The West German Roman Catholic hierrarchy has aroused a hornets' nest in the midst of the crucial campaign to elect the country's next chancellor by appearing to favor the opposition Conservative candidate.
By its stand on specific issues that are upheld by opposition candidate (and Roman Catholic adherent) Franz-Josef Strauss, the Roman Catholic Church has, in effect, endorsed the Bavarian political leader.
Both Social Democratic Chancellor Helmut Schmidt (a onetime active lay Lutheran) and Free Democratic Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher (a Lutheran) have protested the partisanship of the Roman Catholic Church. And a number of lower-ranking Roman Catholic clergy have questioned the church's political involvement. But the bishops' conference has reiterated its intention to have its "pastoral letter on the election," which takes place Oct. 5, read in churches Sept. 20 and 21.
This letter, while not mentioning Strauss or Strauss's Christian Social Union (CSU) by name, pointedly criticizes polices that Strauss also criticizes, including the growing national debt and permissive divorce and abortion laws.
As soon as existence of the letter became known, Schmidt declared that it was no business of the churches to mix in politics -- and noted that neither of Old Testament nor the New Testament said anything about national debt. If priests or ministers want to participate in politics, the chancellor said, they should "first take off their cassock or robe. Politics doesn't belong in the pulpit."
Without explicitly challenging the propriety of the arrangement, Schmidt went on to point out that West Germany is one of the few countries in which church taxes are collected by the state. Are the churches really better off for this? Schmidt asked. (Taxpayers assign their church tax to either the Roman Catholic or the Lutheran church. Non-adherents of either denomination specify this on their income tax forms and do not pay the church assessment.)
Max Streibl, CSU finance minister in Strauss's strongly Catholic home state of Bavaria and chairman of the Tuntenhausen Catholic Men's Association, retorted to Schmidt by asking if the chancellor's reference to church taxes was an attempt to "blackmail" the churches. He categorized the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and Free Democratic Party (FDP) protests as an attempt to eliminate the church as a political force in West Germany. They revealed, he continued, a flawed attitude toward democracy and freedom of opinion.
The CSU welcome to partisan church intercession in an election may sound alien to Anglo-Saxons, who conceived separation of religion and politics as a democratic principle centuries ago. But it represents traditional German attitudes. Roman Catholic parties were part of the political scene here until World War II. Throughout the early 1960s clerics held high positions in the CDU and CSU, and it was routine for the Roman Catholic hierarchy to circulate pastoral letters that clearly supported the joint CDU/CSU chancellor candidate.
Vatican policies and the shifting West German political scene finally changed this hitherto unchallenged association of church and political party in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1965 the Vatican Council decreed that Christians may have differing opinions on "questions of the order of earthly things" -- and that no one may invoke "church authority" for one exclusive opinion.
In 1971 biships' synod in Rome further ordered restraint on all Roman Catholic hierarchies in all issues not explicitly mandated in the Bible. And in 1973 the West German Catholic bishops forbade priests from professing party affiliations publicly or from campaigning for any party.
For its part the German Lutheran Church also counseled restraint in political affairs to all its officials and pastors in 1970.
The Roman Catholic Church's intervention in the 1980 election thus represents a throwback to the 1950s.