German Catholics call for reform, many leaving

A year after a widespread sex scandal rocked Roman Catholics in Pope Benedict XVI's homeland, German intellectuals and faithful alike are turning their backs on the church, calling for change or simply leaving the congregation.

German theologians and others have aired their discontent in a series of petitions to church leaders calling for changes including more transparency, an end to celibacy, and women's ordination.

"After their initial horror, many responsible Christians, women and men, in ministry and outside of ministry, have come to realize that deep-reaching reforms are necessary," wrote leading German theologians in a petition to the nation's highest Catholic officials.

Germany has long been a cradle of religious thought and agitation for reform, stemming from Martin Luther in the 1500s up to today's outspoken Swiss-born Vatican critic, Hans Kung. The pope himself, before moving to Rome, taught theology at German universities.

The Vatican has not responded to the petitions, but the German Bishops Conference sought to address the issue in March by announcing a series of platforms for dialogue "aimed at giving our church in Germany a theological profile and sense of cohesion in this new century."

Many would welcome a signal from the pope that he supports such discussion, but there are no exchanges with parishioners or lay people scheduled during his Sept. 22-25 visit to Berlin and eastern Germany.

Gerhard Kruip, a theology professor at Mainz University who helped write the petition from the theologians does not expect that to happen.

"The bishops will not want to confront the pope with the problems facing Germany's church," Kruip said.

There are nearly 25 million Catholics in Germany, but numbers gathered by The Associated Press indicate a spike in people leaving the congregation last year as allegations of sexual and physical abuse of hundreds of children by clergy surfaced.

"These major abuse cases need to be taken into account by church leaders," said Rev. Max Stetter, a priest in the Augsburg diocese who formed a group calling for change.

While tens of thousands of Germans formally "quit" the church every year, 2010 saw a jump in the number of walkouts. German authorities easily track the numbers, because members pay a church tax, unless they formally leave the congregation.

Official numbers from the seven archbishoprics and 20 dioceses have not yet been released, but data acquired by AP show an increase ranging from 19 percent in Magdeburg, to more than 60 percent in diocese of Passau and Wuerzburg in the pope's homeland.

Augsburg, also in Bavaria, was among those hardest hit. Some 12,065 Catholics resigning their membership last year, compared with 7,000 in 2009, the diocese said. Fearing such a bleeding of the faithful, Stetter joined hundreds of other priests and lay people to appeal to their bishop to change.

"There is the impression that a page has been turned and things are going on, without anyone looking into the cause of the scandals and finding new structures to avoid such things," Stetter said.

Austria, which also taxes church members in a way similar to those in Germany also saw a significant drop in the number of departures. Figures published by the Austrian Bishop's Conference said 87,000 Austrian Catholics left in 2010 — a 64 percent increase over the 53,000 who formally had their names struck from church registries in 2009.

The Catholic church in the pope's homeland forms the backbone of everyday life, and despite the discontent, the decision to leave does not come easily to its members.

Margit Becker, who lives on the outskirts of Augsburg with her husband and two children, is one of thousands of German Catholics who feels disconnected from and disillusioned by the church. She stopped attending services months ago, but has not yet brought herself to formally resign.

"We were really born into the church and socialized in the church," Becker said of herself and her husband. "Our parents would have a heart attack if we were to leave the church. It is unthinkable."

Becker, in her early 50s, said her generation followed the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s — in which the pope, then Joseph Ratzinger, took part. The council changed everything from the role of lay people to the direction priests face while celebrating Mass and inspired a young generation with hope for a more open church.

Yet Benedict has revived some traditions and prayers that had been largely abandoned since Vatican II, disappointing many in his homeland.

"The church is no longer speaks to the people. I don't feel that it speaks to me, I don't feel comfortable with these traditions that date back centuries," said an administrator who works in the Augsburg dioceses, but refused to give his name for fear that he would be fired for criticizing the church.

Nevertheless, theologian Kruip believes the call for dialogue from the Bishops Conference shows that the discontent is being heard, and taken seriously. He concedes that change will take time, but will come.

"We wouldn't have done this if we were not convinced that we had a real chance," Kruip said.