Two weeks ago, I wrote with shock in this space about my disbelief that the German bishops had issued a decree refusing the sacraments to Catholics who stopped paying a Church membership tax. I was not the only one who was incredulous. That reaction has spread across the world. Global media coverage has brought into clear focus the unique situation in Germany that most people knew nothing about until this issue arose.
Since the middle of the 19th century, the German central government has collected a small tax on both the Lutherans and the Catholics in Germany, transferred the funds to the churches for use in providing schools, hospitals, youth centers and other excellent programs. Today in Germany many Catholics are angry with the Church and don’t like the tax and they have signed documents taking themselves out of the Church. So much for that but now the bishops say that such persons can be denied the sacraments!
I have no doubt that this situation creates a real financial problem. In a short period of time, the Church has to do a better job of raising its own money but it is hard to imagine the Catholic Church denying someone baptism, the Eucharist or a funeral because of a failure to pay a government tax. Something is wrong and I hope that it will be corrected very quickly. Until then, I pray with all my heart for the German Church which is truly a great Church but faced with organizational difficulties.
Luther, there is still tension on the Rhine!
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I love symbols. They are very important to me, and if utilized properly, should be important to everyone. Symbols frequently convey meaning far more graphically than endless words. As I am reflecting on symbols, I’m laughing remembering a scene in the city of Aachen, Germany, that took place nearly 30 years ago. I was with three priest friends, two of whom became bishops- Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza, Bishop Vincent Rizzotto, and Fr. Bill Steele (aka. “Stainless”). Aachen was tremendously important historically, as the capital of Charlemagne. The cathedral was erected in 800 AD, and is, in fact, the oldest cathedral in northern Europe. As we entered this awesome church, we saw a bulletin board in the vestibule, and since Steele could speak a little German, he translated one of the announcements for this magnificent 1200 year old church. It read simply, “The parish council will meet at 7:30pm Tuesday night in the parish hall.” Once translated, all four of us broke out laughing about the SAMEness of the church’s day to day functioning. That doesn’t prove anything, it’s just a delightful fact that reflects the “Catholicity” of this church as it has spread across the world. Diversity, complexity-yes. But, a simple sameness that unites one billion, two hundred million people into what is actually an enormous religious family.
Catholics are happy to be able to count on that sameness, that universality no matter where they go, whether it be the Belgian congo, Tasmania, or New York City.
This is yet another factor that delights so many Roman Catholics as they celebrate their membership not just in their parish, but in the Church universal.
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Cardinal Christoph Schönborn has been serving as the Archbishop of Vienna since 1995. It has been a difficult assignment and for most of his twenty years in office there has been conflict and dissension within the Diocese. He was appointed there after the Holy See had to remove his predecessor due to a scandal. There have been other difficulties as well.
Currently, the Archbishop is facing very real dissension among the priests. In 2006, the Cardinal’s Vicar General, a well known media personality in Austria, helped launch a 400 strong Austrian Priests’ Initiative which has called for dramatic changes in the area of those to be ordained to the priesthood and a reappraisal of much of the Catholic Church’s moral theology regarding sexuality.
Last year, 311 theologians from Austria, Germany and Switzerland signed a memorandum demanding the ordination of women and married men, as well as an open dialogue on the Church’s structures of power and communication.
The Cardinal has handled himself with extraordinary gentleness and understanding. He has called for the Priests’ Initiative to drop the word “disobedience” from their title. He has not condemned them as a group and urged them to deal with these problems in their parishes in a pastoral way as Jesus would. As Jesus would? This means that the two groups can go on improving communication and possibly resolving the issues that are at hand.
Is Austria led by Schönborn becoming a testing ground on how to cope with some of the agonizing dilemmas facing parish priests and their pastoral work today?
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