The papal letter, the fourth on the subject, orders the German Catholic church to stop issuing controversial counselling certificates, which conservative clergy describe as "licences to kill". Under German law, these are required of all women seeking abortion, to prove that they have fully considered their actions.
German bishops thought they had placated Rome in June, when they reluctantly agreed to stamp the documents with the words: "This certificate cannot be used for the carrying out of a legal abortion."
But in a letter which leaked out yesterday, the Pope accuses his German flock of undermining the credibility of the Mother Church, and calls for "clarity". The letter was addressed to the German bishops' conference, which opened on Monday in Fulda, west Germany. They reacted with a vote of confidence in the chairman, the liberal bishop Karl Lehmann, with a two-thirds majority. However, they cannot ignore the Papal edict, and now must endeavour to reach "clarity".
That is no easy task. Under the law, women seeking an abortion must demonstrate that they are not taking their action lightly. Before visiting a clinic, they must see a counsellor. All the main churches as well as the state provide such a service, and Catholics are not obliged to go to a Catholic counsellor. More than 20,000 Catholic women visit counselling centres run by their church every year. Some 5,000 change their minds and decide to have their child. The rest listen, collect their certificate and head for the nearest gynaecologist.
The church is divided over the numerical interpretation of its role. The majority point to the saving of 5,000 lives a year and salvation for their mothers' souls. The conservatives, however, can only see complicity in the murder of 15,000 human beings.
For the progressive majority of the German church, there is more at stake than numbers. Clerics argue that the church has a duty to stand by its people in their time of need. That means maintaining a nationwide network of 270 counselling offices.
To withdraw from the system, the progressives feel, would sever an important link with the faithful, and alienate German believers, most of whom do not subscribe to the papal dogma on abortion.
But withdraw the German church must, as Karl Lehmann conceded yesterday. He and his colleagues will be discussing the matter for the rest of the week before they reply to the Vatican. He has managed to stall the Pope before, and might again be playing for time.
One solution to the dilemma is to leave the matter to the conscience of each German bishop. Then the conservatives would stop issuing the certificates, and progressives would not. This would avoid a schism with Rome, but would split the German Church right down the middle, with pregnant women forced to travel from conservative dioceses to progressive ones on their way to the hospital.
Another solution is to let Catholic lay organisations take over the counselling. But these have no money of their own, so the church would still have to help them out. Either way, it does not look as though the Pope will get the clarity he is seeking.Reuse content