German Catholic theologians respond to crisis

Hans Rollmann
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Responding to a deepening crisis and what many find to be an inadequate response from the church’s leadership in the wake of many revelations of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church of Germany, more than 300 German Roman Catholic theologians have recently signed a public memorandum about the “crisis of the Catholic Church.”

Beyond Germany, Catholic theo­logians, including Canadians, have expressed solidarity with their German colleagues.

Responding to an unprecedented number of people who, because of the scandals, left the Roman Catholic Church in 2010, the theo­logians proposed 2011 should be a year of genuine renewal, which should include self-criticism and exposure to “critical impulses.”

The troubled theologians be­lieve the church can hope to reclaim any sense of trust only by radically open communication.

This memorandum, which also takes up wider issues of reforms, wants to contribute to a critical dialogue.

The church, according to the memorandum, is not an end in itself, but needs to understand its mission in faithfulness to its own proclamation.

Deriving its spiritual impulses from the good news of Jesus Christ, the church can be a credible place only when it respects the freedom and dignity of all human beings.

In many cases, the church has to catch up to where human rights and responsibilities have already moved in modern society.

Rather than merely catching up and conforming, the church should seek critical dialogue with modern society, not hesitating — where necessary — to resist trends that value human beings merely in terms of utility and benefit and that sacrifice personal dignity to impersonal structures beyond human control.


Six crucial concerns

German theologians seek critical dialogue with their church about six crucial concerns.

First, they call for meaningful and transparent local participation in all areas of church life, particularly in choosing and employing pastors and bishops. We may see similarities here with a major point expressed in 16th-century Germany by aggrieved peasants and city dwellers in one of their famous 12 articles of protests.

Second, in local congregations, spiritual and material goods need to be shared widely by the whole church in more open, democratic structures, which may also envision a legitimate ministry for married priests and ordained women.

“The ecclesiastical office,” the theologians write, “has to serve the congregations, not the other way around.”

Further, the culture of rights within the church must improve, leading to greater respect for the freedom and dignity of individuals.

Human relationships cannot merely be regulated and enforced by law; responsibility and freedom of conscience presuppose a fundamental trust in having church members decide whom they love and with whom they share their lives.

While valuing marriage and celibacy, the church, according to Point 4 of the memorandum, should not exclude categorically all persons who remarry after divorce or who may live in homosexual partnerships.

Reconciliation and solidarity with “sinners” should take seriously sin in the church and eliminate those actions and dispositions that promote violence, suppress rights, and preach a “merciless moral rigorism.”

Finally, the memorandum recognizes that the lifeblood of the church is worship. Here the theologians call for greater creativity and participation of all to explore a liturgical revival.

“Only where the celebration of faith connects with situations true to life,” the theologians argue, “can humans be reached by the church’s message.”

While these concerns have surfaced before, the extraordinary measure of support from teachers in Roman Catholic seminaries and theological faculties is new and has already received vigorous responses, pro and con.


Baum on theologians’ memorandum

I asked the venerable Canadian ecumenical theologian Dr. Gregory Baum of Montreal, who has signed the memorandum in solidarity with his German colleagues, why he supported it and what he considers particularly important in this memorandum.

Baum, who participated in the Second Vatican Council from 1962-65 as a theologian appointed by the Secretariat of Christian Unity, considered the council’s affirmation of episcopal collegiality impressive, as in “the co-responsibility of the bishops to lead the church with the pope, thus overcoming the monarchical understanding of the papacy.”

Baum also found important “the council’s recognition of the priesthood of all the baptized and their contribution to the church’s teaching, thus overcoming the former division between ‘the teaching church’ made up of the hierarchy and ‘the learning Church’ made up of the laity.”

Yet, according to Baum, “in subsequent years, regulations introduced by the papacy have cancelled the episcopal and lay participation in the life of the church and invalidated other reforms introduced by the council.”

“At present,” Baum writes to me, “the official idea is that the Holy Spirit guides the Catholic Church through one small organization in Rome, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. But this is not Catholic, for the Holy Spirit speaks to the church through many of its members, ordained and non-ordained, a point already made in the 19th century by Cardinal Newman.

“The reneging on the promises made by the Vatican Council II has frustrated many Catholics, especially theologians who study the conciliar documents. The council has recommended dialogue be­tween theologians and the hierarchy, but since the hierarchy does not invite them to such a dialogue, the German theologians have decided to start the dialogue by publishing a declaration in the newspapers.”

“We want to be a church of dialogue,” the 87-year-old theologian affirms, “an expression introduced by Pope Paul VI.”


Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at Memorial University.

He can be reached by email at

Organizations: Roman Catholic Church, Vatican Council, Secretariat of Christian Unity

Geographic location: Germany, Montreal, Rome

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Recent comments

  • Jaan Sass
    April 14, 2012 - 23:37

    I am a convert to the Roman Catholic Church it is funny how many of these so called theologians have actually never read all of vatican 2 but instead wish to make a the church into a liberal mainline protestant church with little believes or challenges and with alot of political correctness and psycho babble. I wonder if they examined those denominations they wish to emulate and see that many of them have lost half of thier members in the last 20year. Yes there are scandals but either the Church of Christ preaches all of the councils, dogmas, spiritual wisdom, sacraments in all thier meaning and defends marriage and life or it is close to the end. God will defend truth which are listed in the creeds, chatechisms of trent and vatican 2. If one looks at with an open heart I beleive they will find a consistency of teaching from the earliest times of the apostles and church fathers to the latest teachings of Pope Benedict on Jesus. People fail happens among athiests, catholics, hindus, what matters is not the individual priest or not apoint made in the third century what matters is the sacrament itself God will sort the rest out. By the way I some same sexual abuse in Baptist circles done by married clergy and female clergy interesting.

  • X. Roman
    March 26, 2011 - 14:39

    Excellent article. If the Vatican would only read this maybe they could learn something. The bishops of the USA are certainly not on this line of thought. They still believe in the feudal system that has led the RCC into its present mess. A former catholic