Chief shepherds with experience of conflict

Chief shepherds with experience of conflict

This Monday, the German Bishops' Conference can celebrate a very special anniversary: it is now 150 years since the German Catholic bishops established a permanent conference in Fulda.

For a church that thinks in centuries, 150 years is not yet a very long stretch of time. But at least the jubilee shows: There was already a German Bishops' Conference before the German nation state was founded. And what was launched in 1867 even had a predecessor: the first "Assembly of German Bishops" on the 23rd of December 1867. October 1848 in the seminary of Wurzburg.

At that time, however, one was still very far away from what constitutes a bishops' conference as a fixed institution: There was no fixed meeting rhythm, no secretariat with its own staff and office building, just as there were no commissions or even a business-capable "Association of the Dioceses of Germany" (VDD).

But something decisive characterized even the first assembly: serious debates were held, a free exchange of opinions was cultivated, and pressing questions of the time were dealt with. And there was a chairman in the Archbishop of Cologne, Johannes von Geissel, who wisely moderated the discussions.

Some basic conflicts that characterized the 1848 meeting were also virulent in 1867 when the permanent bishops' conference was founded, and ultimately they continue to have an effect today. This includes the special role of the Bavarian bishops, who held their own "Freising Bishops' Conference" starting in 1850.

In 1848, a structural permanent ie also came up: Some bishops proposed to establish a common headquarters of the German church. This proposal did not find a majority. Even back then, there was a strong resistance to anything that smelled of centralism – and not only in Bavaria.

Among the permanent topics of the early years was also the relationship with the state. The bishops tried to free the church from state tutelage. At the same time, the Church should exert a formative influence on the new society through its own educational offerings, but also through active participation in the political process.

The fact that in 1848 the Catholic lay associations had come together for the first time for a large, Germany-wide meeting (the forerunner of the later Katholikentage) underscored the potential of the Catholic Church as a social force in the future nation-state.

In 1867, there was also the anxious question of how the Catholic Church could defend its positions in the future "Kleindeutsche Reich" dominated by Prussia – when it would never constitute a majority of the population because the Catholic Austro-Hungarian Empire was not part of the new German Empire.

Alternative to the National Synod

After all, there was already in the 19. In the twentieth century, there was a lively conflict between a Roman-centralist perspective and the desire for more national autonomy on the part of the German chief shepherds. For example, the 1848 meeting unanimously decided to give Pius IX. to ask for the convocation of a German national synod. The pope rejected the bishops' request but praised their cooperation. And so, in 1867, they created the "Fulda Bishops' Conference" as a substitute according to the principle: If not a national synod, then at least a national bishops' conference!

150 years ago, from 16. up to 21. October 1867, 20 German bishops and episcopal representatives met for the first time in Fulda at the tomb of St. Boniface, the "Apostle of the Germans". They elected the Archbishop of Cologne, Paulus Melchers, as chairman. Only now did the conference become a permanent institution with rules of procedure. The term "statute" was avoided so as not to arouse the suspicion that the new body was claiming too much power for itself!

In the rules of procedure of 1867 it says: "The episcopal conferences do not aim to represent the German episcopate as a whole … or legislative activity."Even now, there was still no desire for a central secretariat, and it was decided that the chairman should only remain in office until the next meeting. The "Fulda Bishops' Conference", now officially called the "Fulda Bishops' Conference", was recognized by the Vatican.

From 1869 the institution gradually solidified. The re-election of the president was introduced by acclamation – actually contrary to the statutes. The bishops soon changed the initially decided biennial meeting rhythm to an annual one. The disagreements with Rome, where at the First Vatican Council papal infallibility was decided against the will of many German bishops, preoccupied the Fulda Conference, as did the pressing "social question".

The Bishop of Mainz, Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler, held flaming speeches in Fulda and urged his confreres to finally take up the cause of the impoverished industrial proletariat. The Kulturkampf in Prussia, where Bismarck attempted to massively restrict the public activities of the Catholic Church, also required regular consultations of the bishops.

Inconsistent in times of crisis

The need for consultations and resolutions did not diminish in the course of Germany's eventful history. Only the composition and the name of the Bishops' Conference changed again and again. Thus the Bavarians were not present from 1873 to 1919. From 1933 the body was called the "Plenary Conference of the German Bishops", and from 1939 even the "Plenary Conference of the Bishops of the Dioceses of Greater Germany". The attitude of the senior pastors toward Weimar democracy and the role of the Center Party was inconsistent, and the debates were sometimes heated.

There was no clear line on Nazi rule. The chairman, Cardinal Adolf Bertram of Breslau, who held office from 1920 to 1945, limited himself mostly to non-public forms of protest against the murderous acts of violence committed by the Nazis. Others, such as Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen of Munster, risked more and audibly took a stand.

After the war, a Cologne archbishop again led the bishops' conference until 1965: Under the leadership of Cardinal Josef Frings, all of them – including the Bavarian and Central German chief shepherds – initially met annually. But the Cold War soon reached Fulda as well. After the GDR border was closed in 1961, ordinaries from the East could no longer travel there.

A separate conference of the East German bishops (Berlin Ordinaries' Conference) had already existed since 1950. In 1976 – after the reorganization of the East German jurisdiction with the appointment of Apostolic Administrators in Erfurt, Magdeburg, Schwerin and Gorlitz – the upgrading to the "Berlin Bishops' Conference" took place, which was only merged into the German Bishops' Conference after the fall of the Berlin Wall. During the term of office of the then chairman, Bishop Karl Lehmann of Mainz, the diocesan boundaries in the former GDR were finally reorganized.

It was not until the 1950s that the bishops, profiting from the economic miracle, began to set up a central administrative unit of the Bishops' Conference. Despite some misgivings, a permanent secretariat was set up in Bonn, then the federal capital, commissions were set up to deal with individual ies, and staff were recruited.

With the Council Decree "Christus Dominus" (1965), the Bishops' Conferences all over the world were given a stronger position within the Church hierarchy. 99 years after the bylaws of 1867, the German bishops gave themselves a new statute on 2 March 1966. March 1966 a corresponding statute.

Binding norms

Now the German Bishops' Conference was "the union of the bishops of the German dioceses, formed with the approval of the Apostolic See … for the study and promotion of common pastoral tasks, for mutual consultation, for the necessary coordination of church work, and for the joint enactment of decisions.". Two years later, an independent legal entity was founded under the name "Association of German Dioceses" (VDD).

The chairman of the Bishops' Conference – currently Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich – is also chairman of the VDD General Assembly. So since 1966, the bishops' conference has been able to act nationwide and also adopt binding norms for all members. Not least after the abuse scandal came to light since 2010, it became clear how necessary nationwide unified action by bishops can sometimes be.

Since 2013, the Pope Francis has been ruling in Rome, and he is apparently willing to give the national bishops' conferences even more autonomy and better opportunities to participate in the governance of the universal church. Under him, reservations in the Vatican about the comparatively young intermediate level in the church hierarchy seem to be waning.

Conflicts between Rome and the national bishops' conferences have since become rarer. The skepticism of individual bishops against a threatened restriction of their autonomy in favor of the bishops' conference will, of course, continue to exist. But even they would not want to return to the strictly anti-centralist rules of procedure of the Fulda Bishops' Conference of 1867, which were shaped by the spirit of the Provisional – they would simply no longer be in keeping with the times.

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