German Social Democrats attack Catholic faith of potential Angela Merkel successor’s aide

Armin Laschet, now the leader of the Christian Democratic Union, speaks at the party headquarters in Berlin, Jan. 11, 2017. Credit: photocosmos1/Shutterstock.

Berlin, Germany, Aug 11, 2021 / 10:42 am (CNA).

An anti-Catholic video targeting the election campaign of a potential successor to Angela Merkel has drawn criticism from bishops and politicians in Germany amid growing concerns about a wider erosion of religious freedom in an increasingly secular Europe. 

The video was published online and shown at an election event of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in early August. It depicts Armin Laschet, the Christian Democratic Union’s candidate to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel, as a Russian Matryoshka doll that “hides” several other dolls inside. 

“Whoever votes for Armin Laschet and the CDU, votes for … ultra-Catholic Laschet confidants for whom sex before marriage is a taboo,” an ominious voice-over tells viewers, while a further Russian doll, bearing face the face of a close aide to Laschet, is revealed from inside the bigger doll.

The aide is a 35-year-old Catholic in charge of the Laschet’s office in the State of North Rhine-Westphalia by name of Nathanael Liminski. As a practicing Catholic, Liminski in 2010 defended the Church’s views on pre-marital sex and homosexuality in a TV show. He also co-founded the group “Generation Benedict” following World Youth Day 2005. (The organisation changed its name to “Pontifex Initiative” after Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation from office).

In response to the video clip, the German Bishops’ Conference called for a fair election campaign. “We consider the way in which the election commercial deals with the expression of a religious conviction to be inappropriate,” a spokesman of the conference told media. A parliamentarian and spokesman for religious affairs of the CDU, Hermann Gröhe, also weighed in, accusing the SPD of stoking up anti-Catholic sentiment.

The controversy has also sparked a wider debate over concerns for religious freedom and growing anti-Catholic sentiment in particular in German society, with one expert on constitutional law, who is also a Catholic canon lawyer, warning of a break with Christian tradition in German society. Professor Hans Michael Heinig told the Berlin newspaper “Tagesspiegel” on August 7,  the SPD spot constituted a “paradigm shift” that identified the minority of practicing Catholics as problematic in wider society. He warned that this shift “can undermine religious freedom and a sufficiently clear distinction between religion and politics.” 

Attacking political opponents, in particular their personal faith, has so far been considered a taboo in modern German elections. The socially powerful consensus so far has been that election commercials and campaigns should focus on policies and issues, not polemics and populist claims about opponents. Nonetheless, Liminski’s Catholic faith has come under intense media scrutiny in recent months, with a number of secularist and left-wing media such as the “Tageszeitung” running critical portraits of “Laschet’s right-hand man“.

German voters will go to the pools on September 26 to vote for a new federal government and a successor to long-time Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has led the country since the year 2005. The question of how a clearer separation of Church and State can be achieved in light of an increasing number of German Catholics turning their backs on the Church will be one of the challenges facing the new government.

The Church in Germany received 6.76 billion euros from the church tax in 2019, an increase of more than 100 million euros compared to 2018. The rise is believed to be due to the growth of Germany’s economy in 2019.

While the number of Catholics abandoning the faith has increased steadily since the 1960s, the Church’s income has risen. In 2019, a record number of Catholics left the Church in Germany, with 272,771 people formally leaving. 

Pope Francis took the historical step of writing a 28-page letter to German Catholics in 2019, urging them to focus on evangelization in the face of a “growing erosion and deterioration of faith” in their country. More recently, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI., who hails from the German State of Bavaria, expressed strong concern about the lack of faith within Church institutions in Germany.

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