Bishop Margot Käßmann: A lesson on dealing with personal guilt
By Roon Lewald
Late one February night, a young German traffic cop spotted a black Phaeton luxury limousine turning right against the red light at an intersection near a night-life district in Hanover. Flagging the sleek vehicle to a stop, he confronted the woman driver, sniffed her breath and handed her his breathalyzer. The recorded blood alcohol level was around 1 %, well over the legal limit. A blood test at the local precinct registered a considerably higher value of 1.54 %, beyond the 1.5 % level at which motorists are legally considered incapable of driving.
On the following Monday, the mass-circulation Bild Zeitung tabloid broke the news that state attorneys were investigating a criminal charge of drunken driving against Margot Käßmann, the Lutheran Evangelical Church (EKD) state bishop of Lower Saxony and the first woman ever to become president of the governing council of Germany’s main Protestant church.
The nation was thunderstruck by what seemed to herald the end of both the immensely popular bishop’s brilliant career and the already threadbare credibility of established Christianity at a time when the Roman Catholic Church is embroiled in a burgeoning scandal over child abuse by priestly teachers at Catholic schools.
Käßmann is a slim, attractive 51-year-old whose intelligence, relentless energy, deep religiosity and personal magnetism rapidly propelled her to a position of influence unrivalled by any other German woman barring Chancellor Angela Merkel. As such, she was a fitting figurehead for a church determined to halt the decline of its membership by reaching out to younger, progressive-minded Germans. She is a fighter for an uncompromising vision of modern Christian ethics who has never shrunken back from public exposure. Her blend of personal courage, humanity and practically oriented, socially concerned religiosity has captured the hearts of many Germans both in and outside her church. A devoted mother of four children, her willingness to discuss her controversial divorce and her courageous battle against cancer in recent years increased rather than diminished her popularity as a tangible, human figure dealing with problems familiar to many ordinary people.
But she has often upset conservative critics, including older members of her church, with her unabashed opinions about highly sensitive social and even political issues. When she called for an end to German military involvement in Afghanistan during her Christmas address on national TV last year, military leaders and conservative politicians accused her of naively meddling in national politics. “Even the most widely interpreted standards of the Evangelical Church in Germany cannot justify the war in this form,” she declared. “This violent confrontation must therefore be ended as soon as possible … We need more imaginativeness for peace, for completely different ways to overcome conflicts.”
Käßmann has ruffled Roman Catholic sensibilities by criticising the Vatican’s stance against homosexuality and the use of condoms to combat the global scourge of AIDS, adding that she expects “nothing” from Pope Benedict XVI to promote ecumenicism. Last year, she angered the sizeable German Muslim community by casting doubt on the peaceability of Islam’s post-9/11 religious practice. She opposed the conversion of disused Christian churches into mosques, saying that Muslims would first have to convince local Christian communities that such converted churches would be used in the “deepest (spirit of) peace”.
“I don’t believe that would be possible at present,” she added.
Critics were therefore quick to lampoon the fall from grace of such a bold protagonist of high public and personal standards of morality. TV satirists had a field day and even serious newspapers mocked her with headlines such as “Lalalujah, Lady Bishop”, “The Sinner” and “Käßmann’s hell-drive”. They derisively harked back to a 2007 interview in which she herself criticised “lack of responsibility” among drivers, “especially when alcohol or drugs are involved”.
Visibly shaken, Käßmann herself immediately accepted all blame for “a grave error which I most deeply regret…I kept asking myself: how could this happen to me? But it’s no use moaning – it happened, and now I have to bear the consequences.”
After the initial shock, public opinion seemed to veer towards forgiving – if not entirely forgetting – what many people in a country of heavy social drinkers regarded as a venal sin. After all, nobody was hurt by her actions and many public figures have weathered scandals about far more serious mistakes with their careers hardly dented, they argued. “A bishop is not a saint, only a human being,” argued Günther Beckstein, a former conservative state premier of Bavaria and current acting president of the EKD Synod.
And in fact, the circumstances of Käßmann’s arrest were rather less damnable than the bare facts made them sound at first. Anything but a habitual toper, she admitted to drinking three glasses of white wine among friends in a restaurant only four kilometres away from her home, not fully realising that this relatively modest amount was enough to raise her blood alcohol level well beyond legal limits. Feeling capable of driving that short distance, she decided against phoning a friend or relative to fetch her at that late hour (around 11 p.m.) and did not wish to leave her official limousine unattended while riding home by bus. Motoring homewards through quiet streets, she lucked out after driving less than two kilometres, when her right turn against a red traffic light alerted the police patrol.
During the next few days, her office and home were deluged with messages of support from all over Germany, imploring her to stay at the helm of the church and ride out the storm. After thoroughly discussing the affair with the EKD Council, however, Käßmann stunned her supporters a second time. She called a news conference to announce her resignation from all church offices except her ministry as pastor of her local Hanover congregation – despite the fact that the EKD council had unanimously decided to back her continued leadership “100 per cent”.
The impact of her announcement proved even greater than the news of her traffic offence. Mounds of flowers piled up at her home and office, where staffers struggled to cope with a new flood of phone calls and messages from dismayed supporters. Spokesmen report that several callers wept and one man had to be dissuaded from committing suicide in despair over what he perceived as the end of the hopes he had pinned on her church leadership. Outside church circles too, public figures expressed deep regret. Foremost among them was Alice Schwarzer, a renowned doyenne of German feminism. Käßmann’s resignation was “wrong for us women, wrong for progressive Protestants in Germany and wrong for herself, “ Schwarzer stated.
The remarkable thing about Käßmann’s lonely decision is that she was under no pressure from any powers in or outside the church to step down. Her own church was ready to back her to the hilt, the public was largely sympathetic and – uncomfortable political opinions notwithstanding – no media bosses or politicians in the Berlin capital were eager to see her resign. “It was perfectly clear to all in by no means alcohol-free Berlin: if this bishop had to go because of three glasses of white wine, everybody would soon find themselves ejected from their chancellery, ministerial or editor’s chairs,” one journalist noted.
To understand Käßmann’s motives in voluntarily wrecking her brilliant career, it is worth studying the three-minute statement in which she announced her resignation to the media. It is a characteristic summary of her stringent code of personal Christian morality.
White-faced but otherwise remarkably composed, she admitted to “a grave error which I deeply rue. But even…if I have repeatedly levelled at myself all the reproaches justly demanded by this situation, I cannot and will not overlook the damage done to my office and my authority as state bishop and Council president…I would in future no longer have my earlier freedom to identify and judge ethical and political challenges. Harsh criticisms, such as my (condemnation of the war in Afghanistan), can only be justified if my personal powers of conviction remain undiminished.”
Besides her position as bishop, she said, the issue in her eyes was “respect and esteem for myself and my integrity, which I value highly.” Expressing regret that her resignation had disappointed so many prayerfully supportive followers, Käßmann noted that she had been a bishop “with heart and soul” for over 10 years.
“I know from previous crises (that) you can never fall deeper than into the hand of God”, she concluded. “Today too, I am grateful for this religious conviction.”
In the resulting furore, it soon dawned on churchmen and the German public alike that Käßmann’s harsh self-indictment had amazingly wrested a new bonus of credibility for herself and Protestant Christianity from what had earlier seemed the shameful defeat of all hopes invested in her by her church and her followers.
The chairwoman of the EKD synod, Katrin Göring-Eckardt, praised Käßmann for rendering “a great service to our church through her strong resignation”. She expressed the ruling EKD Council’s unanimous hope that “she will remain a powerful voice in German Protestantism.” Bavarian Bishop Johannes Friederich regretted her resignation but felt it had strengthened the moral authority of the Evangelical Church.
Media commentators agreed that she had set an all too rare, shining example for all public leaders faced with the disclosure of personal misdemeanours. The weekly news magazine Der Spiegel prominently featured this theme in a thoughtful cover story entitled “The human Käßmann: on dealing with guilt”. The article favourably compared Käßmann’s ready admission of guilt and full acceptance of the consequences with the past performance of disgraced VIPs ranging from U.S. President Bill Clinton and golf pro Tiger Woods to a long list of German politicians.
A glance at Käßmann’s career record offers proof of her abilities, her wide range of experience and the background which moulded her religious convictions. She is a member of the post-1968 generation which rebelled against parental authoritarianism, bourgeois hypocrisy and the immediate post-war generation’s complacent forgetfulness about its complicity in the evils of the Nazi era. One observer feels this helps to explain the absoluteness of her Christian ethics, so that her pronouncements on issues which deeply concern her tend to sound a bit like church founder Martin Luther’s famous words at the Imperial Diet of Worms: “Here I stand, I can do no other.”
The increasingly noisy neo-Nazi fringe of recent years has been one of her most frequent targets. The church must never again tolerate Nazism as it did under Hitler, she stated. Calling for a ban on the far-right NPD (National Party of Germany), she argued that “the dissemination of ultra-rightwing ideologies by a party that is sanctioned by its eligibility is unacceptable to me.”
Born and raised in Marburg as Margot Schulze, the youngest of three daughters of an auto mechanic and a nurse, she studied Lutheran theology in Tübingen, Edinburgh, Göttingen and Marburg with the help of a church scholarship. After marrying fellow-pastor Eckhard Käßmann in 1981, the couple had four daughters before they were divorced in 2007.
Even before obtaining her theology doctorate in Bochum in 1989, Käßmann captured international attention as a youth delegate to the plenary assembly of the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Vancouver in 1983, where she was elected as the youngest member of the Central Committee. Ordained as a pastor in 1985, she assumed responsibility for the Kurhessen-Waldeck section of the EKD’s development aid service in 1990. A spell as a theological academy tutor and membership of the Executive Committee of the Ecumenical Council of Churches was followed by her appointment as secretary-general of the German Evangelical Kirchentag (Church Assembly) from 1994 to 1999, when she was responsible for three national Kirchtentag assemblies in Hamburg, Leipzig and Stuttgart.
Her election as bishop of the Lower Saxony state church in Hanover in 1999 made her the second woman to obtain an Evangelical Church see. The personable bishop was chosen to promote the 2006 world soccer championships for handicapped players as its “ambassadress”. Four months ago in November 2009, the national EKD Council finally elected her as its president despite criticism by Russian Orthodox theologians, who warned that inter-church dialogue could be harmed by the EKD’s choice of a female leader.
To her jubilant admirers in and outside the church, the move documented the EKD’s outreach to modern Christians disillusioned by its formerly unresponsive leadership. To women especially, her elevation to the most influential position ever to be occupied by a woman outside the political sphere capped their rapidly growing empowerment in a liberal, forward-looking German democracy.
With such hopes chastened, German Protestant churchmen have tactfully avoided open confrontation with their Roman Catholic brethren over the burgeoning furore over sexual abuse at Catholic schools. But implicit in many public reactions to the Käßmann affair, even among Catholics, is the perception that her straightforwardness has acted like a tonic to Christians dispirited by the worldwide Catholic scandals. As in the USA, Australia, Ireland, Austria and elsewhere, public anger has been fanned by the German Catholic hierarchy’s foot-dragging efforts to play down rather than combat the damage wrought by the media exposure of at least 100 to 120 cases of suspected or proven cases of abuse at many Catholic schools. They include some of the most prestigious Jesuit high schools in the land.
Now at last, Pope Benedict XVI has broken an ancient Vatican taboo by publicly apologising to victims in a pastoral letter to Irish Catholics. “I openly express the shame and remorse we all feel,” he wrote. “Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated.”
Earlier, the pontiff had summoned the Dr Robert Zollitsch, Chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, to the Vatican to demand more forceful action against the phenomenon of priestly paedophilia in his native Germany. Zollitsch had previously evoked public disgust by attempting to downplay the malpractices as a purely social rather than a Church phenomenon. No wonder some priests had been infected by the post-1968 spread of sexual permissiveness since the Woodstock era, Zollitsch stated.
Apparently called to order by the Pope, Zollitsch reacted to the pontiff’s publicly expressed remorse by stating that the pastoral letter to Irish Catholics “applies to the entire Church and is clearly also a message to us in Germany… The Holy Father’s unvarnished analysis shows that he is confronting the problem of sexual abuse in earnest and with great concern.”
But critics note that the Pope stopped short of admitting that the abuse has been systematically covered up since the scandals broke. Neither do they believe that his call for disciplining priests more rigidly can exterminate what they regard as a specifically church-rooted problem. German church leaders insist that stringent efforts are already under way to stamp out the traditional practice of transferring errant priests elsewhere instead of dismissing them. They have met calls for handing over suspected offenders to secular rather than internal ecclesiastical jurisdiction with assurances that discussions on a compromise solution are under way with German state attorneys – a disclosure that hardly mollifies critics who accuse the church of placing its own, patently inadequate justice above the law of the land. German churchmen also echo the Vatican in refusing to budge on the sacrosanct issue of priestly celibacy. Critics see this as a promoter of abuse, an unnatural, mediaeval shibboleth that attracts sexually maladjusted males to the shelter of the priesthood.
As for ex-Bishop Käßmann’s future, it’s on the cards that she will not be restricted to her present role as a humble shepherd of her suburban Hanover flock for very long. Writing in the respected weekly Die Zeit, Antje Vollmer, a former vice-president of the parliamentary lower house, opined that Käßmann’s dramatic resignation as such has already laid the stepping stone to a promising new future.
“Those three minutes (of her press statement) were Margot Käßmann’s comeback,” Vollmer wrote. “Everybody will want to hear (her) in future; the thousands at national church assemblies – especially the women – and even the politicians and media people. Every pulpit is open to her, every newspaper will print her articles….She inspires an affection which is and will remain a mystery to most media folk. Her experience of this existential threat will make her calmer, more serene, more focused on essentials.”
The Spiegel cover story notes that the Evangelical Church has many suitable openings for such talented people. “Nobody is thinking of forcing Käßmann back into lowly pastoral work,” it stated. “There are church organisations at work all over the world, and they would all jump to have a star like Käßmann – even a fallen star.”
By all accounts, Käßmann herself has not been crushed by her ordeal. She has since been quoted as saying: “After all, one hasn’t reached the end of one’s life at 51.”