The Secret Catholic Insider Guide to Germany

Today, Germany is a world-beater. Beautiful cars, sculpted landscapes, sparkling clean cities, a social welfare system that provides for all  — Germany, the pariah of the world after World War II, was in 2013 voted the most admired nation on the planet.

Such amazing success is heady stuff indeed for the three generations since Hitler who have rebuilt this war-torn land with a traumatized population and a Marshall plan. 

German Language and  Ideology

Germans and their culture are often misunderstood, perhaps due to their difficult language and idiosyncratic culture. Linguists have long noted that the German language allows for precision in a way almost impossible to imagine in English or the Romance languages. For this reason, in the 18th and 19th centuries, German was considered to be the ‘best’ scientific language. (Full disclosure: Although I am a New Yorker, I speak German fluently, having been raised with it as my first language.)

The German language is also key to understanding the Germans’ love of ideas — good, bad or indifferent. From Luther to Marx to Freud, from Heidegger to Nietzsche to Hitler, Germany’s history is full of men of ideas who have vastly influenced the world. Ideas of course often quickly lead to ideologies — the Nazis amply demonstrated  the destructive power of an ideology fervently embraced.

This leads us to the question of the German’s idiosyncratic culture. Many have asked how such a modern, forward-thinking nation as 19th century Germany could turn into the war machine of the early 20th century — and the purveyor of death and destruction of the Shoah. This is a troubling question, particularly for the generations who have come afterwards.

Modernizing the Germans

Since the last War, German social engineers have endeavored to instill anti-conformism in a culture with a several-thousand year history of strict conformity to authority. They have succeeded mainly in making Germany’s young people conform in their enthusiasm for consumerism, internet-fueled trends and exotic vacationing.

One thing that most young Germans are not doing is getting married and having children. Despite government subsidies for each child, under the burden of mass derision for the traditional ‘hausfrau‘ role, families are simply failing to form. Anecdotal evidence from a few German young families reveals strangers lecturing parents with more than two children about their ‘anti-social’ tendencies; having a family in Germany is decidedly not ‘cool.’

Today, we see these cultural forces — ideology, conformism and  materialism — at play once again in Germany’s Catholics. According to the German bishops’ own statistics, the Catholic Church is Germany is in imminent danger —  Catholics are leaving in droves and the vast majority of those who remain in the Church do not attend Mass. (For more about why people are leaving, see here.)

Mass-goers are inevitably over age seventy; they sit passively while gray-haired priests harangue them about politics. (Afterwards, when asked about the content of the homily, most will shrug merrily and admit they were not paying attention. At all.) Younger people will only darken the door of a Church for the rare family wedding, first Holy Communion or baptism.

Funerals in this aging country are so common, however, that priests in some dioceses can’t be spared for them. Catholics are often cremated and interred — or their ashes spread over forest floors — without benefit of clergy. In many parishes, a once-a-month Requiem Mass is celebrated for anyone in the parish who has died; these are sparsely attended.

Fabulously Rich & Famously Liberal

What’s going on? The Church in Germany is fabulously rich — the beneficiary of a financial system which routes 9% of the income tax paid by Catholics into the Church’s coffers. (To be clear, if Catholics do not pay this, they will not receive the Sacraments.) The German bishops live and act like CEOs, which of course they are — as the Church employs 650,000 Germans, making it the second largest employer after the German state, more than six times the size of Mercedes Benz.

The German Church is also famously liberal — with bishops and theologians regularly issuing public demands that Rome abandon its ‘out-dated’ ideas and ‘get with the program’ of modern times. To outsiders, such arrogance may be  breathtaking, but it is important to understand the context for this.

The bishops’ broadsides aimed at Rome are an attempt to pander to the sensibilities of the German elites and media. The German bishops do a tremendous amount of talking about helping those less fortunate, because that is the single role that most Germans will willingly accord the Church. On matters of morals, they are expected to tow the secular line — which they do.

Accustomed to luxurious prelates and the high politics of Church and State, ordinary German Catholics are blase about such verbal pyrotechnics. They know that for centuries ferocious power struggles between the State and Church — not to mention between Protestants and Catholics — have cut a broad swathe of destruction across Germany’s tragic history. The diaspora of Germans across the New World, Eastern Europe and Russia have all resulted from the wars and famines induced by conflict. (So, if your family came from Germany, this is probably why.)

Clerics who rebel against Rome are old news, here.

The German Post-War Catholic Avant-Garde

There is a German word that has found its way into English — ‘ersatz‘ meaning something used as a substitute for the real thing. Here, in the homeland of ideology, there is a kind of ‘ersatz’ Arian catholicism which is firmly in control of the Catholic Church’s multi-billion euro revenues.

In the 20th century, Germany has been ground zero for the ideology of Modernism. Post-World War II, an avant-garde of German theologians were pretty much responsible for pushing  ill-defined liturgical and sartorial changes through the Second Vatican Council. Josef Ratzinger was among this group, though his later about-face earned him the everlasting enmity of former friends in German church circles such as Karl Lehmann, powerful Cardinal of Mainz and ‘free-thinking’ theologian Hans Kung. (In a presumably unrelated development, Dr Kung has just announced his intention to commit suicide to the world’s press.)

Modernist innovations have been zealously applied over the past few decades, not least in art and architecture. Tourists accustomed to the beauty of English and French stained glass windows are often disappointed in Germany. Ancient church windows bomb-blasted out were dutifully replaced by stained glass of two varieties: the dull and cheap or the ugly and expensive.  As for the medieval and baroque saints, they were stripped out of German churches and placed in diocesan museums, where they can be appreciated by culturati — as opposed to Mass-goers.

Churches stripped bare of piety are de facto evidence of  iconoclasm (in German ‘bildersturm‘ or ‘storm about pictures’) which fits nicely with the ersatz “catholicism’ propounded by today’s well-paid German theologians. It’s a kind of Arianism by another name — they have pretty much decided that any intelligent person should be able to see that Jesus of Nazareth was nothing more than a particularly effective social reformer. In Germany, this is ‘normal’ Catholicism.

A Crippling Shortage of Priests

Predictably, a course of study about a nice guy in Jerusalem 2000 years ago draws few students; hence, Germany has few seminarians.This state of affairs has been the status quo for decades, and the priest shortage here is acute. Most German parishes must share;  in some formerly Catholic areas there is only one priest for every 5-6 parishes.

The shortfall is partly made up by priests ‘borrowed’ from poorer countries. Their paychecks are very much needed in their home diocese, and their lack of German language proficiency and vulnerable status insures that they will not rock the boat. (Any attempts to beg funds for their desperately poor folks back home are coldly rebuffed.)

This is not to say that Germany does not have some stellar priests. These few, faithful men work very hard indeed, in a country where wearing a Roman collar has not been ‘done’ for decades. (Those who dare risk hostile stares, if not outright aggression from Germans, in public.) They must administer the Sacraments in parishes run by clueless laypeople who want to serve coffee and cake during Mass, show Powerpoint presentations in lieu of homilies — or indeed, during Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament — or stage children’s plays in the midst of the Mass. (We have personally witnessed each of these; the term ‘liturgical abuse’ is not known here.)

German laypeople are not wholly to blame, however, as the lack of basic catechesis is everywhere evident. Almost no one goes to Confession. Few genuflect before entering pews in German churches. Most Catholics have no clue about the Real Presence in the Tabernacle, which is often a strangely-decorated box set oddly to one side of an elevated platform.

Priests and layfolk alike in most parishes are loath to be quoted, too. This is because some Germans pay close — and vocal — attention to Church matters,  odd for a people who are such professed agnostics. In a notorious recent case, the Bishop of Limburg was publicly humiliated, ostensibly for lavish spending. In a astounding display of group-think, this scion of a famous noble family was painfully crucified in the media, and forced to step down. More than a few priests have privately confided that the Bishop’s crime did not involve money at all, but rather his efforts to instill orthodoxy in a diocese out of control.

German Church Slaps a  Stigma on the Latin Mass

Clown Masses, ‘masses’ presided over by women, masses with liturgies made up on the fly — according to many Catholics, the Latin Mass is the one innovation that the power structure of the German Church is loath to permit. For a country that is avowedly uninterested in ecclesiastical matters, online articles about the Latin Mass draw an astonishing amount of ire from commenters who assert that they are ‘normal’ Catholics. Unsurprisingly, Catholics who attend the Latin Mass will often not discuss this with their family or neighbors for fear of being ostracized.

Outsiders can be forgiven if they observe that this strange social stigma is redolent of an earlier, nastier era when opposition to Nazi ideology was similarly dealt with. (For more about what happened to those who resisted the zeitgeist during Nazi times, see here.) Fascinatingly, this smear on the Mass of Ages seems to stem from an apparently invented connection with Nazism.

Who made this odd connection? What is its nature? Diligent investigations for any proven historical evidence for this have led us precisely nowhere.The most we’ve been able to uncover is a distaste for tradition and an almost complete lack of historical perspective rooted in the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, which period in Germany has now assumed a halo of righteousness.

The greying ’68-er’ generation here — university students in the pivotal year of 1968 — continue to be revered for their ‘brave’ stance in opposing their parents’ Nazi past. Their tastes and ideas dominate everything in Germany; it may or may not be merely coincidental that their children are failing to form families. One thing is certain: the imminent passing of this 68-er generation will go unmarked by Last Rites, and they will not be mourned at Requiem Masses.

But it is possible that the stigma surrounding the Latin Mass is merely evidence of the Arian power structure’s terror of being supplanted. After all, there are only two forces which such a thoroughly modern Church has to fear: secularization (when the State grabs the Church’s assets) or the influence of the Faith, itself.

The real thing, that is.

A Future for a Thoroughly Modern Church?

If the real Faith does not prevail in Germany, most Germans now accept that the State takeover of Church properties is inevitable, probably within two decades. This will be because the nearly 650,000 employees of the Church cannot be sustained by 9% of the income tax paid by dead Catholics. It’s a demographic cliff that is looming.

Why is this country so important for Catholics outside Germany? In short, because its wealth makes it politically powerful;  it remains the driving economic force of the European Union. Influence accompanies wealth, of course — this is  as true in the Vatican as it is in Congress, Parliament or the Bundestag.

But what of the future of Catholicism in a country with a declining population, no seminarians, disbelief in dogma — which is openly antagonistic to the Faith?

Thanks be to God, it is not as bleak as it seems.

This is because — unknown to most ‘educated’ Germans today – Catholicism formed their civilization, beginning with an English monk who found his way to Mainz in the 500s. And it continues today, with brave German Catholics risking  ostracism from both their culture and their Church in order to pass the Faith on.

Our story begins with Boniface — and “The Secret Catholic Insider Guide to Germany” goes on to show how St. Peter’s Barque remains afloat in the stormiest of ideological seas.

Because even in Germany, the Faith will not die.

In Christ,

Beverly Stevens

Wiesbaden, Germany

March 2014


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