Pope's call for church to forsake riches stuns German clergy
By Ingo Senft-Werner and Marc Herwig Sep 27, 2011, 2:06 GMT
Freiburg, Germany - A call from Pope Benedict XVI for the Catholic Church to massively change by getting rid of its worldly wealth has shaken German clergy, who say this is not the reform they had in mind.
Even a long-time critic of the German-born pope, theologian Hans Kueng, was incredulous a day after the call, contending that it was just a dodge by Benedict, 84, who dropped the bombshell on Sunday, the last day of a four-day trip to Germany.
In a first response, the head of the Catholic Church in Germany, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, later insisted the pope was not criticizing the German church's revenue streams, which include levies on registered Catholics, administered by government tax authorities.
But the church establishment may have difficulty pushing this genie back into the bottle after Benedict's statement.
Benedict was just about to get on the plane home to Rome when he addressed priests in a concert hall in Freiburg, southern Germany.
'Should the church not change? Must she not adapt her offices and structures to the present day?' he asked.
The pope said the times in history when governments confiscated church real estate and abolished church privileges 'contributed significantly to (the church's) purification and inner reform.'
Those events had 'always meant a profound liberation of the church from forms of worldliness, for in the process she has set aside her worldly wealth and has once again completely embraced her worldly poverty,' he said.
Benedict's distaste for wealth is not new. Christ told his followers they could not serve both God and Mammon, and critics of the Catholic Church, including evangelical Christians, are fond of repeating this.
Without wealth to manage and protect, preachers can focus on the religious message, goes the thinking.
'Once liberated from her material and political burdens, the church can reach out more effectively and in a truly Christian way to the whole world, she can be truly open to the world,' said Benedict.
Catholics have endured criticism for centuries that their church is too wealthy. Now the pope himself seems to agree that there is more merit in being poor, but honest.
But Zollitsch, chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, denies the pope means that.
In a statement, the conference said the pope was not referring to the privilege of raising money by tax levy, but was only talking in a general way, urging priests to be less self-satisfied about their careers and more focused on the needs of the kingdom of God.
That spin on the speech was not entirely convincing, given that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger used to criticize Germany's ecclesiastical levies on members' incomes even before he became pope. The levies raised 4.7 billion euros (6.3 billion dollars) last year.
In a 1994 interview, Ratzinger said the church had always lacked an ability to get rid of its worldly goods and had to be forced to give them up for its own good.
The German clerical establishment defends levies, saying the income means that the church does not need to beg for money from the government and can fund first-class hospitals and aid projects.
Benedict seemed unconvinced.
'The church's charitable activity also needs to be constantly exposed to the demands of due detachment from worldliness, if it is not to wither away at the roots in the face of increasing erosion of its ecclesial character.'
Another rich revenue stream for the church in Germany is government funding for religion lessons in state schools and for theology faculties at public universities.
Peter Huenermann, a retired Catholic theology professor, defended that state aid.
'It allows the church to be a factor in education and provides children with values they will keep for their whole lives,' he said.
At the same time, Huenermann, 82, contended Benedict was out of touch and was not providing the reforms that German Catholics demand, such as abolishing the rule that priests must remain celibate.
Swiss-born theologian Kueng contended Benedict was just trying to distract attention from the reforms Kueng favours, adding: 'The Vatican are the worst ones to talk about how fine it is to be poor.'
Kueng, 83, contended the pope was like a 'doddery old doctor handing out spiritual fruit juice' instead of the proper medical treatment.
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