After months of controversy, the leaders of Germany's Roman Catholic Church have agreed to a demand by Pope John Paul II that they end church participation in a system of compulsory counseling for women considering abortion.

"We have tried as long as possible to resist, but now we have lost," Bishop Karl Lehmann of Mainz, chairman of the German Bishops' Conference (DBK), said at a press conference last week. Bishop Lehmann's announcement is significant since he had previously refused to rule out the possibility of remaining within the current system. But despite Bishop Lehmann's announcement, a number of Catholic bishops have already announced that for the time being they are unable to follow the wishes of the Pope in withdrawing from the system.

Although abortion is technically illegal in Germany, women can obtain one if they get a certificate from an officially recognized counseling center stating that they have talked over the matter. Of Germany's 1685 counseling centers, 254 are sponsored by the Protestant church and 264 by two Catholic organizations.

Church organizations have traditionally played a major role in Germany in providing social services on behalf of the state.

Official church participation in the counseling system has deeply split Germany's Catholic community. Catholics critical of their church's participation in the system argue that by issuing certificates that will allow women, if they wish, to have an abortion, the church is an accessory to the killing of unborn life.

But Catholic supporters say that it is better for women considering abortions to attend centers run by the Catholic Church and that the church should not turn its back on women who find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy. They add that after counseling many women decide not to request a certificate, and that not all women who request certificates decide to go through with an abortion.

In recent months Rome has exerted increasing pressure on the German bishops to stop Catholic counseling centers from issuing certificates, which would mean that the church would no longer be part of the official system.

Last month, after German bishops visited the Vatican, Pope John Paul again wrote to them making clear his expectation that the Catholic Church would withdraw from the system. The letter called for all German dioceses to act on the Vatican's wishes as soon as possible.

The issue has also divided the country's 27 Catholic bishops. While Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne and Bishop Franz Dyba of Fulda have led a minority of bishops opposing the counseling system, Bishop Lehmann and at least 12 others have tried to find a compromise respecting the Pope's wishes but allowing the church to remain within the system.

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Despite the efforts of Bishop Lehmann, however, the church remains divided. The standing council of the DBK agreed last month that Catholic counseling centers should stop issuing certificates in the course of 2000. Such a step would have the effect of ending Catholic participation in the current state-sponsored system.

The dioceses of Paderborn, Munster and Speyer have already announced that they will withdraw from the system in January 2000. However, Bishop Hermann Josef Spital of Trier, Bishop Franz Kamphaus of Limburg and five others have said that they reserve the right to remain in the present system "if no convincing alternative can be found."

Bishop Lehmann has warned them that they must follow the wishes of the Pope. At the same time, Bishop Lehmann has been exploring ways in which the church could remain part of the counseling system but would not be obliged to issue certificates. He suggested this week that the law could be changed to allow women simply to declare on oath that they had attended counseling. But so far the state has rejected the idea of changing the law.

"We saw it coming that the bishops would not resist the pressure of Rome," said Annegret Laakmann of the We Are Church movement, which is seeking major reforms in the Catholic Church.

The German bishops could have prevented a lot of confusion and damage done to the church if they had taken a stronger stand from the start, Laakmann told ENI. "They should have decided either to stay within the system or leave when the Pope first contacted them on the matter."

Every woman, she said, must be able to attend a Catholic counseling center.

Laakmann is also president of Frauenwuerde (Women's dignity), an association founded by Catholic lay people last year to examine the issue.

The controversy about the participation in the counseling system has provoked a much wider debate in Germany about the relationship between church and state, including the system of church tax whereby the state collects a tax from church members on behalf of the churches.

The Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), the country's biggest Catholic lay movement, has created its own associationラDonum vitae (The Gift of Life)ラto take over the Catholic counseling of pregnant women considering abortion.

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Christine Bergmann, Germany's minister for family matters, has said she regretted the bishops' decision.

"The state will not finance counseling that will not issue a certificate," she said in an interview with the radio station Deutschlandfunk early this week.

The Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), Germany s main Protestant body, has also expressed disappointment over the withdrawal of the Catholic Church from the present system. Manfred Kock, EKD chairperson, said at a press conference that the EKD would remain within the system, but would not be able to fill the gap left by the Catholic Church.

"A Roman Catholic woman has the right to counseling by her church," he said.

Bishop Margot Kassmann of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hanoverラone of the EKD's 24 member churchesラtold ENI that it was "morally acceptable" for the Protestant church to remain within the counseling system.

Although the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches had issued a joint statementラ"God is a friend of life"ラon the issue of abortion issue, it was only possible to save unborn life with the help of the mothers, she said.

Churches should always respect and stand by those women who felt unable to continue with their pregnancy, whether because the child would be handicapped, because they were pregnant because of rape or for financial reasons, Bishop Kassmann said.

She added that no woman who visited a counseling center of either the Protestant or Catholic church should be let down, pointing out that stopping counseling would not put an end to abortion.

Hans Kung, a leading Swiss Catholic theologian whose license to teach Catholic theology was removed by Rome in the early 1980s, has called on the German bishops to follow their own consciences rather than orders from Rome. He criticized what he called "the despotic principle to obey the command of a superior without any regard for one's own responsibility," particularly in the light of Germany's own history where many subordinates of the Nazi regime claimed to be only following orders.

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