Swiss bishops visit Rome amid controversy

Switzerland’s bishops had something to smile about last year when the Pope visited Bern Keystone

Switzerland’s Catholic bishops are visiting Rome at a time of renewed debate over the Church’s position on contraception and the shortage of priests.

This content was published on February 2, 2005 - 10:23

It’s the first time the bishops have attended the Vatican as a group since 1997, and they are expected to face some criticism over their handling of Church affairs.

As the bishops began their five-day trip, Swiss Cardinal Georges Cottier told the Italian media that condoms could be permitted in certain cases.

The comments by the Pope’s theological adviser marked a shift away from the Vatican’s traditional hard line on contraception.

The issue is likely to be raised during the bishops’ visit to Rome, along with same-sex partnerships and the role of lay theologians in Swiss churches.

In comments reported on Monday, Cardinal Cottier said condoms could be a means of preventing the spread of Aids.

“In particular situations, for example the drug scene or where promiscuity is widespread, as in some areas of Africa or Asia, the use of condoms can be considered legitimate,” he told the Italian internet agency Apcom.

Cottier’s remarks, which echoed those of Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan two weeks ago, are being seen as a softening of the Vatican’s rigid position outlawing contraception.

Pastoral assistants

Another sensitive issue due to be discussed was the role of lay theologians in the life of the Church.

In Switzerland, the shortage of priests has led to a greater dependency on non-ordained theologians to fulfil some priestly duties.

Two weeks ago the Swiss Bishops Conference issued a paper recognising this situation and officially permitting lay theologians to preach during Mass, in apparent contradiction of a Vatican edict of last year that only priests can deliver sermons.

The paper also gave lay pastoral assistants the right to baptise, and said Protestants could take communion in certain cases.


Agnell Rickenmann, the general-secretary of the Bishops Conference, says the announcement is partly based on the reality of a lack of priests in the country. But he says it also reflects the independent thinking of the Church in Switzerland.

“In Switzerland we have a 30-year tradition of theologically-trained lay people active in the Church,” he told swissinfo. “With the bishop’s agreement they can preach during Mass and are charged with pastoral work in our parishes.”

Rickenmann said the bishops expected to enter into debate with the Vatican over their position. But he added that they were sure they would return with “a positive message”.

“As everywhere, you have to negotiate,” he said. “We have to see what reaction we get, but I think they [the Vatican] will understand the pastoral problem and the tradition we have.”

Priestly vocations

The general-secretary of the Swiss Bishops Conference said that with just a handful of priests being ordained every year, the Church in Switzerland had decided to put the emphasis on vocations in 2005 and 2006.

An information campaign and series of activities will seek to attract more young men to the priesthood, and motivate young people in general to serve in the Church.

Rickenmann said the success of last year’s youth meeting in Switzerland – attended by 15,000 young Catholics – had shown there was an enthusiasm among young people for the Church.

“We have a lot of new growth – Church movements, young people coming to meetings and encounters – and in all the difficulties we have we shouldn’t forget all this,” he said.

swissinfo, Morven McLean

Key facts

According to the Federal Statistics Office, 41.8% of Swiss are Roman Catholics.
The Swiss Catholic Church has declared 2005 the year of priestly vocations.
In 2006 the focus will be on other religious vocations.

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In brief

Swiss bishops are paying an ad-limina visit to the Vatican – an event which usually takes place every five years.

When in Rome the bishops traditionally visit the graves of St Peter and St Paul and hold talks with the Pope and Vatican officials.

The last collective visit to Rome was in 1997.

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