Standing Firm: A German Bishop Defies Rome’s Line on Abortion Counseling

By Teagan A. Culler
Spring 2001

A German bishop who refused to cave in to pressure from Rome has been permitted to continue to offer abortion counseling in his diocese for one year, at which time the results of his work will be evaluated and a new decision made by the Vatican.

Abortion is legal in the first three months of pregnancy in Germany, but women must first present a certificate stating that they have undergone counseling at one of the country’s 1,700 state-recognized conflict counseling centers–several hundred of which were run directly by the Catholic church or by church-affiliated charities. Since 1995, the Vatican–fearing that the Catholic-run centers rendered the church complicit in abortion and gave mixed messages about the church’s stance on the issue–has pressured the German bishops to cease providing counseling services to women considering abortion. The bishops argued that the centers were an important counseling tool, since as many as 5,000 women, or 25% of those counseled, opted to carry their pregnancies to term.

In 1999, Pope John Paul II demanded that the bishops discontinue church-sponsored counseling that could lead to the issuance of an abortion certificate. Bishop Karl Lehmann of Mainz, president of the German bishops’ conference and widely known as a moderate, lobbied hard for the German church to continue its role in the health system, stating “as long as the church is a church for the people, it must occupy itself with the problems facing society.” Under enormous pressure, however, Lehmann eventually agreed to move the church-run centers away from furnishing the certificates without discontinuing counseling. In October 2000, the bishops’ conference voted almost unanimously to stop issuing the certificates. Many bishops expressed private opposition to the move, fearing that without the promise of a certificate, women would not go to Catholic-run centers for counseling and would therefore not be counseled from an anti-abortion perspective. Others feared that without the state funds that support the counseling centers in the certificate system, many centers would be forced to close. Nonetheless, all church-run counseling centers were slated to cease issuing certificates as of January 1, 2001.

However, one bishop, Franz Kamphaus of Limburg, declined to vote in October, stating that he had not decided whether he would follow the pope’s orders. Kamphaus, who was among those who argued that that the counseling centers provided the church’s best means of reaching women considering abortion, refused to implement the new policy in his diocese at the beginning of the year. Instead, he initiated a visit to Rome to discuss his position with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re of the Congregation for Bishops. Eventually, Kamphaus reached a compromise with Rome that will allow agencies in his diocese to furnish the women they counsel with certificates for one year. At the end of 2001, the Vatican will evaluate whether Kamphaus’ program has deterred more women from getting abortions than those of the dioceses that have withdrawn from the certificate system.

Some European Catholics note that while Kamphaus’ bravery is laudable, his motivations do not differ from those of the institutional church. Gerd Wild, of the Catholic reform group Initiative Christenrechte in der Kirche, noted that in announcing the compromise with the Vatican, Kamphaus condemned abortion as a crime and stated that it could never be considered morally justifiable. “This is terrible!” said Wild. “If the women who do the actual counseling in the diocesan centers had the same conviction, they would certainly not be able to counsel with respect for any [outcome], as expected under the federal law. My only hope is that they follow their own consciences and insight,” he added.

In December 2000, the bishops’ conference announced a publicity effort aimed at reassuring Catholic women with unwanted pregnancies that the church had not abandoned them despite its withdrawal from the counseling system. The multimedia campaign accompanied an avowal from the bishops to expand their services for women with crisis pregnancies to include financial and housing assistance.

Many German Catholics disagreed with the bishops’ decision to leave the system. Two separate Catholic lay organizations have founded independent counseling centers that issue certificates. Frauenwürde, a small but solid grassroots group founded in 1998 by the women of We Are Church Germany, counsels women in a “Catholic spirit,” according to Wild, and encourages them to consult with their partners and families, consider their current situations, and follow their consciences. The group now runs four counseling centers in Germany. The second group, Donum Vitae (The Gift of Life), was founded shortly after Frauenwürde by several prominent German Catholics, including a former president of Germany’s Zentralkomitee of Lay Catholics, two state prime ministers, and the president of the federal parliament. By far the better-funded and larger organization, Donum Vitaeplans to open about a hundred new centers this year. It was founded with the intent of dissuading women from having abortions, and the organization initially planned to add a note to the certificates it issued stating that they were not an endorsement of abortion. It has since opted not to qualify its certificates in such a fashion, and the two groups now work closely together, though Frauenwürde remains the pilot for a Catholic-based, non-directive counseling group. The Vatican has harshly criticized both organizations, which it considers to be acting in direct opposition to the pope.

John Paul II also chastised the German bishops in a strongly worded letter dated February 22. The letter alleged that German theological institutions were “allowing doctrine to be selected at pleasure,” and accused the hierarchy of creating confusion between the roles of the priests and the laity. It also complained that the German bishops had failed to defend the traditional family.

Despite the letter’s scolding tone, some speculate that the Kamphaus compromise indicates that the Vatican may be shifting its stance slightly. While German Catholics have not abandoned the church in quite the numbers as Catholics in other countries, it is clear that the energy and desire for reform is strong. Wild points to a survey conducted in May 2000 by the FORSA Institute: Of 503 practicing Catholics, a majority said they could envision a church without a pope. “Maybe the astonishing decision to name four new German cardinals, including–finally–Karl Lehmann, is a sign that the Vatican in fact fears a new reformation,” says Wild.

Lehmann, 64, had been passed over in three earlier Consistories, and was not included in the pope’s original list of 37 new cardinals released prior to the induction. In addition to the conflict over abortion counseling, Lehmann has also clashed with Rome over the position of divorced and remarried Catholics in the church.

Tegan Culler is Associate Editor of Conscience.

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