German chancellor hopeful Armin Laschet has met Pope Francis twice and, like the Argentinian pontiff, is a Catholic.
But what should be self-evident for the leader of a party called the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has instead triggered speculation. When Germans go to the polls on September 26th, will they elect a practising Catholic into Berlin’s chancellery to join another in the White House?
Like Joe Biden, Berlin watchers say Laschet practises a liberal, progressive Catholicism but, similar to the US leader, the 60-year-old German makes no secret that his faith informs his political decisions.
“Catholics have a drive to shape things on a global level; embedded in the papacy, we are rarely nationalists,” he said last week, livening up a dry Brussels panel discussion.
Catholicism has been a constant presence in Laschet’s life and career. He was born and raised in Aachen, seat of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor. Laschet attended a local Catholic school and was deeply embedded in his parish: as a Mass server, in the choir and in the local Catholic youth club.
Laschet considered becoming a priest but instead studied law before working as editor of a church newspaper and, later, head of a Catholic publishing house. His faith has popped up regularly throughout his 25-year political career: in the Berlin Bundestag, the European Parliament and back as minister president of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state.
Before his election victory there in 2017 he invited chancellor Angela Merkel on a tour of his beloved Aachen, accompanied by his close friend and adviser Msgr Heribert August.
Fairness and loyalty
The 74-year-old has known Laschet for decades, was the celebrant at his wedding and baptised his children. They speak on the phone regularly, particularly in moments of crisis. In this week’s Der Spiegel magazine, August describes his friend as “more of a Christian than a Catholic” who lives by principles of love-thy-neighbour, fairness and loyalty.
“He has a religion-based equanimity, the strength to endure complicated moments and the trust in God that things will work out for the best,” said August. “In this profession you need to have fight and shrewdness, and Armin has those: he’s no saint.”
That Laschet’s faith is an issue now shows how secular German politics have become since the days of Konrad Adenauer, the first West German chancellor and a strict Catholic who slept beneath a crucifix. Decades of Catholic CDU leaders was shaken in 2000 with the election of Merkel – a Protestant pastor’s daughter.
Merkel speaks rarely of her personal faith and how it informs her politics. In a rare exception, she cited Christian charity as her motivation during the 2015-2016 refugee crisis, when she faced huge pressure for accepting more than one million people into the country.
Laschet was one of her staunchest allies then, and last Tuesday he received a medal from the Catholic Order of Malta for his “political actions always based on Christian values” in that period.
More recently, Laschet was the most vocal in backing church leaders’ demands for a return to services.
Laschet will present his election manifesto on Monday, and political analysts will be watching closely for any shift back to traditional CDU Rhineland Catholicism in the Adenauer vein.
Some are already predicting a more conservative CDU should Laschet take the chancellery, pointing to his most influential adviser, Nathaniel Liminski, a 35-year-old father of four and member of Catholic organisation Opus Dei. He grew up as one of 10 children in a religious home where both parents were among the organisation’s estimated 600 German members.
In 2005, when World Youth Day was held in Cologne and attended by the German pope, Liminski set up a youth organisation loyal to him called Generation Benedict.
He gave many interviews back then and his conservative views have since resurfaced, in particular his opposition to abortion and a claim that he knew of “many homosexuals for whom I feel sorry”.
Today Laschet’s most senior adviser insists he has “learned the value of societal consensus on important issues” – reflecting the view of his boss.
Back in 2015, Laschet accepted the introduction of marriage equality as a politician while making clear his personal opposition as a Catholic. For the CDU leader and chancellor hopeful, “a union between a man and a woman is the best and most dependable basis for a successful family”.