As has been recently reported, Germany now has to face the effects of the lowest numbers of newly ordained Catholic priests ever attentively recorded. In 2015, there were only 58 new priests ordained for nearly 24 million German Catholics. This fact has caused the well-known German journalist Alexander Kissler to wonder whether such a shortage of priests is not actually intended in Germany. For, he pointed out in an 18 August 2016 article in the German journal Cicero that the new parish reforms are more and more excluding the priest from his unique and exclusive role and are replacing him with new forms of purported participation and diverse collaborations.
Moreover, a new statement coming out now from the largest lay organization in Germany, the Central Committee of German Catholics (Zentralrat der Deutschen Katholiken – ZdK), seems to strengthen Kissler’s suspicion. That is to say, Thomas Sternberg, the president of the ZdK has now proposed – in a 29 August interview with the German newspaper Augsburger Allgemeine – to loosen the requirements for a disciplined priestly celibacy in order, he said, to increase the number of Catholic priests in Germany. “If it does not work any more otherwise – if we are losing personnel in the field of pastoral care – and if it is the case that celibacy is an obstacle [sic], then it has to be slackened, because it is less important,” Sternberg explained. In his eyes, to have “imported priests” from other countries cannot be a solution in the long run. Sternberg explicitly mentioned in the interview the case of the “viri probati” – married men with tested and proven, virtuous lives – who could possibly become ordained priests. He added: “We already now have very good and engaged deacons – these are married men. Why on earth should they not also become ordained as priests?” According to Sternberg, “this could be decided upon very quickly.” Additionally, Sternberg also proposes to discuss the idea of female deacons. “In my view, nothing stands against it,” said this German lay Catholic leader who is also an active politician in the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Female deacons could help in the field of the anointing of the sick, as Sternberg has now also proposed.
In the context of this interview, the head of the German lay organization ZdK also discussed the larger idea and process of promoting more participation and a more synodal structure of the Catholic Church. Sternberg quoted as model the Protestant churches in Germany, saying: “The Protestant churches have a synodal structure up to the top of the hierarchy. They are used to the fact that the faithful and the church leadership make decisions together.” For him, the issue essentially is about “real participation.”
It is important to note that Sternberg does not at all discuss where the “burden of proof” lies – and should lie – before so swiftly engineering and implementing these innovative ideas and novel processes. With these comments, the German leader of the ZdK shows himself willing to propose a speciously expedient solution to a deeper problem. Instead of strengthening the unique importance of the sacrificial and sacramental priesthood, he effectively proposes to offset and bypass this priesthood and thereby attenuate and gradually weaken it. Instead of strengthening the unique hierarchical communion and order of the Catholic Church as it was divinely established by Jesus Christ Himself, Sternberg all too facilely proposes a further “remedial” Protestantization of the Church – or even a “Lutheranization of the Church,” in the words of Alexander Kissler.