Analysis: Who are the Central Committee of German Catholics?

shutterstock 215875270 People in the pews at Cologne Cathedral, Germany. | travelview/Shuttertock

Following the news that the Church in Germany will proceed to form a new Synodal Assembly as part of a "binding process," questions have been raised about the Central Committee of German Catholics, a lay group which will play a key role in the new structure. 

The ZdK is one of the most prominent Catholic organizations in the country, counting a number of active and former politicians, including its current president, Dr. Thomas Sternberg, among its members. It has about 230 members, up to 90 of whom are elected by diocesan councils. Another 100 members are drawn from the Association of Catholic Organizations in Germany, an umbrella group which includes the Church in Germany's overseas aid agencies, the Catholic Teachers' Association, and other similar groups. This body then selects a further 50 members, usually politicians.

As leader of the ZdK, Sternberg would serve as co-president of the new Synodal Assembly being established now in Germany. The group would also provide 70 of the new assembly's members.

While the statutes for the Synodal Assembly have yet to be completed or formally approved, several of its working groups, called Synodal Fora, have already been established by the German bishops and the ZdK, and have begun examining the announced synodal topics of clerical power in the Church, sexual morality, priestly life, and the role of women in the offices and ministries of the Church.

Despite a history of dissent from Church teaching on a range of issues, including those covered by the synodal process, the group has remained a close collaborator with the German bishops. It played a leading role in the Church's response in Germany to the abuse crisis which, the ZdK has repeatedly said, requires a zäsur, or radical "break" in response. 

A major study of clerical sexual abuse in Germany concluded, with ZdK support, that clerical celibacy was a primary cause of sexual abuse, as was the Church's rejection of homosexual acts as intrinsically disordered.  

Julia Knop, a theologian and senior figure in the ZdK, and a member of one of the Synodal Fora has stated that the Church's teaching on homosexuality is a cause of sexual abuse and must be changed.

"There can be no doubt that not homosexuality as such, but its ecclesiastical tabooing and pathologization is a risk factor for sexual abuse by narcissistic or even sexually immature clerics," she said in a widely publicized speech to the German bishops in May, 2019.

"This is a specifically Catholic problem. The Catholic Church will only gain credibility and persuasiveness in this question if one corrects the outdated ecclesial defamation of homosexuality and integrates corresponding findings from humanities and cultural studies as well as social learning processes into the teaching and liturgy of the church."

Other ZdK members have a long track record of working with the German hierarchy while disputing established Church teaching. 

In the 1990s, Pope St. John Paul II directly intervened to halt Caritas and other Catholic groups from providing government-mandated counselling services women are required to receive before they can obtain an abortion.

In response, in 1999, ZdK members founded Donum Vitae, a "private group" which continued to provide counselling services and issue the necessary paperwork for women to obtain abortions. Despite numerous interventions by the Vatican, including a 2007 directive from the CDF that all Catholics "renounce not only a leading collaboration with Donum Vitae, but any form of support," the ZdK continues to defend the organization's participation in the abortion process.

In 2018, Cardinal Marx issued a letter to ZdK, praising the work of Donum Vitae and allowing those who work in its "pregnancy conflict counselling centers" to also work in official Catholic pregnancy centers, provided they "respect the rules and regulations that apply there." 

In 2015, ZdK members also voted to demand the Church offer liturgical blessings for same-sex couples, and this is expected to be one of the first recommendations of the Synodal Forum on sexual morality. Such calls have been repeatedly made by prominent ZdK members, including the former German Minister for the Environment Barbara Hendricks, who has publicly criticized the Church's teaching on homosexuality. Hendricks entered a same-sex partnership in 2017.

In February this year, a number of senior ZdK members published an open letter in the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, calling for a "fresh start" on sexual morality in the Catholic Church.

While the ZdK has called for such blessings for several years, several German bishops have indicated an increasing amount of support for the idea.

In August, 2019, the official media outlet of the Church in Germand carried an interview with emeritus Bishop Dieter Geerlings in which he said that in order to advance reform of Church teaching on sexual morality it is necessary to discard the "problematic understanding of unity of the Church."

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"In agreement with the diocese of Münster, I submitted a paper on changing the Church's sexual morality for the synodal path," he said.

Cardinal Marx has also made numerous statements suggesting an openness to the idea of same-sex blessings in churches.

In a February 2018 radio interview, Marx said that he "did not see any problems" with allowing priests or pastoral workers "to give people in concrete situations some encouragement." Earlier this year, as he announced the German's "binding synodal path," Marx said that "We have lost the ability to talk to people about this. The Church does not understand what sexuality means to the individual."

In May 2019, the ZdK Plenary Assembly discussed the group's participation in the Synodal Way, while at the same time voting "to set up a forum in parallel to the forums already proposed by the [German Episcopal Conference] on the subject of 'women's access to ordination offices'."

In a recent interview, Sternberg was quoted in support of female ordination, saying that "We have been demanding female deacons for a long time."

With the announcement of the Synodal Fora by the ZdK in cooperation with the German bishops' conference, concern is growing in the wider Church, including in Rome, that the "binding synodal process" will lead to a series of public breaches with established Church teachings under the authority of the German hierarchy. 

Pope Francis issued a lengthy letter to all the faithful of Germany in June, in which he told the German bishops that any synodal process would require years of careful preparation and study. 

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Francis wrote that the German bishops must avoid seeking to "adapt the Church to the zeitgeist" or proceed with "plans and mechanisms" which could prove "anything but helpful for a common path." Instead, the Pope urged the bishops to focus on evangelization and respect for the sensus ecclesiae, which he said "frees us from self-loathing and ideological tendencies."

The subsequent announcement in July of the membership of the Synodal Fora, and the emergence of near-final draft statutes for the Synodal Assembly appears to some sources in Rome to be an implicit rejection of the pope's instruction, an impression seemingly underscored by the selection of the Central Committee as a key partner in leading the synodal process.

"No German bishop, no member of the ZdK wants to leave the universal church, which is not an issue at all," Marx told reporters in July. "Reading the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel, that's what matters," Marx said.

Some senior Church figures, however, have expressed concern that the synodal process could lead to a de facto German national church at odds with the global Catholic community.

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