German bishops clash with Vatican

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German Catholic bishops gathered at a Wurzburg cloister last night for a crisis meeting, triggered by a papal letter criticising their stance on abortion.

The letter, sent by the Pope last week but kept secret so far, is believed to recommend that the German church curtail its activities in abortion counselling. Although its content will only be made public later this week, rumours of the papal intervention have provoked a rebellion. As the bishops met, Catholic groups demonstrated outside the cathedral, urging their spiritual leaders to resist the Vatican fiat.

The conflict stems from a German law less than three years old, which requires women who want to terminate their pregnancy to seek counsel. Only when they can prove that they have attended one of the advice centres will they be admitted to a clinic. Catholic charities run 264 of the nearly 1,700 counselling centres dotted around Germany.

The system, devised to confront mothers with the immorality of abortion, has placed the Catholics in a terrible dilemma. The law gives them the opportunity to dissuade pregnant women from ending their pregnancies. But women who persist can go to the Lutherans or non-church charities to obtain the necessary paperwork.

Thousands of women leave the centres resigned to or even rejoicing in their motherhood. But the Catholic charities' own figures suggest that between 60 and 70 per cent walk out of the session armed with the document. According to the hardline Archbishop of Fulda, Johannes Dyba, the Catholic church is guilty of issuing "licences to kill".

Archbishop Dyba is a dissenting voice in the liberal-minded German church. Now, because of the papal letter, there are fears that his minority conservative faction will prevail, and his heretical views will be blessed as orthodoxy.

The sudden tilt in the balance of power has infuriated the mainstream, and has even outraged Christian politicians. Catholic Bavaria has accused the Pope of plunging the church into its "worst crisis since the war". The federal government in Bonn is caught in the cross-fire between its 40 million-strong Catholic constituency and the Pope.