e-mail us


A Wagnerian mix of sex, laws and the Vatican


The biggest Catholic story in Europe for the past several weeks has been the drama surrounding the German bishops and their country’s abortion counseling system. It is beginning to resemble one of those vast Wagnerian operas: Just when you think it can’t possibly go on any longer, it turns out there’s another act left.

The situation is interesting not only because it revolves around a complex ethical dilemma, but also because it illustrates something about the ways of the Holy See under John Paul II.

Reunification left Germany with two abortion laws: liberal access in the East; tight controls in the West. The compromise was to make abortion legal in the first three months of pregnancy, but to require women to obtain a certificate showing they have received counseling.

There are some 1,700 counseling centers, of which approximately 270 are run directly by the church and another 160 by a Catholic social service agency. In some rural areas, the only centers are church-affiliated.

These Catholic facilities counsel approximately 20,000 women a year. About 5,000 opt to keep their child or to give it up for adoption.

The result is a classic ethical dilemma: Does this mean the church is saving 5,000 unborn lives, or is it complicit in 15,000 abortions?

In 1995, John Paul asked the bishops to stop issuing certificates.

A majority of German bishops, however, support the system. They argue it is more important to stand with women in need than to keep their own hands clean. A determined minority within the conference, however, believes preserving the clarity of church teaching on the sanctity of life is the higher value.

Two years ago, the bishops proposed remaining in the system but stepping up their efforts to promote abortion alternatives. In January 1998, John Paul said this was not enough and demanded withdrawal from the system.

The bishops again asked for time. This summer a compromise was struck: The church would remain in the system, but would print a statement on the certificates saying they could not be used to obtain an abortion.

The question arose as to whether, despite the phrasing, clinics would continue to accept the certificates. Archbishop Karl Lehmann of Mainz, chairman of the German bishops’ conference, said it was not a decision for the bishops to make.

All the German bishops signed off on the compromise. Shortly afterwards, however, conservative Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne expressed reservations to the pope, reportedly echoed by Archbishop Johannes Dyba of Fulda, who has never allowed the church to offer certificates in his diocese.

As a result, a special German delegation traveled to Castelgandolfo on Sept. 16, consisting of Meisner, Lehmann, and Cardinals Freidrich Wetter of Munich and Georg Sterzinsky of Berlin. They met with the pope, along with Cardinals Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state, and Joseph Ratzinger, head of the doctrinal congregation.

The result was a letter released just before the German bishops’ fall session, co-signed by Sodano and Ratzinger. It stated that the compromise was unacceptable.

Once more the bishops asked for time. In a show of resolve, they re-elected Lehmann chairman by a two-thirds majority. A statement said they would remain in the counseling system “for the time being” pending further appeal.

Thus, the story appears far from resolution. Most Germans seem to support the counseling system; yet one German newspaper editorialized that since it is common to criticize the church for not being more absolutist under the Third Reich, it seems disingenuous to urge compromise on abortion.

Some Catholic lay groups have said they will try to sustain the centers if the hierarchy withdraws support.

It is in terms of process, however, that the saga is most intriguing for Vatican-watchers. At one level, it looks like a standard case of Rome versus a local church. Yet when one increases the magnification, it looks more like a victory for a small coterie around the pope at the expense of the curia.

Despite his signature on the most recent Vatican letter, Sodano is known to have favored a compromise -- several German bishops said after a visit to the Vatican last year that Sodano supported the counseling system. Reports indicate that Sodano approved printing the prohibition on the certificates, realizing that women might be able to use them for abortions anyway. It was, as they say, a very Roman solution -- the requirements of church law would be met, while real life goes on.

Yet Meisner and Dyba were able to upset the deal. How? Keen observers say it is no accident that both Meisner and Dyba are of Polish descent. Both grew up in towns within a few dozen kilometers of John Paul’s home, Wadowice. It has long been clear that the backdoor to the pope opens on Poland; John Paul, observers say, has a core group of Polish-speaking advisers and often uses them to bypass formal Vatican channels. The decision on the German counseling system seems the latest case in point.

John Paul, perhaps not coincidentally, named Meisner one of three co-presidents for the upcoming European Synod.

The debate in Germany poses important questions of both substance and process. It will be interesting to see if anyone raises these issues at the synod -- and to watch how Meisner reacts.

John L. Allen, Jr. is NCR’s opinion editor.

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 1999