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Decision time for German bishops
By Clare Murphy,

At the end of March the clergy of the German Catholic Church will meet to decide their future in the provision of abortion counselling.

Under Paragraph 218, German women can only gain access to abortion services after they have undergone a session of counselling, and have been issued with a certificate acknowledging the counselor's satisfaction with the session (see Distance or Control, on this web-site). Counselling is carried out in state approved centres, amongst which a significant number are run by the church.

Pope John Paul II is however unhappy with this, labeling it, and justifiably, a 'blatant hypocrisy'. If the issuance of a certificate gives women access to abortion, and abortion is forbidden within the Catholic Church, then the church's involvement in counseling is highly problematic.

He has however met with a significant level of opposition, both from within the higher ranks of the church and from the Catholic welfare organisations and unions involved in the provision of counselling.

It would be cynical to suggest that church counsellors are protesting on account of the fact that they would lose their livelihoods if the Pope's wishes were followed. And indeed, in the midst of what has become quite a fierce debate, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that neither side really disagrees with each other on the rights and wrongs of abortion. As far as both sides are concerned, abortion is wrong and should be prevented.

A woman's desire to terminate her pregnancy is seen by many counsellors, and not just those within the church, as an indication of other, deep-rooted problems. In a recent interview published in the Frankenpost, a spokeswoman from a Caritas (a catholic welfare organisation) counselling centre in Bamberg commented:

"Women often see in abortion the solution for all their problems, and this is exacerbated by the fact that it has been legitimated by the state. It is our intention to bring the woman in question to seek the real reasons behind the way she feels at that moment in time, and to make it clear that abortion is not, in the long term, the answer to her problems."

An important component of the counselling session is emphasizing the help available were the woman to carry her pregnancy to term. The offer of more concrete help, from places at the local kindergarten to subsidies for accommodation and baby clothing, is something that the church counselling advocates are pressing for. With their involvement in the service, they hope to be in a strong position to dissuade.

"If we step out of the counseling system," warns the Limburger bishop Franz Kamphaus, "we're out of the door. We've got a lot to lose."

The debate also highlights the more general problem of the role of the church in today's society. There are those bishops who feel that while involvement in the counselling system may be hypocritical, as the pope argues, it is nevertheless important in keeping the church from becoming socially marginalised. One almost has more admiration for the Pope who at least has principles he adheres to.

According to the bible of the German chattering classes, Der Spiegel, the outcome will probably be a compromise that will involve staying in the system. Fear that what has happened in neighbouring Austria, where the church has suffered an irreconcilable rift over abortion and female priests, could happen in Germany, will most likely mean that strong personal feelings are put aside.

The right hand man of the pope in Germany, Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne, a powerful man, will not be one of those happy with a compromise. He has support from the German catholic aristocracy, holding a petition with 100 signatures, amongst whom there are princesses, duchesses and baronesses, where he has stated that "the Church should as a matter of course leave the counselling system. Because we should save what there is left to save."

The debate provides an insight into the problematic nature of counseling. While church centres, under state regulations, are obliged to provide an 'objective' service, its very existence contradicts that.

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