German Catholic bishops elect liberal leader

Germany: German Catholic bishops have chosen the liberal Archbishop of Freiburg, Robert Zollitsch, as their new leader and spokesman…

Germany:German Catholic bishops have chosen the liberal Archbishop of Freiburg, Robert Zollitsch, as their new leader and spokesman for a six-year term.

Archbishop Zollitsch (69) is a close friend of Cardinal Karl Lehmann, who announced his departure last month after 21 years due to poor health.

"We're theologically and personally so close that you'll find it hard to see a difference," said Archbishop Zollitsch, an attitude that extends to his views on ecumenism.

He repeated his view yesterday that the Christian churches had "much more uniting them than dividing them". Colleagues within the church value his discretion and managerial skills: in recent years, he has had the challenge of managing church finances in an era of falling vocations and empty churches.


Though a frontrunner, Archbishop Zollitsch's election came as a surprise; after two decades of Cardinal Lehmann's regular clashes with the Vatican, church watchers predicted that his successor would come from the dominant conservative wing of the church. But yesterday in Würzburg, a majority of the 71 bishops from Germany's 27 dioceses voted for Archbishop Zollitsch.

At just two years younger than Cardinal Lehmann, however, he may well be a transitional figure.

That could increase the chances next time around of the dynamic and popular Reinhard Marx (54), who has just been installed as Archbishop of Munich and Freising. He is understood to have only narrowly lost out this time and is viewed as a near certainty in six years' time.

Chancellor Angela Merkel congratulated Archbishop Zollitsch, praising his grasp of people's problems and the state of current affairs. "I await with great expectation your contributions to public discussions about societal questions," she said yesterday.

Archbishop Zollitsch said yesterday that he was aware of the "huge shoes" he had to fill.

As head of the German Bishops' Conference, Cardinal Lehmann was a hugely influential figure and a leading moral authority in German life who was known as much for his public battles with politicians as his high-profile clashes with the Vatican.

He disagreed with Rome over allowing Communion for Catholics who are divorced and remarried, as well as on priestly celibacy. He also supported the practice of providing counselling for woman seeking an abortion but eventually bowed to the demands of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to close down the service.