Was The Reformation Right After All?

Political disputes between Right and Left are mirrored in the Catholic Church. Five hundred years after the rise of Protestantism, little has changed. Was the reformation right after all?

Jesus says: The kingdom of God is like a field that holds an unexpected treasure. On this earth, the Church is the messenger of that kingdom – the Catholic Church. Does it, too, hold unexpected riches? Certainly not at the moment.

The bishop of Trier, Stephan Ackermann, has been tasked with investigating accusations of child abuse within the German Church, and with preventing new instances of abuse. Ackermann comes from the same diocese that continued to employ pedophiles as priests and in youth work, allegedly with Ackermann's knowledge. If anyone still required a clear sign that the Church is incapable of solving its own problems, this is it. Ackermann is no treasure but rather resembles a mortgage approaching default. Within his diocese, he is now known as "the little Ackermann". Parishioners seek refuge within themselves; churches remain empty.

Faith hasn't changed since Luther's times

While the pope travels across Latin America to visit a Church that has the potential to act as an engine of progress and as an arbiter over social divisions, the Catholic Church is Germany is battered and broken. "A city, so desolate", the prophet Jeremiah exclaimed – and for sure, the Church has been reduced to rubble. Parishioners lack confidence, bishops and priests are speechless. Fifty years after the Second Vatican Council (which was tasked with modernizing Catholicism, a mere five hundred years after the advent of modernity, the Reformation, the conquest of America, and the invention of letter printing), the German Catholic Church is a corpse waiting to be buried.

The reasons for Catholic pedophilia are manifold, and solutions aren't easy. The problem is difficult. We might try to understand – but even understanding has its limits. The reasons that prevent the Church from confronting abuse within its own ranks are the same problems that were mentioned by Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli. Hence the question: Was the reformation right after all?

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Faith hasn't changed since Luther's times. Catholics still believe in sacrifice, indemnification, and the mediated relationship between God and men. They honor saints and angels. Catholic ideals are self-sacrifice, decency, and devotion. The internal organization of the Church has remained static over the course of centuries. Morality, too, has not moved: The Catholic visions of society and of the role of the nuclear family are no modern concepts. Above all else, the Catholic Church has preserved a sense of devotion to itself: It firmly believes in its own faith, in its Christ-given constitution and its subsequent role in the world.

The papacy has managed to adjust to the demands of contemporary times. Those changes will forever be associated with John Paul II, who continued and perfected the quest of his predecessors to position the pope within modern media culture as someone who would stand up for human rights and the livelihood of people around the globe. But the thematic re-orientation did not result in a reform of the institutional structures of the Church itself.

Church law is explicit in its formulation of the worldly role of the Church: Its task - the only task that was originally envisioned - is the saving of the souls of its members. All organizational aspects, all clerical activities and all self-descriptions are subordinate to that task. The Church is not an end in itself but rather serves to further the end of salvation of others. The kingdom of God is eternal, the Church is a temporary filler until the kingdom's advent. That implies that it cannot be God's will to let whole regions fall into oblivion because the Church cannot recruit a sufficient number of men who are willing to spend their lives in celibacy, and alone in rural rectories.

The object of priestly reflection is not the priest himself

Maybe the protestant rectory isn't much more than a bourgeois household veiled in religion. But at least it is more honest than the Catholic tradition, whereby many priests informally acquired a "maid" (or, more recently, a male companion) – a tradition that has led to a hollowing out of the Catholic faith under the banner of celibacy.

Still, truly celibate priests exist within the Church and counteract the image presented above. They show us that celibacy isn't an end in itself. It is an expression of a deep love towards God that they express through sexual abstinence. But love is hardly a simply concept: Each of us might experience it differently; clerics might differ in their approaches while still serving the Church and fulfilling the requirements of their sanctification. The object of priestly reflection is not the priest himself but the faithful believer; not the clergy but the parish - reformist ideas that were invoked at the Second Vatican Council.

The sanctified priest works within the diocese with other clerics whom he has known for years, with whom he has lived and studied under the same roof at the seminary. Eventually, hierarchies crystallize. Loyalties and affections are forged that cloud or prevent a clear and objective assessment of problems. The clergy is more than an assembly of colleagues, it is the family to each of its members. How can a priest reject that family when problems and accusations arise? We all know how hard it is to break ties with one's family. And the local parish has often failed to act as a corrective to the internal dynamic of the clergy.

But what should the disillusioned Catholics from Trier or Bavaria do? Convert to Protestantism? Certainly Protestantism is better than being undenominational. The German clergy must recognize that the image of the Church has changed significantly since in the fifty years since the Second Vatican Council, but that internal structures have remained unchanged: Here are the shepherds, there is the herd.

Today, the message to the bishops is this: Dig deeper, or find a new field to plow. You decide.

Alexander Görlach, The European


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