Reading in turbulent times

Reading in turbulent times

It's done: After five years, the discussion process on the future of the church in Germany has reached its conclusion in Wurzburg. However, there will still be a need for discussion.

In the vineyards around Wurzburg, the harvest begins these days. And because the Bible is full of stories and parables surrounding the fruit of the vine and human labor, appropriate comparisons suggest themselves when taking stock of the "conversation process" of the Catholic Church in Germany. Five years ago, the bishops launched a dialogue on the future of the church in the wake of the abuse scandal that had come to light shortly before. It came to a conclusion in Wurzburg at the weekend. Bishops and laypeople set about reading at a final forum. What will grow out of it now?

Great need to talk

The participants' verdict on the outcome of the discussion process was just as unanimous as the experts' outlook on the coming wine vintage. The need for dialogue between bishops and laity remains high. That was exemplified on Friday during the more than seven-hour debate on the adoption of the final paper. Once again, some of the conflicts that remain unresolved were raised: the question of allowing women to be ordained or how to deal with remarried divorcees.

To dwell in the world of winemakers: Some participants wanted to give the vines more space during the debate, here and there even allow something like wild growth. Others, like Regensburg Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer, urged that shoots be cut back so as not to deprive the main trunk of strength. "If we pass it like this, we leave the foundation of our faith," he made clear, for example, during the debate on ordination of women to the priesthood. This is definitely impossible according to the magisterial proclamation of the popes, but for some participants of the discussion process it is necessary for reasons of gender justice.

Despite all their differences, both sides want to continue the conversation.

Continuing the dialogue

The bishops presented on Saturday elements of a message that they plan to publish in November. Accordingly, the plan is to continue the dialogue in the form of a convention meeting every two to three years, bringing together some 120 representatives from all areas of church life. That would be only a good third of the previous participants, but the composition should remain the same. In the debate, there were repeated calls for more commitment and for concrete topics to be agreed upon.

Is the glass half full or half empty?? The chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, contradicted the impression that the initiative had remained inconsequential. For example, he referred to the reform of church labor law, greater participation of women in church leadership positions and a new debate on marriage, family and sexuality.

Climate, family, homosexuality

The President of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), Alois Gluck, expressed similar views. To the applause of the participants, he thanked the archbishop emeritus of Freiburg, Robert Zollitsch, who had set the process rolling "with a lot of courage and tenacity" during his tenure as bishops' conference president.

As with wine, the climate was also important for the dialogue process. There have been huge changes since 2010. To the simple worker in the vineyard of the Lord, Benedict XVI., was followed by Francis, a pope who also relies on a modest appearance, but at the same time develops a dynamic all of his own. A world synod of bishops on marriage and family, new debates on homosexuality, a reform of church law to speed up marriage annulment proceedings: It all sounds like more than a tempest in a teapot – or, to keep with the metaphor, a wine glass.

The subject of abuse is not closed

But the social challenges have also changed fundamentally since the beginning of the discussion process: Coming to terms with the abuse scandal that triggered the process is by no means over, as the Bishop of Trier and Abuse Commissioner of the Bishops' Conference Stephan Ackermann emphasized. But the mega-topic at the moment is the refugees streaming into Germany, who will permanently change the image of the country, as bishops and lay people noted in a separate appeal.

It is a matter of creating a "culture of integration," said Cologne Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki. And so a "wine pope" like Stuart Pigott would probably attest one thing above all to the Wurzburg Auslese: A more than "complex character".

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