German theologians kickstart a broad “dialogue without taboos”


Updated and corrected Feb. 9:

Last Friday Catholic news sites around the world started picking up on a statement by German-speaking theologians that is calling for a “necessary new beginning” in the Catholic Church. Additional theologians are still adding their names to the signers of the memorandum, which as of today has 208 names attached to it. I was happy to see both my brother Bernhard Emunds (who teaches social ethics at the Jesuit theological school in St. Georgen near Frankfurt), and my old dogmatics professor Hans Jorissen (from the University of Bonn) among the signers.

About a year after the first revelations of widespread clergy sexual abuse and its cover-up in the German Catholic Church—and some seven months before another papal visit by Benedict XVI to his home country—the theologians are marking a “year that threw the Catholic Church in Germany into an unprecedented crisis.” But speaking out on a broad range of needed church reforms, the group wants to encourage an open “dialogue without taboos … about structures of power and communication, about the reform of church ministry and the participation of the faithful in church responsibilities, about morality and sexuality.” The alternative to this open dialogue, the theologians say, is “the silence of the graveyard, because people’s last hope was extinguished.”

The statement urges the church to “move out of its ossified structures to regain new vitality and credibility.” The theologians remind us, “The church is no end in itself. It has the mandate to proclaim the liberating and loving God of Jesus Christ to all people.”

Among the taboo subjects on which the theologians want to begin an open dialogue are the need in the church for “married priests and women in ordained ministry" and to stop “excluding those who live love, fidelity, and mutual care responsibly in a same-sex partnership or in a second marriage after a divorce.”

It is interesting to note that, although press reports both in Germany and around the world are highlighting the theologians’ supposed call for the ordination to the priesthood of both married men and women, the German text is a little ambiguous on the latter point. The German term “kirchliches Amt,” literally "church office," is used for any kind of ordained ministry. It could therefore also be interpreted to refer to the diaconate.

When I e-mailed my brother congratulating his group and noting how unusual the courage and openness was with which they had addressed the many hot-button issues in today’s church, he replied: “By the way, the text doesn’t necessarily demand women’s ordination to the priesthood. Perhaps the authors and we signers were not that courageous after all. ‘The church also needs married priests and women in ordained ministry’ leaves open the question which ordained ministry is meant.”

I’m tempted to say, it’s not for nothing that my brother works for the Jesuits!

Despite this little loophole, the statement overall still seemed in striking contrast with the way Catholic theologians—and many of the rest of us—both in the United States and elsewhere in the Catholic Church these days continue to feel obliged to avoid certain taboo subjects like women’s ordination and same-sex partnerships. Much like it did for a while in 2002 in this country, the clergy sex-abuse crisis in Europe seems to again have started a more open and honest dialogue about needed church reforms. Unlike in this country, at least some of the European bishops have in recent months joined and encouraged that conversation.

Maybe it is time to pick that conversation up again on this side of the Atlantic as well. As the German-speaking theologians write, “The call is to engage in a free and fair exchange of arguments to search for solutions that will be able to lead the church out of its debilitating self-absorption…. Fear was never a good counselor in times of crisis. The gospel calls Christians to face the future with courage and—following Jesus’ words—to walk like Peter on water: ‘Why are you so afraid? Is your faith that small?’”

Update, Feb. 9:

The website of this initiative of German-speaking theologians has now posted an English translation of its text. The number of signers continues to grow. This morning it's at 224.


About the author

Meinrad Scherer-Emunds

Meinrad Scherer-Emunds was the executive editor of U.S. Catholic. He is currently the director of communications for Maryknoll Lay Missioners.