Breaking and finding new paths, leaving things behind in order to discover new beginnings - that is what the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) has described as its motto for its biannual conference.
And that is in a time in which the Roman Catholic Church is characterized more by breakdown than unity. Nevertheless, a part of the clergy is hoping for a new start. The Catholic Church has little other choice following the exposure of the child sexual abuse scandal in January 2010 that caused untold damage to its reputation and standing.
Shocked and disappointed believers have left the church in droves. The avalanche of revelations crippled the church in almost all fields of activity. The fact the public debate regarding the sex abuse scandal has been relatively quiet of late may have something to do with the rehabilitation measures which have recently been introduced. One of those measures is the strengthening of guidelines concerning the handling of sexual abuse claims, as well as a prophylactic concept devised by bishops, further recompense for victims, the offer of therapy and the processing of the scandal in the form of an academic research project.
Scandals within the church caused many to leave. Nevertheless, the clergy are hoping for a new start.
In light of the continuous stream of new revelations, previously suppressed suggestions for reform from the church laity are now suddenly being introduced. Such reforms are being enforced through a memorandum which over 300 university theologians, in particular those from German-language regions - among them more than 200 active professors – signed in February 2011.
In July 2011, the conference of Catholic bishops began a process of dialogue with a conference in Mannheim. Aside from the bishops, around 3000 representatives from the diocese, religious orders, universities and associations will take part in the dialogue, planned to run until 2015. That long called-for reforms should be discussed is reflected in the five-day Catholic Conference program: structures of church authority, more rights for the laity and women, the handling of celibacy and those currently excluded from the Eucharist are some of the 1200 topics up for discussion.
Bishop Robert Zollitsch, the host of the assembly, stood behind the motto. All issues may be discussed: "We want to do it so that people can look each other in the eye, take both sides of the argument seriously, listen to one another and then come to a conclusion, and in doing so hearing the voice of God." On this issue, the leader of the Central Committee of German Catholics is diplomatic. It sounds even less like a difficult confrontation between conservatives and reformers than a rebellion against Rome.
"There will be no appeal for disobedience from us. We find that persistence pays off," said Alois Glueck.
Polarization was rarely an issue in the Central Committee of German Catholics. Those in positions of authority tend to enter dialogue strictly within their ranks. And so it is little wonder that the President of the Committee, Alois Glück, emphasized: "There will be no appeal for disobedience from us. We find that persistence pays off." One thing must be said: "If no constructive processes of change occur within a reasonable period of time then we will experience more polarization and retreat." For the time being, many are thankful for the changes which have been able to occur without the approval of the Vatican.
Critical theologian Hans Küng, made his feelings clear in a newspaper article just one week before Catholics Day.
Such a position is not to everyone's liking. Possibly the most well-respected critical theologian of the church, Hans Küng, made his feelings clear in a newspaper article just one week before the biannual conference. The church community is "merely being calmed as opposed to taken seriously, the rejection of reforms in Mannheim glossed over with talk of a departure." If the Catholic Church really wants to make change happen, it needs to find the courage to stand up to the church hierarchy. "Bishops are not owed allegiance by their public if the fundamental requirements of the gospel have become noncompliant, if they place the canon of church law above the wellbeing of their communities and pastors," wrote Kung. The Swiss professor who was stripped of his teaching license in 1979 for his ongoing criticism of the Pope, will not be present in Mannheim.
Much will be discussed at the gathering in Mannheim, Germany – but Rome ultimately has the last word.
Thinking outside the box
That the laity should be preoccupied with internal disputes is not surprising following the events of the past few years. But themes of religious understanding will not be entirely ignored. Ecumenical Christianity and Catholic-Islamic dialog will be covered in a series of podium discussions and forums.
The same goes for national and international aspects of social politics and development. Around 30,000 regular participants and a additional 10,000 daily guests will have the opportunity to consider thought provoking debates on the global economy, finance and crisis management. Even though European politicians currently view growth as the catch-all solution to the debt crisis, the Catholic conference aims to foster debates critical of this perspective, "because it's actually quite clear, with regards to our current problems, that today's way of living is unsustainable for the future," said President Alois Glück. "The question is not about being for or against growth but what is growth good for and what type of growth is beneficial?" It is about a taking a step in a new direction and finding a new level of quality.
No question - the lay meeting has a lot planed. Whether or not a new departure will be achieved in terms of internal church reform remains to be seen. Much will be discussed in Mannheim - but Rome has the last word.
Author: Klaus Krämer / hw
Editor: Jessie Wingard