ZdK President Thomas Sternberg © Elisabeth Schomaker (KNA)
Thomas Sternberg from Sauerland was born in 1952. He studied German, art history and theology in Munster, Rome and Bonn. Sternberg has headed the Catholic Social Academy Franz Hitze Haus in Munster since 1988. Sternberg joined the CDU in 1974 and was a member of the city council in Munster from 1989 to 2004. He has been a member of the North Rhine-Westphalian state parliament since 2005. He is cultural policy spokesman for the ZdK.
Thomas Sternberg, a CDU member of the North Rhine-Westphalian state parliament, is running for president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK). In the interview, he explains what impulses he would like to set.
CBA: Professor Sternberg, you are an academy director, theologian, Germanist, art historian and politician. But also a trained baker. How do you feel when you smell bread in a bakery??
Sternberg: This is home for me. We had a small family business. There I have been very gladly baker. I went to night school for health reasons. However, I have always been involved during the vacations and on weekends.
CBA: How did you get into theology??
Sternberg: I come from a very churchy home. My father was a monk before the war, an uncle was a priest, an aunt was a nun and two aunts were parish housekeepers. In the time of the Second Vatican Council I experienced lively discussions as a young person. That's where my interest in theology comes from, along with my passion for art and German studies.
CBA: You have now headed the Catholic Academy in Munster for 27 years. Where does the church stand?
Sternberg: In the past, half of the population was Protestant and the other half Catholic. Today, both denominations have only 30 percent each – and over 40 percent have nothing to do with the churches. The times of the popular church are not yet completely over. But we are experiencing a great pluralization. And then the Catholic Church has also lost a lot of trust in recent years. Church statements are received more critically today than in the past.
CBA: How can the church go on?
Sternberg: In the past, you went to church on Sundays – or were looked at askance. There is no longer this societal prere, everyone has to decide for their own way. And there Christianity is understood as an offer. I am optimistic. As a serving and listening church we are in demand, we are also needed today.
CBA: What is your program for the election as ZdK president??
Sternberg: One thing in advance: I am not running for office. I have been asked by several ZdK members to stand for election. And if Ms. Flachsbarth wins, I will congratulate her. But a little competition is good for the ZdK; for the first time ever there are two candidates. To take office from Alois Gluck – these are damn big shoes to fill.
CBA: But if they hang on your feet, what can we expect??
Sternberg: There is a need for reform in the ZdK, not least in terms of member participation. In addition to the presidium and the main committee, there is the plenary assembly, which meets twice a year. Their agenda leaves little room for participation by members. They need to be more involved in decision-making processes – perhaps also through new media.
CBA: This looks like internal reform.
Sternberg: The ZdK must also reposition itself externally. As Catholics in Germany, we have to present our points of view. The EKD takes a synodal position; in political questions we should more often take a joint stand with the German Bishops' Conference. And instead of long pronouncements, there is a need for communication that is more up-to-date, fresh and concise, and that corresponds to a changed media landscape.
CBA: What role should the ZdK play in society??
Sternberg: The voice of Catholic women and men is definitely heard. This is how the ZdK helped shape the debate on the topic of assisted suicide. Or take the new paper on the free trade agreement, where criteria are mentioned against which such an agreement is to be measured from a Christian point of view. Our voice has to be more and more common and ecumenical – and where it is possible, also coordinated with other religions.
CBA: To what extent?
Sternberg: We must seek solidarity with the religious forces in our secular or even indifferent society, especially with our fellow Protestants, as we did in 1997 with the joint Social Word. But also the so important cooperation of the ZdK with Jews and Muslims will become even more important.
CBA: How do you want to get along with the bishops?
Sternberg: Quite a few lay people have had the impression after the Council that reforms got stuck halfway. You have chafed at convincing even the last bishop. This front position – here the laity and there the bishops – no longer exists. Today we are dealing with a plural Episcopal Conference and also with a plural lay Catholicism. Dialogue and joint actions are called for here in order to have an impact on society. But even with "being church together" there will always be someone who does not want to participate.
CBA: Speaking of plurality: What do you think of the Forum of German Catholics, which considers itself much more loyal to the Pope than the ZdK??
Sternberg: Loyalty to the Pope seems to have been more important to many in the past than it was during Pope Francis' stirring remarks. The Forum is a small group whose attempt to build a parallel structure to the ZdK has failed. Many have a misperception of the ZdK, which is open to all.
CBA: On the left side of the spectrum, there is the church people's movement.
Sternberg: Church people's movement gathers many of those who have chafed. But their concerns have been addressed for many years at Catholic conferences and in the ZdK. In some ways it has become obsolete.
CBA: Again to the bishops. The ZdK has really upset them with the proposal for a blessing for same-sex couples.
Sternberg: It was probably not wise to mix in one sentence such different blessings for same-sex couples, for remarried divorcees and for marriage anniversaries in our good and readable family paper. But we stick to the ies and seek constructive discussion.
CBA: After two presidents at the helm of the ZdK, some now want a woman.
Sternberg: With Mrs. Waschbusch we also already had a president. The ies of women in church positions and women's diaconate are of great importance to us. In addition to the presidency, there are two strong vice presidents.
CBA: How would you get yet another ministry under your hat?
Sternberg: If I were elected, I would give up the leadership of the academy. I will keep my mandate in the state parliament.
The interview was conducted by Andreas Otto.