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Religion

German bishops have plenty to talk about

From the election of the next pope to the morning-after pill, Catholic bishops have much to talk about at their annual conference.

The German Catholic Bishops' Conference in the western city of Trier will be a mixture of uncertainty, diagnosis and prayers. Following Pope Benedict XVI's recent announcement of his resignation at the end of the month, the election of a new leader of the church is high on the agenda. Four of the 66 members of the Bishops' Conference will travel to Rome to elect the new pope: 76 year-old Cardinal Karl Lehmann, Cologne Cardinal Joachim Meisner (79), Munich Cardinal Reinhard Marx (59) and Berlin Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki (56). They are members of the papal conclave which elects the pope, and which is made up of cardinals who are under 80.

A man leaving a church
Photo: Ingo Wagner dpa/lby

The church is suffering from dwindling membership

At the moment, the German bishops are being unusually open about their desires and expectations for Pope Benedict XVI's successor. They want a much younger pope - who doesn't have to come from Europe. They are criticizing the Italian system of the Curia. Cardinal Lehmann lamented its "centralism." He spoke of Benedict XVI's disappointment and loneliness, pointing to the lack of good people around him. But the bishops who have gathered in Trier are not suggesting any names or even indirectly indicating any preference. That wouldn't be the done thing.

Sexual abuse

But there is a need to discuss German issues too. The process of dealing with the sexual abuse that took place in church institutions has stalled. The German Bishop's Conference began working with the criminologist Christian Pfeiffer in 2011. Researchers wanted to draw lessons for the training of priests and church practice by looking at biographies of offenders across the country.

However, church officials and criminologists found themselves at odds and are now squabbling over legalities. Spokespeople for the victims, the media and politicians have been disappointed by the row, and there's been a wave of indignation throughout the country.

Bishop of Trier Stephan Ackermann is coordinating the Church's efforts to deal with the child abuse scandal. He is expected to announce how the bishops plan to carry forward their commitment to investigate what happened.

A blister pack with a morning-after pill
Photo: Rolf Vennenbernd dpa/lnw

The bishops seem to want a reform on the rules for the morning-after pill

Apart from the sexual abuse scandal, the bishops will also be discussing another issue which has caused much outrage in Germany. In Cologne, two Catholic hospitals refused to give help to a victim of rape. The doctors were apparently afraid to prescribe the morning-after pill, which would have prevented pregnancy. It now looks as if the church will allow Catholic hospitals, despite their strict ban on abortion, to prescribe the morning-after pill to rape victims.

Both these issues have led to a loss of trust in the Catholic Church. In addition, there's a smoldering debate over special privileges enjoyed by the church, such as its exemptions from certain elements of labor law. The number of people belonging to the Catholic Church has been falling steadily, and currently stands at around 24.5 million followers.

More 'hot potatoes'

These scandals have overshadowed internal wranglings in the Catholic Church. Bishops and laity have been involved in a so-called "dialogue process" since 2010 to discuss issues such as how the church deals with remarried divorcees or increased ecumenical opening.

Two nuns
Photo: Patrick Pleul

The bishops will discuss the role of women, but no change is expected.

One major issue is the role of women in the church, for which the bishops are planning a special day of study during which they will look at the idea of women in positions of leadership. But it's unlikely that there will be any concrete arguments from the bishops in favor of involving them more closely.

For the last few years, the bishops have not allowed media coverage of the meetings. It's unthinkable that journalists would be allowed to listen to their debates, as they can when the synod of the other major German church, the Lutheran-Reformed church, meets. The results of the bishops' deliberations will only be known on Thursday, when they announce them at the closing press conference.

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