National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 16, 2004

German churches back away from critique of social reform


Across Germany, trade unionists, disaffected Social Democrats and tens of thousands of pensioners took to the streets April 3 in the largest demonstrations to date against the center-left German government’s social reforms.

The sight of 250,000 protesters in Berlin alone, which included key parts of the ruling Social Democrats’ traditional constituency, further unnerved a jittery leadership, whose showings in opinion polls and elections have plummeted since it came to power in 1998. Protesters wielded banners that read “[Chancellor Gerhard] Schröder’s got to go -- For a new left party” and “Social cutbacks don’t create jobs.”

Uncharacteristically, the German churches -- Protestant and Catholic -- were not officially represented at the nationwide demonstrations. In the past, church leaders had been closely allied with trade unions as prominent critics of political proposals to tamper with Germany’s extensive postwar social welfare system. Today, however, they are actively supporting a thorough restructuring of Germany’s ailing welfare state, sometimes to the chagrin of their parishioners.

The Protestant and the Catholic church take nearly identical stands on the range of issues associated with the government’s ongoing reforms, including in health care, education, social aid and pensions. They now insist that reform is necessary and urgent, although they oppose a restructuring that tends to burden those with lower incomes, a common criticism of the German left. In particular, the churches have been highly critical of the government’s new pension scheme, which freezes cost-of-living increases for all state pension recipients for the foreseeable future.

In contrast to the past, the status quo is no longer sacred. “In order to save Germany’s social system, we are compelled to undertake far-reaching structural reforms, some of which will unfortunately hurt some people,” explains Frank Ronge of the Catholic Bishops’ Commission in Bonn. “If we want to have a functional system in 20 to 30 years, one that will be there for those who need it, then we have to change the one we have. Everybody knows that Germany can’t afford the same system it has had for decades. It’s a question of today versus tomorrow, and we need to think long-term.”

Protestant Bishop Wolfgang Huber declined to attend the weekend’s trade union-led demonstrations or even endorse them in word. “There’s a lot there that we concur with,” explains Jens Kräuter, social affairs expert for the Protestant church, referring to the manifesto drawn up by the demonstrations’ organizers. “Many of these reforms tend to affect society’s poorest strata. But the unions express it so crassly, ultimately saying no to reforms. They claim that reinstituting an inheritance tax, for example, will fix the system. That’s simply wrong and, ultimately, counterproductive.”

Many German Christians, much like trade union and Social Democratic Party members, identify Germany’s extensive social welfare system, which includes free university education and comprehensive health care, with the success of postwar Germany and a more social, humane type of market economy, one often contrasted to that in the United States. Church leaders don’t favor an American-style system but they have recently adopted a new tone. Rather than defending the system tooth-and-nail, they are trying to rally their believers to back the current reforms.

In a much-circulated speech last year titled “Courage to Reform,” the Protestant church’s assembly president Manfred Kock urged Germans to help facilitate a constructive reform process rather than become obsessed with its short-term fallout. “It is important that we not be infected by the gloomy mood prevalent in the country. It simply isn’t fair to say that Germany is going straight downhill,” Kock said. He continued: “Some claim that a slightly higher contribution to the health system, or higher taxes on fossil fuels and tobacco, or the elimination of some tax benefits implies a national emergency, that citizens should go and ‘man the barricades.’ This doesn’t create a climate in which the necessary decisions can be made and carried out.”

Church representatives say that German Catholics and Protestants are warming to the idea of reforms only slowly. “We’ve had to ask ourselves whether the message is getting through,” says the Catholic church’s Ronge. “Maybe we have to raise our voice some.”

The very same problem confronts the Social Democrats, although with implications more dire. Its members find it hard to swallow that the same party that stands for the social welfare state in Germany is overseeing what they see as its dismantlement. The party has lost a third of its 1 million members since it took office six years ago, and, should polls prove accurate, will fare poorly in regional elections scheduled this year.

Paul Hockenos is a freelance writer living in Germany.

National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 2004

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