Only 200 young men and women have enrolled at German Protestant divinity schools as fulltime theology students with the intent of becoming ministers--a tiny number considering that the country's territorial Lutheran, United or Reformed territorial churches count 27 million members.
According to Protestant theologian Klaus Berger, one of the world's leading Testament scholars, this suggests that the celibacy rule and the papacy are not the primary cause of the dearth of candidates for the priesthood in Roman Catholicism.
In an interview with Deutsche Tagespost, a German Catholic daily, Berger blamed "a sickness of the very heart of theology" for this development. To Berger, who teaches at the venerable divinity school of Heidelberg University, this heart is New Testament exegesis.
"It should lead to Jesus. Instead it frequently destroys any hope for a return to faith," Berger complained. He pointed out that 30 percent of Germany's Protestant pastors did not believe in Christ's resurrection, a basic theological tenet by which the Gospel stands or falls.
He especially chastised a textbook by German exegetes Hans Conzelmann and Andreas Lindemann claiming that neither the Lord's Prayer nor the Sermon of the Mount are attributable to Jesus. According to these two scholars, Christ did not celebrate the Last Supper or found the Church, and the story of the empty tomb was bogus.
This text book, on which many German divinity students are examined during New Testament finals, is also popular at seminaries of mainline Protestant churches in the United States. Its authors claim that not more than 15 sayings of Jesus are genuine, and perhaps only three.
Because of this deconstruction of biblical theology fewer and fewer young people find the ministry an attractive career option. Today, even venerable Heidelberg University numbers has no more than 72 fulltime theology students seeking ordination, compared with 2,200 a dozen years ago.
A significantly larger number are taking theology as a secondary subject, though, only to qualify as religion teachers at public schools.
Pastoral care is another casualty of what Berger calls sick New Testament theology. Pastoral care is inextricably tied to the "ultimate question" about God. In trying to avoid this question, young clerics do the work of hobby psychologists, thus dispensing with the once very fruitful division of labor between psychology and Christian ministry.
Amazingly, church leaders report a surging interest among young and biblically illiterate Germans in "theology for theology's sake," as Michael Stollwerk, senior pastor of Wetzlar cathedral points out. "The amazing thing is that most of these students have no Christian background whatsoever and do not intend to use theology professionally. They simply wish to educate themselves in this field, which is very alien to them."
This corresponds to similar developments in other parts of Europe. For example in France, whose shortage of priests has become catastrophic by any standards, religiously curious students are filling the classrooms of the Catholic Institute (university), according to the school's vice rector Jean Joncheray. They obtain master's degrees in this very difficult field, yet do not plan to use their qualifications professionally.
"Is this a good sign or a bad sign?" United Press International asked Andre Vingt-Trois, archbishop of Tours, during a recent interview. "The skeptic in me sees this in the context of a mounting interest in esotericism," he replied. "From this perspective, the news does not appear good. But then as a Christian I must allow that the Holy Spirit might be at work here in his own peculiar way. If so, the news would be very good indeed."