Switzerland: The diocese of Basel-City, from bankruptcy to implosion?

Source: FSSPX News


 State of Affairs

“Closed for alterations”, such was the sign posted in front of the big construction site, hidden behind curtains. However, the unveiling day was a disappointment: there was only a simple wooden cabin. Xaver Pfinster remembers this frighful personal vision, when he thinks of the concept of “Vision 2015” of the Catholic Church in Basel. In this document, the Church of the Rhine town is witnessing the consequences of the increasing diminution of its members.

On March 27 last, the Parliament of the Roman Catholic Church of Basel-City voted for the “concept-framework” which defines the conditions of the financial plan for the Church until 2015. According to the plan, expenses must be reduced by 30%. Each sector will have to take part in this economy measure: the German-speaking parishes as well as the parishes of other languages and linguistic missions, the services of the Cantonal Church (religious education, hospital chaplaincies, etc.) and the central services (administration, information).

In 1975, there were 90,000 Catholic faithful in Basel-City. Today, they are only 31,000. The decline is due in great part to “those who leave the Church” (faithful who do no longer want to pay the Church tax, Ed.). In the 80’s, about 5% of the members left the Church every year. The tendency is being slightly reversed. Last year, “only” 1,5% left the Church. A study made by the Statistics Office of the Canton of Basel-City nevertheless reaches the conclusion that, given the demographic development of the Roman Catholic Church in Basel, it will have only 20,000 members in 2020.

For the Church in Basel, the constant fall in the number of its members means that it must make economies. “In the next eight years, we will have 50% less financial means than we had before the first wave of economies,” said Xaver Pfister. “This has important consequences on the present transformations in the Church. It was not spiritual considerations or sociological analyses which tipped the scales in favor of the development of “Vision 2015”, but financial pressure.”

Seen from this angle, the discourse about a “vision” is “eyewash” according to him. Henceforth 30% economies will be made in a one-dimensional manner in the four sectors (parishes, cantonal services, religious education, administration.) Nobody perceives this as a “vision for the future”. But from a realistic point of view, we simply cannot do otherwise.”


Proposed Remedies

The fusion of parishes proposed in preceding economy measures met with opposition. Yet, the Council of the Church (the governing organ of the Catholic Church in Basel) wants to continue in this direction. According to an official for information, the question raises a fundamental problem. The deciding authorities in the Church are still strongly clinging to the concept of a Church orientated towards parishes. But this concept is not shared by the greater majority of the population, nor by a good number of Church members, if we also count among them “passive members’ those who are not involved in parish life.

According to X. Pfister, an increasing number of human beings, during the course of their life, look around for temporary “possibilities of shelter” and maintain a merely episodic relationship with the Church. For the theologian of Basel, this requires a decision based on a principle: “Are we trying to be a Church which remains present in the fields of communication of society? Or are we creating our own subculture, in which case, the Church is going back into the sacristy?”

For X. Pfister, the Church must not, for instance, give up religious education in public schools. “If we look at this intelligently, we have in the schools a milieu where it is possible to make young people sensitive to religious issues.” In Basel-City, where Church and State are separated, for some years now this education has been perceived in an ecumenical manner. It is also being financed ecumenically. The State places at our disposal classrooms and the necessary time in the schools schedules. Both the Council of the Church and the Décanats Assembly, are keen on this model.

On the other hand, according to him, what some of the faithful would like, that is, a denominational religious education in the parishes, no longer works today. Only a few “pious children” would attend such classes. But such a solution would lead to the progressive disappearance of religion from the school curriculum. There also exist other important fields of social communication, states X. Pfister, like, for instance, the university, industry or hospitals, which need competent chaplains who are well integrated in this environment.

The theologian of Basel sees these two models, i.e. an opening up to the context of communication in society, or a recentering of the Church in parishes, in opposition to eachother. But, as it is often the case in the Church, he deplores that fact that there is no open discussion on the subject. Economies are naturally always painful, because people are concerned. Unfortunately, dialogue on a concrete level is only at the embryonic stage. It is even more deplorable that there is at present, no “common spiritual foundation” between the various tendencies within the Church in Bale,” according to Xaver Pfister.

The official for information certainly understands that faithful have their parishes very much at heart. Some, for instance, because of a vow made during the last World War, made it possible to build St Michael’s Church with their personal contributions. But he thinks that in the present social context, a parish can no longer be “all things to all men”, according to the Pauline phrase. Therefore we must have the courage to go down paths of exploration and to try out experiments in the Church, experiments where failure must be allowed.

In the city context of Basel, where people hardly live in their own neighborhood, it is necessary to increase the number of Church centers specific to the environment in which they stand. Here a parish with “grand style liturgy” and a lot of classical music, there a rather popular Church, or a rather intellectual one. Here a parish with a charismatic tinge to it, there a parish which caters more for families. And the Church must also naturally offer something to persons who cannot identify themselves a 100% with her, yet who might want to commit themselves to the diaconate or participate in the monastic life.

The question of belonging to the Church is a central question today for Xaver Pfister. Could there be different forms of ecclesial communities? The survey on the image of the Church in Basel (1999) revealed the astounding fact that 25% of the Church members do not have any particular interest in her, but remain her members. They are people who support the Church, but do not ask for her services, nor want to belong to a community. “It is not true to say,” according to Xaver Pfister, “that the Church is made up today, of people who identify themselves 100% with her. As an adult teacher, I observe, in my religion classes, that many people feel they belong to the Church, but if we applied the standards of true belief, hardly anyone would be left who really belonged to that Church.” The conclusion X. Pfister draws from this is: the Church can be built today only if we take the plurality of reality seriously.