MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Many say the Catholic Church in Germany is experiencing a crisis. It's facing scandals over sex and child abuse, and it no longer has enough priests to serve parishes.
Kyle James reports that calls are going out for the church to rethink some of its basic principles. That includes the requirement that priests remain celibate.
Mr. GERHARD STREICHER (Psychologist): (Speaking foreign language)
KYLE JAMES: Gerhard Streicher is a psychologist in the town of Jena, south of Berlin. Today he's wearing a comfortable sweater. But he used to wear a white collar to work. Gerhard Streicher was a priest until, that is, he told his bishop about the seven-year relationship he'd been having with a woman, the woman who is now his wife.
Mr. STREICHER: (Through translation) It made me a better priest. I understand people and their lives better. But celibacy was a big contradiction. The thing that actually made me a good priest pushed me to the margins of the church.
JAMES: Influential voices in Germany are questioning some central church tenets and especially the celibacy rule. Many say it's partly to blame for a shortage of clergy. By 2020, two-thirds of parishes in Germany might not have their own priests. Celibacy keeps young men from entering the seminary, they say, and prevents the church from ordaining married men who feel a calling later in life.
Theologians and even well-known conservative Catholic politicians, like Hermann Kues, are asking the church to rethink celibacy, especially since it's not a doctrinal requirement.
Mr. HERMANN KUES (Politician): (Through translation) The church doesn't change very quickly, and we know that, but we think we've come to a point where we have to demand it. Celibacy rules were originally introduced on practical grounds, and so I think that they can be changed for practical reasons, as well.
(Soundbite of music)
JAMES: Most German Catholics agree with the calls for change in several areas. Surveys show that big majorities disagree with official church positions on the role of women, gays and lesbians, and sexuality in general. More than three-quarters of Catholics don't think celibacy makes sense anymore.
Andreas Schmidt attends mass at St. Hedwig's Cathedral in Berlin.
Mr. ANDREAS SCHMIDT: Celibacy should be the liberty of every priest, and they should be able to decide. But I think it's very good that the discussion has started and begun. And I hope it's not stopped by the head of the church.
JAMES: But Pope Benedict, who's German himself, hasn't shown any sign he's willing to relax the rules. That's despite the fact that Catholic priests ordained in the Eastern Rite and some converts can be married.
Still, Vatican reporter Francis Rocca of Religion News Service says celibacy for most priests is not likely to be phased out.
Mr. FRANCIS ROCCA (Vatican Reporter, Religion News Service): No, not in our lifetimes and in any major way. I think that would be a fair prediction. The pope, and I'm sure the overwhelming number of cardinals and bishops, see celibacy as a very important part of Catholic identity.
(Soundbite of bell)
JAMES: Back in Jena, that's an identity that former priest Gerhard Streicher says he's glad he left behind, although he still does go to church, and his children were baptized.
Mr. STREICHER: (Through translation) The church is like a mother to me, and I have a lot to thank her for. But I don't do everything my mother says. At some point, I grew up.
JAMES: Streicher thinks the church doesn't want to touch the celibacy requirement because that might unleash an avalanche of change. But he worries that if things stay the way they are, the church could become like a museum: lots of pretty objects but not much life.
For NPR News, I'm Kyle James.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.