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German bishop confronts theologian for claiming Catholics against 'gender equality' are racist

Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau. Credit: Diocese of Passau Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau. Credit: Diocese of Passau

A German professor of theology and advocate for the ordination of women to the priesthood has come under criticism for claiming it was “racist” to oppose “equality” in the Church.

In turn, a bishop speaking up against her accusations has drawn the public ire of a German politician and former ambassador to the Holy See, who attacked the bishop for suggesting an open, considered debate.

Addressing a digital "women's forum" organized by the Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart April 17, Johanna Rahner said that anyone who did not advocate “equal rights for women” in the Church was a "racist”,  CNA Deutsch, the German partner agency of CNA reported.

Rahner, 58, is Professor of Dogmatics, Dogma History and Ecumenical Theology at the Faculty of Catholic Theology at Eberhard Karls University in Tübingen.

In her closing remarks of her address, Rahner said, “it is important to fly the flag outwardly and take an active political stand against discrimination against women. Anyone who does not do this and remains silent is a racist.” 

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Bishop Stefan Oster of the Diocese of Passau took Rahner to task for her accusation, labelling it “shameless” in a text on his website April 19 and calling for considered dialogue instead of verbal confrontations. 

The bishop, a trained journalist, warned against escalation and hate speech in the media, criticizing the official German bishops' portal for its headline coverage of Rahner’s claims and calling for a debate on how to deal with provocations. To him, he wrote, this scandal was not just about a "shameless" accusation, but ultimately also an attempt to deny others being Catholic.

As CNA Deutsch reported, Bishop Oster was not the only one to react critically to Rahner's accusations of statement. 

Helmut Hoping, a professor of dogmatics in Freiburg, wrote in an opinion piece for the Catholic newspaper "Die Tagespost" that Rahner's statement no longer had anything to do with a theological debate.

"This is political agitation and denunciation," Hoping wrote, arguing Rahner not only raised an accusation of misogynistic racism, but also claimed that the Catholic Church, including its legal constitution, was not commensurate with the German constitutional law. 

Hoping also pointed out that Rahner is "a very influential and well-connected theologian. She not only advises the [German] bishops on matters of faith, but also sits on all kinds of academic committees.”

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In his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, St. John Paul II declared that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

Speaking to journalists during an in-flight press conference in 2016, Pope Francis said: “On the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, the final word is clear, it was said by St. John Paul II and this remains.”

Nonetheless, Rahner has repeatedly claimed that the decision is “not final”, including in 2017 with the official portal of the German bishops. 

Pope Francis has called on the German bishops to return academic theology in their country to the foundations of the Catholic faith. The bishops, Pope Francis told the bishops in writing on the occasion of their ad limina visit in 2015, should "accompany the theological faculties and help those who teach there to keep in mind the ecclesial scope of their mission. Fidelity to the Church and the Magisterium does not contradict academic freedom, but it does require an attitude of service to the gifts of God. The sentire cum ecclesia must especially distinguish those who form and shape the younger generations."

Meanwhile, following the public outfall over her pronouncements, the professor has offered a qualification of sorts to her accusation. Speaking to German public radio, Rahner said, "I have not called those who oppose women's ordination - for whatever reason - racists. I would explicitly take issue with that. But I would uphold an accusation: Anyone who ignores discrimination in the Catholic Church, even calls it non-existent, or even exaggerates it through a theological form of thought and then legitimizes it as such after all, can well earn the accusation of racism, and rightly so." 

Bishop Oster’s remarks came under criticism from Annette Schavan, a politician of the ruling Christian Democratic Union of Germany who is also a former vice-president of the Central Committee of German Catholics and former ambassador to the Holy See. The ZdK, which is co-organiser of the “Synodal Way” in Germany, has long called for the ordination of women to the priesthood. 

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Speaking to German public radio, Schavan said Bishop Oster should not have publicly criticised Rahner’s remarks. 

“Johanna Rahner is a professor of theology and not a member of the diplomatic service. She is a theology professor, by the way, at one of the best faculties in the world, as has just been noted again. She must also be able to speak clearly. The quality of an institution is also determined by the way it formulates an argument. So when the bishop gets upset, he could have called Johanna Rahner and said, ‘I want to discuss this with you. I want to tell you what upsets me. I want to tell you where we have a common intersection or whatever.’"

Schavan is herself no stranger to public scandal. The former Minister for Education in the Merkel government had to resign from office after her PhD thesis was revealed to have been a work of plagiarism. Schavan was soon after appointed German Ambassador to the Holy See –– from 2014 to 2018 – despite protests from inside the Foreign Office. When asked by journalists at a press conference in 2018 what diplomatic services the embassy was providing to prominent prelates of German origin in the Vatican, such as Benedict XVI or Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Schavan admitted she did not know.

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