Modern church conferences frequently say they want to address modern political and social issues, but the 98th Catholic Conference in Mannheim lacked any vision or coherent message.
Norbert Lammert, the German parliamentary president - equivalent to the speaker in the US House of Representatives - is known for his analytical approach and trenchant remarks.
That's why he's sometimes feared by parliamentarians as well as journalists. The Christian Democratic politician demonstrated his qualities once again at the 98th Katholikentag, or German Catholic Conference, which ends in Mannheim on Sunday. Lammert, himself a Catholic, accused German Christians of socio-political passivity. "The cheerful indifference gets on my nerves," he confessed. Christians had a duty to change things in all areas of life, he said.
Lammert's warning about passivity struck a note with the conference in Mannheim, at least in its general thrust. A Catholic conference, like any church conference, is supposed to be more than a meeting, more than a religious experience, and more than a survey of the Catholic Church in Germany. It is meant to address major ethical, social, political and ecological issues. The Protestant church conferences, which generally have more participants, are stronger on this front, though the much older Catholic conferences have a tradition for addressing social issues that goes back to the 19th century.
The Mannheim Catholic Conference, with over 30,000 full participants and between 10,000 and 30,000 day visitors, did not meet this standard. That's perhaps because the focus was on problems within the church and reform issues. The motto of the five days - "Dare a new beginning" - applied primarily to the church's upheavals. The disappearance of congregational structures and the familiarity of the church, and the shortage of priests have left their mark. Dialog and reform were supposed to solve these problems, but here, the church functions more like party politics.
Platform for political issues
Even if there hasn't been one big announcement from Mannheim, there have been political messages. The many politicians who came to the industrial town saw to that. They brought items from their agendas to the stage of the Catholic Conference.
They included Chancellor Angela Merkel, who stopped by on the way to the G8 meeting in the United States. She focused on demographic change in Germany and called on the churches to work together in the face of this challenge: "What we do or don't do today will decide how our world looks in the future." Important decisions may not be put off any longer - as an example, the chancellor gave her plans to raise the retirement age to 67.
Nevertheless, in emphasizing the importance of the family, Merkel formulated notions that she would be unlikely to express in front of a body like the Confederation of German Employers' Associations (BDA). Many companies lack respect for the needs of families, she said. The expectations of the workplace should not lead to a "complete commoditization of family life" - here, it felt as if she were speaking to the Catholic heart.
The German Parliament's Vice President Wolfgang Thierse, former Bremen Mayor Henning Scherf, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, and other politicians also addressed the consequences of demographic development for society.
Many other politicians took the stage at the Catholic Conference to address their concerns. Consumer Minister Ilse Aigner denounced the use of foods that have been turned into industrial commodities. The General Secretary of the opposition Social Democrats Andrea Nahles campaigned for public insurance and called for the speedy abolition of the 10 euro ($13) fee that Germans pay once every three months to see a doctor.
The Green Party's Winfried Kretschmann, state premier of Baden-Württemberg and a member of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), also made his presence felt in Mannheim, calling for new steps towards a new beginning in civil society.
Some church officials also commented on political issues. Freiburg Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, called the lifestyle of Germany and other industrialized countries "not sustainable" and called for a more just and peaceful world. "With renewed calls for economic growth alone, we will not break the structures of global injustice," he said. ZdK President Alois Glück called for the abandonment of a growth-based ideology.
But compared with these official representatives of church and politics, lay Catholics appeared weakened in Mannheim. The large social organizations like the Catholic Workers' Movement (KAB) have clearly lost some of their influence at the conference.
Ecclesiastical changes, spiritual longing
Mannheim thus doesn't stand for the political engagement of German Catholicism, but for religious change and a desire for spiritual elements - even beyond the major topics of celibacy or the participation of women, which are officially taboo, and yet are naturally present.
In workshop discussions and in numerous booths, active Catholics discussed the future life of their community, which must take very different forms. Clergy promoted the diversity of religious life - and not only in the church. An example: an insider tip was the Ecumenical Liturgy of the Hours that took place four times a day. It made its debut at the Ecumenical Church Conference in Munich in 2010 and proved popular.
Also, the evening prayer of the brothers of Taizé needed a large hall, because the church spaces were too small. In ecclesiastically and politically uncertain times, the faithful have a need for reassurance.
In Mannheim, Lammert shared his memories of the enthusiasm and excitement of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). He had never felt as connected to his church as in those days. The message of an open church facing the world is missing today, he said. Few people come as close to Lammert's church and political experience or the intellect of his speech as does ZdK chief Glück. The coming years will show whether the Catholic Church in Germany still has a future. That is a "timeframe" in which a great deal will be decided.
Author: Christoph Starck / sgb
Editor: Ben Knight