A question of discretion

A question of discretion

German bishops discuss church labor law © dpa

Germany's Catholic bishops have been discussing reforms to church labor law again since Monday at their Permanent Council in Wurzburg, Germany. Last fall, a decision was postponed at short notice.

The ie has been under discussion for years. In a nutshell, it is about the question of which facts in their private lives church employees can expect to be dismissed from their jobs. A second marriage after the failure of a marriage contracted at the altar or a same-sex civil partnership have so far been regarded by the Catholic Church as "serious breaches of loyalty" and can lead to the loss of one's job. Affected are about 750.000 employees in Catholic parishes, dioceses and Caritas institutions and associations: Janitors, educators, religion teachers and chief physicians.

Varying degrees of sanctions

The existing discretionary scope for sanctions is sometimes interpreted more narrowly, sometimes more broadly. This repeatedly leads to public debates – and sometimes to lawsuits before labor courts, which can then go all the way to the Constitutional Court. Many people, including believers, do not understand why religious communities require their employees to live their lives in accordance with their moral teachings even after working hours. This promotes double standards, is an accusation voiced especially in the Catholic Church. For fear of losing their jobs, some church employees prefer not to seal their partnerships in a civil ceremony, which from the church's point of view is against the rules.

Concerns about having enough qualified personnel

In times of a shortage of skilled workers, church employers worry whether they can still attract enough qualified personnel with these rules. Some argue, for example, that educators should be exempt from these duties of loyalty altogether. The fact that church employers want to know on religious grounds with whom a nursery school teacher shares table and bed is often met with little understanding – especially since most church-run daycare centers are largely financed by the public purse.

No prere from the judiciary

While criticism of church labor law is a perennial topic in the media, there is hardly any prere to reform from German jurisprudence. Just last October, the Federal Constitutional Court upheld church rules and ruled: it falls under the churches' right of self-determination to impose such loyalty obligations on their employees. The secular courts can only check whether the church is applying its own rules correctly.

Debates reignited after Federal Constitutional Court ruling

The Karlsruhe ruling was grist to the mill of that minority of Catholic bishops and vicars general who warn against a hasty and half-baked relaxation of the rules. Since then, the discussion has flared up again. While the majority of bishops want a quick change, the bishops of Eichstatt and Regensburg presented the expert opinion of a renowned labor lawyer at the end of January, who reportedly suggests other ways to overcome the current dilemma. For the entirety of the bishops, this has not made the debate any easier. In order for there to be a nationwide uniform Catholic labor law in the future, the signature of each individual diocesan bishop in his diocese is needed.

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