St. Hedwig Cathedral, seat
of the Archdiocese of Berlin
AS OF LAST YEAR, the “Red List” of the International Union of the Conservation of Nature identified 3,947 species as “critically endangered.” May I modestly propose that Berlin’s Catholics be added to this catalogue?
The northern German metropolis has never been a particularly religious place. With a full sixty percent of Berliners describing themselves as atheist or at least agnostic, a mere 9.2 percent self-identify as Catholic, just two percentage points ahead of the city’s Muslims. In the surrounding state of Brandenburg, a region informed as much by forty years of communist rule as by the Protestant Reformation, only 3.1% still eat the wafer and drink the wine.
The trend has been heading downward for decades and has to do with the Vatican’s perceived cluelessness about the nature of modern existence as well as with the financial burden of a government-collected “church tax” that is levied on registered believers. Berliners were also shocked by a vast pedophile scandal that rocked the once-illustrious Jesuit-operated Canisius Kolleg high school here in 2010, touching off a nationwide debate on child rape, as well as similar and seemingly incessant offences to human dignity at the hands of local Catholic clergy in recent years.
The Catholic Archdiocese of Berlin, which includes portions
of Brandenburg and West Pomerania, is shrinking
to just thirty parishes.
Among other effects, such outrages cool the desire of many believers to shell out their hard-earned cash every month in order to bankroll coverups and compensate victims. But revulsion against the Church is hardly restricted to Berlin: A recent study discovered that now, for the first time since Christianity first reached the Germanic territories in the sixth century, more people are leaving the Catholic Church than are being baptized into it.
These developments have been eating away at the Church as a public institution and employer. A decade ago, the Berlin archdiocese discovered that it was saddled with 148 million euros in debt and took drastic action: It slashed its parishes in the city and in neighboring regions of Brandenburg and West Pomerania from around 200 to 105 and dismissed 440 staff members.
Fish or cut bait?
Archbishop Rainer Maria Woelki .
Now, the daily Tagesspiegel reports, Berlin's new archbishop, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, is dropping even more ballast: His new austerity plan will consolidate the remaining parishes from 105 to just thirty by the year 2020. Schools and hospitals will be "networked" and those priests still left over will be relieved of administrative duties. In taking these measures, Woelki is apparently not responding to any immediate crisis but rather to recent demographic projections showing a massive decline in both the Catholic flock and in the availability of priests to lead it. Lord knows what he or his successor will announce in 2020. The Berlin Church could soon end up as an exclusive club financed by wealthier dioceses and, as is partially the case already today, the German government, which coughs up Cardinal Woelki's generous monthly salary as part of a sweetheart deal first hammered out in 1803.
Yes, we are living in trying times, and Woelki’s decision certainly makes sense from a strictly business perspective. And yet, it does seem like an odd choice for a man professing faith in charismatic and divinely inspired “fishers of men” like Jesus and the Apostle Peter. In the Book of Acts, the Church's first Pope presented a radically different scenario for a troubled era:
17 And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams:
18 And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy:
19 And I will shew wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath; blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke:
20 The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and notable day of the Lord come:
21 And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.
But we've moved a long way since the first century. When confronted with the choice to fish or cut bait, the good archbishop did not hesitate for a moment. Perhaps, like most German Catholics today, Woelki is wondering why he should bother to fish when he can get the fish sticks for free.