Wednesday 24 April 2024

Diocese removes AfD politician from church post

The vicar general of Germany’s oldest diocese has defended the decision to disqualify a politician from a parish post because of his membership in the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

Fr. Ulrich Graf von Plettenberg told Der Spiegel magazine April 20 that the removal of Christoph Schaufert from his post on the parish administrative council of St. Marien in Neunkirchen, a city in the southwestern German state of Saarland, had generated “a lot of praise.”

“However, I have also experienced rejection, with some announcing their intention to leave the Church,” the Diocese of Trier’s vicar general said.

The move against Schaufert, who represents the AfD in the Saarland state parliament, came less than two months after Germany’s Catholic bishops unanimously approved a statement condemning the party, which is widely described as far-right.

In the Feb. 22 resolution, the bishops said that the AfD — founded in 2013 and currently surging in the polls — was “now dominated by a racial-nationalist attitude.”

They underlined that “the dissemination of right-wing extremist slogans — including racism and anti-Semitism in particular — is incompatible with professional or voluntary service in the Church.”

The AfD criticized the statement and complaints were reportedly sent to the Vatican.

Schaufert, who was baptized in St. Marien parish, joined the AfD in 2016, after 20 years as a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) and 10 years without a party affiliation. 

He is the first prominent AfD politician to be dismissed from a church office since the bishops’ statement.

Von Plettenberg noted that Schaufert “has not made any explicitly anti-constitutional or anti-Semitic statements,” or spread “any extremist opinions” in his role on the parish administrative council.

“But even if he does not position himself publicly in a way that can be criticized, it remains the case that he is a representative of a party that represents attitudes that contradict the Christian view of humanity — and that he does not distance himself from this,” the vicar general told Der Spiegel.

St. Marien has both a parish pastoral council, responsible for pastoral care, and a parish administrative finance council, which helps to oversee parish assets and personnel.

Both bodies appealed to the vicar general to review whether Schaufert should remain in his voluntary, elected post, in the wake of the German bishops’ statement. 

In an April 17 statement, von Plettenberg said he had consulted extensively within the Trier diocese, including with its Bishop Stephan Ackermann, as well as with Church officials in other dioceses. 

The vicar general also had a face-to-face meeting with Schaufert, who was elected to the Saarland state parliament in March 2022. 

“From the conversation with Mr. Schaufert, I can say that he is sticking to the high-ranking AfD offices and functions that he currently holds,” von Plettenberg said.  

“Even if he does not position himself publicly in a way that is vulnerable to attack, it remains the case that as a significant representative in the public eye, as the face of a party that represents attitudes that contradict the Christian view of humanity, he damages the credibility of the Catholic Church.” 

“Therefore, I no longer see any basis of trust for further collaboration with him. That’s why I decided to grant the parish’s request.”

Von Plettenberg said he mande the decision under the Diocese of Trier’s Church asset management law, an ecclesiastical law issued by the diocese bishop.

The law says that the vicar general “can dismiss a member for good cause, in particular for gross dereliction of duty or conduct that causes offense … and at the same time revoke his or her eligibility for election,” following hearings. 

Von Plettenberg said that, according to the parish members who approached him, the “good cause” refers “in particular to the fact that Christoph Schaufert is a high-ranking official and elected official of the AfD.” 

“The council members also point out that he does not publicly distance himself from extremist AfD positions and that this damages the community's reputation. This has resulted in a glaring loss of trust,” he said.

The vicar general added that Schaufert was excluded from all church ministries or appointed functions in the Trier diocese until further notice.

Schaufert has the right to appeal within 10 days of the decision, first to the bishop and then potentially to the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Clergy. The Trierischer Volksfreund reported April 22 that the 55-year-old father of four was likely to appeal.

St. Marien’s pastor Fr. Bernd Seibel welcomed the politician’s dismissal from the parish post.

“The church community is not closing a door here, but rather this door remains open for Mr. Schaufert,” he said in a statement issued April 17. 

“The church community continues to engage with people who hold extreme political views that contradict our Christian faith.” 

“We naturally want to convince them of our Christian view of humanity: a view of humanity that is based on the Christian message of a human-loving God.” 

Seibel added that Schaufert and his family had “never, and I emphasize never, brought their political views or party affiliation” into their service in the parish.

“We hope that he and his family will continue to remain connected to the parish,” he said.

German canon lawyer Georg Bier described the Trier diocese’s decision as “problematic.”

In an April 18 interview, he stressed that he welcomed the German bishops’ February declaration.

“Nevertheless, from a legal perspective, I consider it problematic to assess membership of the AfD across the board as an expression of ‘conduct that causes offense,’” he said. “In this respect, the justification for the exclusion raises legal problems, in my opinion.”

Von Plettenberg said in an April 16 interview with the German Catholic news agency KNA that Church officials and legal advisers were discussing whether there should be nationwide guidelines on cases such as Schaufert’s.

“An argument in favor of a nationwide regulation is that it would be clearer for the parishes what the requirements are for committee membership,” he said.

“Such incompatibility clauses already exist in the dioceses of Würzburg and Berlin, for example, when it comes to racist statements, xenophobia, positions contrary to human rights, or membership of a party that advocates such positions.”

The debate within the Catholic Church in Germany has been building since last August, when Irme Stetter-Karp, president of the influential lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), proposed that AfD members be barred from holding Church functions or “offices.”

By “offices,” Stetter-Karp meant all positions within Germany’s extensive world of Catholic associations, from parish councils to daycare centers, rather than more narrowly circumscribed canonically-defined “ecclesiastical offices.”

Stetter-Karp argued that the party had “moved further and further to the right” since it was founded and “it is clear that anti-Semitic, racist, inhumane attitudes and statements have no place in a Catholic organization.”

“Active support for the AfD contradicts the basic values ​​of Christianity,” she said, prompting a backlash from Catholic AfD members.

The AfD’s successful performance in last October’s state elections in Bavaria and Hesse prompted a debate across Germany over whether the country was experiencing a sharp “Rechtsruck,” or rightward shift. 

The results were notable because the party was previously seen as being confined to the former East Germany, which has higher levels of poverty and unemployment three decades after German reunification.

The AfD is expected to make further progress at the ballot box in 2024. In addition to June’s European Parliament election, there will be state elections in September in Saxony, Thuringia, and Brandenburg, in the former East Germany. The AfD currently leads opinion polls in all three states.

Strong showings would give the party momentum ahead of a federal election likely to be held in 2025, amid a debate over whether the party could be legally banned by being deemed in violation of Germany’s constitution.

The AfD’s current program says that Germany needs “negative immigration for several years” and “all rejected asylum seekers must immediately be returned to their countries of origin.”

It also promises measures to make Germany “more family- and child-friendly,” and states that “unborn children also have a right to life.” 

More than 100,000 people took to the streets across Germany in January after a report disclosed that AfD members had attended a November meeting at which the Austrian far-right activist Martin Sellner reportedly discussed a plan for the “remigration” (deportation) of sections of Germany’s population.

The AfD responded to the report by insisting that the issues Sellner discussed were not party policy. 

German bishops’ conference chairman Bishop Georg Bätzing and several other bishops took part in the January protests.