German bishops see recycled ideas in theologians' 'reform' letter
By Benjamin Mann
German bishops' spokesman Fr. Hans Langendörfer
German bishops' spokesman Fr. Hans Langendörfer

.- Increasing numbers of European theologians have signed onto a set of proposals they say will “renew” the struggling German Church. But while the German bishops say they are willing to hold discussions, they have indicated that the proposal re-treads old ground and contradicts important Catholic convictions.

As of Feb. 15, 227 theologians from three German-speaking countries had signed their names to a letter entitled “The Church in 2011: A necessary departure,” which was first endorsed by 143 signatories on Feb. 3.

Issues of sexuality, authority, and cultural adaptation dominated the statement, which used revelations of sexual abuse at Berlin's Canisius school – revealed in early 2010, approximately three decades after they occurred – as the jumping-off point for a series of wide-ranging proposals.

“The deep crisis of our Church,” the theologians wrote, “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.” Many German Catholics, they said, have come to believe that “deep-reaching reforms are necessary.”

The theologians' program of “reform” would involve greater lay participation in selecting bishops and pastors, increased tolerance for different styles of liturgical worship, and a decisive break with what they described as attitudes of “paternalism” and “moral rigorism.”

More specifically, the theologians asserted that “the Church also needs married priests and women in church ministry.”

For this reason, the letter has been regarded in the international media as a call for an “end to celibacy.” The text itself, however, only indicated a preference for making the Latin rite practice of priestly celibacy optional, rather than mandatory.

Although some interpreters regarded the statement on women in ministry as a call for women's ordination, it was not clear whether the statement carried this meaning, or merely acknowledged the important roles women have always played in the life of the Church.

They went on to state that “the Church's esteem for marriage … 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.”

Referring to German Catholics' declining participation in Church life, the theologians indicated that the answer lay in modifying the Church's approach so that it agrees more with the surrounding culture.

“When it comes to acknowledgment of each person's freedom, maturity, and responsibility, modern society surpasses the Church in many respects,” they wrote. “As the Second Vatican Council emphasized, the Church can learn from this.”

The theologians did not indicate which portion of the Vatican II documents they were referring to, in advancing this claim.

Fr. Hans Langendörfer, secretary for the German bishops' conference, responded to the letter on their behalf on Feb. 8. He expressed appreciation for the theologians' engagement with the state of the German Church, acknowledging that they had raised “weighty issues” that should “no longer be avoided.”

But Fr. Langendörfer noted that the proposals had been made with some frequency in the past.

“In essence,” he said, “the memorandum gathers once again ideas already often debated.” Many of these ideas, he said, were “in disagreement with the theological convictions and statements of the Church at the highest level.”

Fr.  Langendörfer said that the next meeting of the German Bishops' Conference would seek to respond to the theologians' concerns, in cases where “urgent further clarification” was needed.

German Cardinal Walter Kasper, president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, responded to the theologians' letter by highlighting the importance of celibacy. In a Feb. 6 homily at the Church of Santa Maria dell’Anima in Rome, he described celibacy as a “sign that exists for Christ and for the Kingdom of God.”

The cardinal referred to the gospel passage which says Christians should be the “salt of the earth” and said that celibacy “is that pinch of salt that not everyone can be, but that brings good to all.”

Peter Seewald, the German journalist who recently collaborated with Pope Benedict XVI on the book “Light of the World,” was less restrained in his own comments on the theologians' manifesto.

Seewald told the German website Kath.net that the open letter was “a rebellion in the nursing home,” orchestrated by “chief priests of the zeitgeist” whose priority was to accommodate public opinion.

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