Michael Bongardt left the priesthood in 2003 because he couldn't bear remaining celibate. Now the Catholic Church has demanded the professor be barred from teaching theology at a state university.
In Germany, theology departments are bound to the churches
Two months after Bongardt, 45, resigned as a priest the letter came from the Catholic Church informing him that his permission to teach church doctrine had been rescinded. Bongardt had expected as much.
In 2004, he got married. He continued to lecture at Berlin's Free University (FU) as one of two professors in the "Catholic Seminar." He is also a dean of the history and cultural studies department. But it wasn't enough for the church that Bongardt could no longer claim to teach in its name.
"According to the church, priests who have given up their vows may not teach," Bongardt said.
The church wanted him removed.
The church's attitude would have little bearing in Britain or the United States, where state-funded universities are not bound to religious denominations. There, clerics are trained in private, church-run seminaries. In Germany, however, though it has no official state church, religious communities have a special role within public universities, which is also where aspiring priests are trained.
Church veto rights
German law sees religious issues as the domain of the individual spiritual communities. Thus they alone may decide how their beliefs should be taught.
"The state can't say: 'We know what religion is.' The state can't know what religious teaching is," explained Stefan Muckel, a professor of public and church law at Cologne University. "The churches must determine the content. The state provides the place (the university) and the church provides the content."
The churches also decide who should communicate their teachings.
The treaties, or concordats, that regulate relations between German federal states and their religious communities allow the churches to veto appointments in theology at publicly funded universities. As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, Bongardt's case is open and shut: if it deems him unacceptable to teach Catholic theology, both the Berlin Senate and the university are obliged to abide by the decision.
Can't simply be fired
Currently, the issue is in limbo, as the three sides -- the Berlin Archbishopric, the senate and the university -- search for a solution. What complicates the matter further is that Bongardt, like all university professors, has the permanent status of a civil servant. Thus, the FU can't fire him, but must find another place for him within the institution.
The university is also obliged to refill the vacant position at the Catholic Seminar. In financially strapped Berlin, the city can hardly afford to pay for a new faculty member. With only one professor though, the Catholic theology program at the FU could be in danger of shutting down.
Bongardt's hopes are pinned on a possible loophole in the Prussian Concordat of 1929, which remains relevant in Berlin. According to the treaty, the church has veto rights over people teaching in the theology "faculties" of state-funded universities. However, the Free University doesn't actually have a theology faculty; it just has the Catholic Seminar.
Academic vs. religious freedom
There is also the touchy issue of academic freedom, which Germany's constitution guarantees. If Bongardt is forced to stop teaching at the seminar, that right could be seen as having been violated, Muckel confirmed.
"There is a strained relationship here between academic freedom and religious freedom," he said. But, he added, "The rights of the church would probably take precedence over the professor's academic freedom." Besides, "anyone teaching Catholic or Protestant theology at a university recognizes this and accepts the constraints."
Muckel was also skeptical that Bongardt would indeed benefit from the distinction between a faculty and a seminar. Here, too, Muckel posited that the church's rights would again be deemed more important.
Nor was Bongardt optimistic about his future at the Catholic Seminar. "I expect I will be removed," he said. But his personal situation wasn't his greatest concern.
"I find it much more important that universities should not be bound by the church's approval," Bongardt said. "For a modern state, I think the English or American system makes more sense -- that the universities train people, and the churches then decide whether to recognize the training or otherwise train them themselves."