A “Year of Departure”: German-speaking theologians call for reform – UPDATE 3/02/12

By coincidence, today is not only a “Day of Departure” in Egypt. It is also the day on which 143 theologians from Austria, Germany, and Switzerland have signed a statement calling for a “Year of Departure” – for structural reforms in the Catholic Church in the wake of the sex abuse scandals.

UPDATE 3/02/11: more theologians have signed on, it is now 238 from the three German-speaking countries, and 265 including theologians from other countries.

The Church in 2011: A Necessary Departure

It is over a year since cases of sexual abuse of children and youth by priests and religious at the Canisius School in Berlin were made public. Thereupon followed a year that plunged the Catholic Church in Germany into an unequaled crisis. Today, a split image is projected. Much has been undertaken to do justice to the victims, to come to terms with the wrong done, and to search out the causes of abuse, cover-up, and double standards within the Church’s own ranks. Many responsible Christians, women and men, in office and unofficially, have come to realize, after their initial disgust, that deep-reaching reforms are necessary. The appeal for an open dialogue on structures of power and communication, the form of official church offices, and the participation of the faithful in taking responsibility for morality and sexuality have aroused expectations, but also fears. This might be the last chance for departure from paralysis and resignation. Will this chance be missed by sitting out or minimizing the crisis? Not everyone is threatened by the unrest of an open dialogue without taboos – especially since the papal visit [to Germany] will soon take place. The alternative simply cannot be accepted: the “rest of the dead” because the last hopes have been destroyed.

The deep crisis of our Church demands that we address even those problems which, at first glance, do not have anything directly to do with the abuse scandal and its decades-long cover-up. As theology professors, women and men, we can keep silence no longer. We consider ourselves responsible for contributing to a true new beginning: 2011 must be a Year of Departure for the Church. In the past year, more Christians than ever before have withdrawn from the Catholic Church. They have officially terminated their legal membership, or they have privatized their spiritual life in order to protect it from the institution. The Church must understand these signs and pull itself from ossified structures in order to recover new vitality and credibility.

The renewal of church structures will succeed, not with anxious withdrawal from society, but only with the courage for self-criticism and the acceptance of critical impulses – including those from the outside. This is one of the lessons of the last year: the abuse crisis would not have been dealt with so decisively without the critical accompaniment of the larger public. Only through open communication can the Church win back trust. The Church will become credible when only its image of itself is not removed so far from the image others have of the Church. We turn to all those who have not yet given up hope for a new beginning in the Church and who work for this. We build upon the signals of departure and dialogue which some bishops have given in recent months in speeches, homilies, and interviews.

The Church does not exist for its own sake. The church has the mission to announce the liberating and loving God of Jesus Christ to all people. The Church can do this only when it is itself a place and a credible witness of the liberating message of the Gospel. The Church’s speaking and acting, its rules and structures – its entire engagement with people within and outside the Church – is under the standard of acknowledging and promoting the freedom of people as God’s creation. Unconditional respect for every person, regard for freedom of conscience, commitment to law and justice, solidarity with the poor and oppressed: these are the theological foundational standards which arise from the Church’s obligation to the Gospel. Through these, love of God and neighbor become tangible.

Finding our orientation in the biblical message of freedom implies a differentiated relationship to modern society. When it comes to acknowledgement of each person’s freedom, maturity, and responsibility, modern society surpasses the Church in many respects. As the Second Vatican Council emphasized, the Church can learn from this. In other respects, critique of modern society from the spirit of the Gospel is indispensable, as when people are judged only by their productivity, when mutual solidarity disintegrates, or when the dignity of the person is violated.

This holds true in every case: the liberating message of the Gospel is the standard for a credible Church, for its action and its presence in society. The concrete demands which the Church must face are by no means new. And yet, we see hardly any trace of reform-oriented reforms. Open dialogue on these questions must take place in the following spheres of action.

1. Structures of Participation: In all areas of church life, participation of the faithful is a touchstone for the credibility of the Good News of the Gospel. According to the old legal principle “What applies to all should be decided by all,” more synodal structures are needed at all levels of the Church. The faithful should be involved in the naming of important office-holders (bishop, pastor). Whatever can be decided locally should be decided there. Decisions must be transparent.

2. Community: Christian communities should be places where people share spiritual and material goods with one another. But community life is eroding presently. Under the pressure of the priesthood shortage, larger and larger administrative entities (Size “Extra Large” Parishes) are constructed in which neighborliness and sense of belonging can hardly be experienced anymore. Historical identity and built-up social networks are given up. Priests are “overheated” and burn out. The faithful stay away when they are not trusted to share responsibility and to participate in democratic structures in the leadership of their communities. Church office must serve the life of communities – not the other way around. The Church also needs married priests and women in official ministerial offices.

3. Legal culture: Acknowledgement of the dignity and freedom of every person is shown when conflicts are borne fairly and with mutual respect. Canon law deserves its name only when the faithful can truly make use of their rights. It is urgent that the protection of rights and legal culture be improved. A first step is the development of administrative justice in the Church.

4. Freedom of Conscience: Respect for individual conscience means placing trust in people’s ability to make decisions and carry responsibility. It is the task of the Church to support this capability. The Church must not revert to paternalism. Serious work needs to be done especially in the realm of personal life decisions and individual manners of life. The Church’s esteem for marriage and unmarried forms of life goes without saying. But this does not require that we exclude people who responsibly live out love, faithfulness, and mutual care in same-sex partnerships or in a remarriage after divorce.

5. Reconciliation: Solidarity with “sinners” presupposes that we take seriously the sin within our own ranks. Self-justified moral rigorism ill befits the Church. The Church cannot preach reconciliation with God if it does not create by its own actions the conditions for reconciliation with those before whom the Church is guilty: by violence, by withholding rights, by turning the biblical Good News into a rigorous morality without mercy.

6. Worship: The liturgy lives from the active participation of all the faithful. Experiences and forms of expression of the present day must have their place. Worship services must not become frozen in traditionalism. Cultural diversity enriches liturgical life, but the tendency toward centralized uniformity is in tension with this. Only when the celebration of faith takes account of concrete life situations will the Church’s message reach people.

The already-begun dialogue process in the Church can lead to liberation and departure when all participants are ready to take up the pressing questions. Solutions for leadingthe Church out of its crippling preoccupation with itself must be sought through a free and fair exchange of arguments. The tempest of the last year must not be followed by restful quietness! In the present situation, this could only be the “rest of the dead.” Anxiety has never been a good counselor in times of crisis. Female and male Christians are compelled by the Gospel to look to the future with courage, and walk on water like Peter as Jesus said to him, “Why do you have fear? Is your faith so weak?”

The names of the signatories as of 2-17 can be seen  here.

Translation by awr





31 responses to “A “Year of Departure”: German-speaking theologians call for reform – UPDATE 3/02/12”

  1. F C Bauerschmidt Avatar

    It must be a sign of just how parochial I am that the only name I recognize is Otto Hermann Pesch.

    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      Fritz –

      I had a similar reaction. From my time studying in Austria in the 90s I recognize a few more names than Pesch, but not many.

      Others have pointed out that there don’t seem to be the big names in theology now that there were in the 50s or 60s or 70s.

      I was also struck by how many theological institutions I’ve never heard of are in these three countries.


      1. Samuel J. Howard Avatar

        I was also struck by how many theological institutions I’ve never heard of are in these three countries.

        Public funding for theology at work.

  2. Jack Nolan Avatar
    Jack Nolan

    Consider this alongside http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4161706.stm.

    These signatories may not reflect the view of the typical pew sitter or parish priest.

  3. George Andrews Avatar
    George Andrews

    German-speaking-Theologians—-But this does not require that we exclude people who responsibly live out love, faithfulness, and mutual care in same-sex partnerships or in a remarriage after divorce.—

    What these theologians propose is irreconcilable with the following:

  4. George Andrews Avatar
    George Andrews

    –“But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
    When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Him about this. He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.” —

    Do they think our Lord did not say this?

  5. Fr. Jim Goodwin Avatar
    Fr. Jim Goodwin

    I remember another German speaking theologian who envisioned such “reform.” I believe he was named Martin Luther. If they prefer Protestantism they have a multitude of choices. I notice they left out many words such as fidelity, truth, orthodoxy, Catholic…

  6. Joe O'Leary Avatar
    Joe O’Leary

    It seemed a very bland statement to me, and the sad thing is that it seemed necessary to make it after 50 years of Vatican II (of course the voices making the statement are the survivors of the Vatican purge of Catholic theological ranks).

    I see that one statement is considered controversial by some on this thread: “But this does not require that we exclude people who responsibly live out love, faithfulness, and mutual care in same-sex partnerships or in a remarriage after divorce.” The objectors quote Jesus (or the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels) against this, but it sounds like a very Jesus-like statement to me.

  7. Claire Mathieu Avatar
    Claire Mathieu

    I was also struck by the fact that, up close, many of its demands are not that controversial.

    “The faithful should be involved in the naming of important officials (bishop, pastor). ”
    – sure, for example, they could be invited to communicate their thoughts to the current bishop.

    “The Church also needs married priests and women in church ministry. ”
    – The Church is, in fact, getting married priests from the Anglicans; and this statement does not actually say that women should be priests.

    “… this does not require that we exclude people who responsibly live out love, faithfulness, and mutual care in same-sex partnerships… ”
    – that is the most controversial, because of the idea that it is possible to live “responsibly” in same-sex relationships. That request dooms the petition.

  8. Joe O'Leary Avatar
    Joe O’Leary

    If conservative German Catholic priests have a liberal attitude to gays and divorcees, then one must suppose that many bishops share this attitude, and indeed some have expressed it; so I would not say the petition is doomed.

    1. Dunstan Harding Avatar
      Dunstan Harding

      Nor would I. The timing of this statement is significant following all the other events coming out of the German, Belgian, Irish, and the Austrian church lately. These receive a much bigger play in the European press than it does in our American media.

      1. John Prior Avatar
        John Prior

        Recently a book-length survey of Australian priests, among other findings, has a big majority of them favourable to same sex relationships.

  9. John Foley, S. J. Avatar
    John Foley, S. J.

    Chris: You said,

    “To that end, I offer the following reflection: http://www.chastitysf.com/protestants.htm

    I cannot tell from the posting who wrote that reflection. I would have thought that statements should have an author in order to prevent their looking like opinions from on high!

  10. Mary L. Vera Avatar
    Mary L. Vera

    I don’t think Americans know the German church well. Civil unions are the law of the land in Germany. Some priests have blessed holy unions, which at least one bishop that I know of asked his priests not to do. The continental church episcopate is not focused on the same issues as the USCCB. German bishops wanted changes in the remarriage (w/o annulment) and Eucharist reception issue in the late 90s(somewhere close to 2000) but John Paul II got them to back down. Noticeable: the theologians from Regensburg–which I think is Benedikt’s birthplace

  11. Mary Ann Hinsdale Avatar
    Mary Ann Hinsdale

    The fact that many don’t recognize these German-speaking theologians (note that several are women and many are younger) IS a testimony to the parochialism of U.S. theology. I work a lot with Germans and Austrian theologians (Innsbruck and Tübingen) –their doctoral students all read and speak (passably) English; our doctoral students pass a test, but many couldn’t get through a German book. Granted, it makes much more sense for U.S. theologians to know Spanish (and perhaps also Italian and Dutch). However, even though there is more linguistic ability among the Europeans, we don’t really read each others’ works. I agree with Mary Vera about American’s not knowing what’s going on in the German (or Austrian) church.

  12. Paolo Avatar

    Vera, I’m Italian, I know the German/Austrian church fairly well: proudly “focused” on the secularist agenda since the 70s.

    If Civil unions are the law of the land in Germany, I guess that the Catholic church has to follow…
    And then, John Paul II got them to back down: too bad for him, he was only the Pope.


  13. Paolo Pagliaro Avatar
    Paolo Pagliaro

    Just to write down my full name.

  14. Claire Mathieu Avatar
    Claire Mathieu

    The bishops’ first response, interpreted by various media:


    A spokesman for the German bishops’ conference cautiously welcomed the theologians’ memorandum, saying the professors “are contributing to debate about the future of the church in Germany.”
    “The German bishops have invited this debate,” Jesuit Father Hans Langendorfer, secretary of the German bishops’ conference, said Feb. 4 in a statement.


    In response to a manifesto signed by 143 theologians, … the German bishops are expressing disagreement. … Father Langendörfer acknowledged the importance of dialogue with the theological world, but noted that “in essence, the memorandum gathers once again ideas already often debated.”…The communiqué asserted that “on a series of questions the memorandum is in disagreement with the theological convictions and statements of the Church at the highest level.”

    google’s automatic translation of http://www.dbk.de/de/presse/details/?presseid=1770&cHash=a39662149f5288b8d210dc2ddbe3a57f :

    In its memorandum do many professors of Catholic theology contribute to the conversation about the future of faith and church in Germany. At that meeting, the German bishops have invited. It requires stimulating and more insights and ideas. It is a good signal that the signatories will participate. For over twenty years, there is a structured dialogue with the experts of the German bishops of the various subjects of theology. He has worked well and is beneficial to both sides.

    The memorandum essentially extending ideas often discussed together again. So it is not more than a first step. In a number of issues, the memorandum is in tension with theological beliefs and religious requirements of high liability. The relevant issues require urgent further clarification. It needs it more than just a concession by the bishops to address the difficult challenges, in fact, the Church in Germany.

    The Church in Germany is looking with renewed vitality after, where she now leads her pilgrimage. Errors and the failure of past policies, as well as the deficits and reform needs of the present, will be discussed and recognized. Bulky issues is not to escape it. Fear is in fact not a good adviser. The dialogue must academic vision and intellectual acumen, which is a special opportunity of academic theology are not missing. The next plenary meeting of the German Bishops’ Conference will in turn develop proposals that will be hopefully suggestions and further.

  15. Claire Mathieu Avatar
    Claire Mathieu

    Two interpretations of the German Bishops Conference’s answer. (I don’t have the original text, so I don’t know which is most biased.)


    A spokesman for the German bishops’ conference cautiously welcomed the theologians’ memorandum, saying the professors “are contributing to debate about the future of the church in Germany.”
    “The German bishops have invited this debate,” Jesuit Father Hans Langendorfer, secretary of the German bishops’ conference, said Feb. 4 in a statement.
    “These topics need urgent further clarification. To meet the difficult challenges facing the church in Germany with action needs an affirmation rather than just responsiveness by the bishops,” Father Langendorfer said. “Weighty subjects should no longer be avoided.”


    Making reference to the recent scandal of sexual abuses, the theologians call for reform in several sectors of the life of the Church.
    Father Langendörfer acknowledged the importance of dialogue with the theological world, but noted that “in essence, the memorandum gathers once again ideas already often debated.”
    “To this degree it’s not much more than a first step,” he said.
    The communiqué asserted that “on a series of questions the memorandum is in disagreement with the theological convictions and statements of the Church at the highest level.”
    It added that the topics in need of “further clarification” will be considered more profoundly in the episcopate’s next plenary assembly.

  16. Dan Martin Avatar
    Dan Martin

    I agree that the Pope and the Church as a whole need to do more to address the scandalous sexual abuse problems affecting the Church around the world. However this does not justify wide spread and significant changes in its practise and theology towards a more Protestant understanding/model of Church. I do agree in some respect it is a crisis of authority within the Church. Christ endowed the Church with his authority of service and love which we always need to return to rather than knee-jerk changes or rejection of Catholic understanding of priesthood or church structure.

    1. Summer Avatar

      Thanks alot – your asenwr solved all my problems after several days struggling

  17. Claire Mathieu Avatar
    Claire Mathieu

    247 out of about 400: another 20 signatures, and they will have a 2/3rds majority.

    The conclusion of the Vatican will then be, obviously, that the church must get rid of its theologians, or at least, make then take some kind of oath and monitor their work by asking every publication to be first approved by a canon lawyer, like in a company. To protect the integrity of the deposit of the faith, et tutti quanti.

    It’s hard to be positive about the Catholic church this weekend here in the US.

  18. Jim Pauwels Avatar
    Jim Pauwels

    Fr. Ruff, your translation of the theologians’ point #2 states, regarding the inclusion of women, “The Church also needs married priests and women in church ministry. “. Yet the Church 2011 website (which I believe to be the public source of the statement?) on its English site translates the same sentence, “The Church also needs married priests and women in ordained ministry.” The difference between women in church ministry and women in ordained ministry is one word, but may mark the difference between this request being received in official church circles with an open or a closed heart. In your opinion, did the theologians call for women to be ordained?


    1. Rita Ferrone Avatar
      Rita Ferrone

      Hi Jim, as a deacon you certainly must be thinking also of the diaconate here. Do you think the heart of those in the official church circles who received this message needs must be closed to the ordination of women to the diaconate? Just curious.

    2. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      Excellent question. The German says “im Amt.” That means “in office,” which probably implies ordained office but doesn’t necessarily mean only that. My first translation was more literal, “in office.” Then I saw another translation somewhere that had “in ministry” and I thought this is better. “Ministry” is the ordinary term for “ordained office” but isn’t necessarily limited to that because there is “lay ministry.” Does the German mean “ordained”? I don’t know. I must say, this statement was more difficult for me to translate than most German-language documents. There were about 5 places where I wasn’t sure of their meaning. I suppose I should contact the drafters and get it settled.

  19. Jim Pauwels Avatar
    Jim Pauwels

    Hi, Rita, as far as I know, the official church has never officially ruled on ordaining women to the diaconate in modern times. (If that’s not right, I hope someone will correct me on that). The thought did cross my mind that this is what the German theologians may have in mind, and it is an intriguing idea. But whether the powers that be would be similarly intrigued remains to be seen 🙂

  20. Mary Ann Hinsdale Avatar
    Mary Ann Hinsdale

    In response to the German-speaking theologians memorandum, another group (not only academic theologians) has published “Petition Pro ecclesia” and
    is encouraging it be posted in parishes to gain other signers. Looks like the
    same kind of polarization that exists in the U.S. church and theology,
    unfortunately: http://petitionproecclesia.wordpress.com/
    Lots of other links to press releases and the signers (most of whom are not professional theologians, but identified according to diocese -pewdwellers and ecclesial ministers perhaps?

  21. John Nolan Avatar
    John Nolan

    I am pretty sure that in the aftermath of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis the CDF ruled that it also applied to the diaconate.

    1. Jim McKay Avatar
      Jim McKay

      I am pretty sure they did not, but instead took up the diaconate as an issue for the International Theological Commission:

      On ordaining women to the diaconate, they gave some indications of what should be considered in making that decision, but left it up to those with a ministry of discernment to decide. This is a standard “above our pay grade” response, but it implies that the issue has not yet been defined at the higher level.

  22. Roy Palatty CMI Avatar
    Roy Palatty CMI

    Don’t think that the Western Europe is the whole world! As this era is typically an era of Asia and Africa, both in faith and actions. The problem with the document is it is fed up with western individualist liberal reading of the history, where individual capability is given extreme importance, though it is essential, and doing it without listening the importance of common good. The quesiton is whether or not we need women priests, by investigating the problems at the root, we need to re-think on the seminary formation and training.

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