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 firstname.lastname@example.org.