demand for a nationwide abortion service.”

Maria 1.0 said that it would continue to urge German bishops to cease working with Stetter-Karp.

Germany permits abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, though later abortions are allowed in certain circumstances.

Women seeking an abortion must undergo counseling at a state-approved center, followed by a three-day waiting period. Women are required to present a certificate issued by the counseling center before having an abortion.

The German Church previously operated counseling centers, but in 1999, Pope John Paul II ordered it to withdraw from the system, saying that cooperation indicated “a lack of clarity in the matter of the Church’s unequivocal no to abortion.” The German bishops agreed to the change.

Stetter-Karp and other ZdK members helped to found the association Donum Vitae, saying that it wanted to “preserve the Catholic element” in the state-approved counseling system. According to Stetter-Karp, Donum Vitae currently has 208 counseling centers nationwide.

Germany, a country of 83 million people, recorded approximately 100,000 abortions in 2020, a slight decline from the previous year.

A poll published earlier this month suggested that 58% of German Catholics do not like “the fact that the pope and the Church speak out against abortions.”