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The theocracy has fallen!
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Hundreds of thousands of employees of the Catholic church have been freed this week from fear that their employer will pry into their private affairs.
For over a century, Germans employed by the Catholic church could expect that private transgressions against the Vatican’s moral codes would lead to a loss of jobs and livelihood.
This all dates back to the constitution of the Weimar Republic that enshrined religious organisations’ right to look after their own affairs largely free from state interference.
That right was carried over into the modern German Republic, whose highest court has repeatedly ruled that Article 4 of the constitution gives the church the right to set its own labour laws.
What that means in concrete terms is that, if you are found guilty of an act of "serious personal moral misconduct", the church can fire you from its service.
And to be clear here, we are talking about far more people than just priests and church wardens. The Catholic church is the second largest employer in Germany after the state itself, giving work to some 800,000 people.
It runs hospitals, schools, kindergartens, care homes and other charitable organisations up and down the country.
But, up until now, the teachers, carers, doctors and administrators in these institutions have had to obey the strict rules of the church or risk losing their jobs. Homosexuality had to be hidden. Marrying for a second time could lead to an appointment with the job centre.
In essence, these people, many of whom weren’t even Catholics, were living in fear of censure by Germany’s own Khomeinist theocrats.
Back in the 1980s, Germany’s highest court, the Bundesverfassungsgericht, issued a landmark ruling against a doctor who’d been sacked by the church due to his criticism of its stance on abortion.
Subsequent labour disputes involving a divorced teacher who married for a second time and a doctor who carried out artificial insemination both cited this ruling in siding with the bishops.
Only in 2018 did the pendulum swing in the direction of workers’ rights. This time a head doctor of a Düsseldorf hospital, who had been sacked for entering into a second marriage, took his case up to the European Court of Justice. And he won.
The ECJ ruled that it was only acceptable for the Church to sack an employee for failing to follow its moral code if this affected his or her work. When the case went back to Germany’s labour court it ruled that the doctor’s martial status had no effect on his work and he therefore shouldn’t have been fired.
That ruling put pressure on the church to reform. But a quiet revolution within the church has been just as significant.
At the start of this year, a pressure group called Out in Church went public with its calls for reform. Made up of queer church employees, many of whom had until then kept their sexual orientation secret, the group said that they faced “the threat of consequences up to and including the destruction of our professional existence” if they were open about their sexual orientation.
In March, the group presented the German Bishop’s Conference (DBK) with a petition signed by 117,000 church members calling for a liberalisation of the rules.
On Tuesday, that pressure paid off.
"All employees can be representatives of God's unconditional love… regardless of their origin, their religion, their age, their disability, their gender, their sexual identity, or their way of life," the DBK said in a statement, adding that the only condition for employment is "a positive attitude and openness to the message of the Gospel.”
The statement made clear that people’s private choices will “no longer be subject to legal evaluations and is beyond the reach of the employer.”
The Catholic church has lost close to seven million members in Germany since reunification in 1990. Still, every fifth German remains a member of the Papal faith.
But the bishops are all too aware that they are stuck in a crisis of trust.
An ongoing criminal investigation of the cardinal of Cologne, Rainer Maria Woelki, on suspicion of lying under oath is just the latest evidence that the church has sought to hide the facts about the sexual abuse of children by members of the priesthood.
Germany’s bishops are deeply split over how to take the faith forward. Some support reforms that would be truly revolutionary for the church: allowing female priests and an end to celibacy. Conservatives though fear that the church is going through a “suicidal process” by pursuing reforms that contradict its own doctrines.
This week's statement by the DBK on labour law is still only a recommendation. It is up to the individual dioceses to enact it in law. It will be interesting to see whether all do so.