Bishop Stephan Ackermann of the Diocese of Trier, in Germany, has announced that the diocese will be closing almost all of its parishes. From Gloria.tv:
Trier diocese, the oldest in Germany, will dissolve its 903 parishes and reduce them to 35, liberal Bishop Stephan Ackermann (54) explained on Friday during an information meeting of the diocese in Trier. He spoke of a “crisis”.
Ackermann admitted that the new parishes will have nothing in common with the traditional ones “but the name”. Trier is the birthplace of Karl Marx.
A Feature, Not a Bug
For most Catholics in the English-speaking world, there is a generalized knowledge of Germany’s difficulties with the faith. Their role in the liberalization that took place at the Second Vatican Council inspired the title of Fr. Ralph Wiltgen’s famous book, The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber. Several German prelates were involved in the so-called Sankt Gallen Mafia, a group alleged to have meddled in the last two papal elections with the aim of electing a pope who would progressively “reform” the Church. And as 1P5’s Maike Hickson reported earlier this month, two German dioceses (Osnabrück and Mainz) will not ordain any priests this year. These problems are just to name a few.
But the specifics of the situation in Trier are worth noting as we evaluate this stunning liquidation of the Catholic Church there.
First, Trier is not just the oldest Catholic diocese in Germany and the birthplace of Karl Marx, it was also, until recently, the diocesan see of Cardinal Reinhardt Marx, head of the German bishops’ conference and one of the closest advisers to Pope Francis. Marx is known, among other things, for rejecting the dubia, supporting Holy Communion for the “remarried”, for pushing the discussion forward on revisiting priestly celibacy, and for stating publicly that the Catholic Church needs to apologize to homosexuals “because we’ve done a lot to marginalize [them].”
From his time as Bishop of Trier a decade ago, Marx has been accused of negligence in the handling of a particular clerical sexual abuse case, an accusation that he has just recently admitted is true.
Since 2009, Bishop Stephan Ackerman has been at the helm of the diocese, following the translation of Reinhard Marx to become Archbishop of Munich and Freising. (It should be noted that Munich, now under the care of Marx, had only 1 new seminarian last year, with a total of 37 seminarians in various stages of formation to serve a diocese of 1.7 million Catholics.)
Ackermann made waves in 2014 when he said, following a review of the surveys sent out in advance of the Synod on the Family, that the responses
showed “quite clearly” that for the majority of the faithful the church’s teaching on moral sexuality was “repressive” and “remote from life.” Declaring a second marriage after a divorce a perpetual mortal sin, and under no circumstances allowing remarried divorced people ever to receive the Sacraments, was not helpful, he said and added, “We bishops will have to make suggestions here. We must strengthen people’s sense of responsibility and then respect their decisions of conscience.”
It was also no longer tenable to declare that every kind of cohabitation before marriage was a grievous sin, and “the difference between natural and artificial birth control is somehow artificial. No one understands it I fear,” Ackermann said.
As far as homosexual relationships were concerned, the church would have to appeal to people’s sense of responsibility, he continued. “The Christian concept of the human being emanates from the polarity of the sexes but we cannot simply say homosexuality is unnatural,” he explained. While the church must “hold fast” to the uniqueness of marriage between a man and a woman, it could not just ignore registered same-sex unions where the couples had promised to be faithful to and responsible for one another.
It was a theme he repeated in 2015 as the German bishops voted to “allow Church employees to publicly defy Catholic teaching”, as reported by Maike Hickson at the time in an article for LifeSiteNews.
Bishop Ackermann made the news again when he refused to allow a Traditional Requiem Mass for Father Adolf Mohr, an 86-year-old priest of the diocese who had died of cancer and expressly asked for his funeral to be held in the old rite in his will. Ackermann eventually relented after backlash, originating mostly on the Internet, turned public sentiment against him.
It is ironic to see a Bishop lamenting a “crisis” in his languishing diocese when he has demonstrated little to no interest in upholding the Catholic Faith.
Does he believe that in an environment where the people who come to Mass are given the same moral framework as they are in the surrounding, secular culture, that they will be drawn into the life of the Faith? For what reason would such people make sacrifices, follow moral precepts (when they are discouraged from doing so by their shepherd), or in any way live their Catholicism?
Of course, from a business standpoint, it makes sense to close these parishes, especially if the people stay “on the books” as Catholics and continue to pay Germany’s rather steep (8 or 9 percent of total income tax) Church Tax, which keeps the German Catholic Church flush with cash even as it is hollowed out from within. Why keep such liabilities on your ledger sheet if you can sell them at a profit but still keep the faithful on the hook with a feel-good substitute for Catholicism that demands nothing of them and affirms them in their sin?
For the official Catholic Church in Germany, the rush to the bottom seems as though it can’t come fast enough. And yet good, orthodox Catholics remain there, desperate for a way to truly worship God and live their faith. May God grant them consolation and hope amidst this bitter trial.
And what does Bishop Ackermann mean when he says “that the new parishes will have nothing in common with the traditional ones ‘but the name’.”? I thought that was already the case. If he has something even further from real Catholicism in mind, I shudder to think what it might be.
UPDATE – 6/16/17: Some additional information has come in since my original report, which was based on the very short story from Gloria.tv. In the emails I received, there were links to two German sources: both an FAQ at the Diocese of Trier, and a story about the parish closings in Südwestrundfunk (SWR), a public broadcasting company in Southwest Germany. Neither of these sources seem to make what is happening entirely clear, but the picture that emerges for the moment is less one of parish closings and more of parish consolidation. The SWR report indicates that “The proposed draft stipulates that instead of the 887 parishes, which are already included in 172 parishes, from the beginning of 2020, there will be only 35 large parishes. These would then comprise between about 16,000 and about 77,000 believers.” Vicar General of the Trier Diocese Ulrich Graf von Plettenberg said that the parish of the future will be a “network with many nodal points” in which the administrative tasks will be handled centrally. It remains uncertain, therefore, how many of the parish buildings will actually be closed down and/or liquidated in an effort to centralize administrative tasks. With a shortage of priests and staff, it seems unlikely that all of the physical property of the diocese can be maintained in such an effort, but time will tell what the final result will look like.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.