German Theologians Speak Up

PrayTellBlog.com published an open letter from now more than 225 theologians from Austria, Germany and Switzerland calling for structural reform in the Church. They speak of 2011 as a "Year of Departure," for the Church, a time for renewal in light of the crisis in the Church there and worldwide. The Church does seem to be in free-fall--in the wake of abuse and corruption scandals, more Germans formally ended their connection to the Church in 2010 than in any year since WWII. NCR's report understates the case--as of today, PrayTellBlog says, 227 theologians have signed on, along with a handful (so far) from other countries. (The NCR report is sensationally mis-titled "Theologians Confront Hierarchy." A call for reform from Catholic scholars in light of the greatest crisis in the German Church in modern times is hardly a confrontation.)A couple interesting points: the document is quoted for its most eye-catching suggestions about church practices, like opening the priesthood to women and married people. But the first thing they ask for is open dialogue on "structures of participation," then renewal of parish community life and legal structures in the church, and so on. Surely wider participation in Church life and governance is something both the left and the right might agree on, despite the left-leaning bent of many of the specifics the profs ask for. (Heck, if the left is so out of touch with the sensus fidelium, surely greater participation of the laity would reveal and confirm the right wingers' suspicion. They should welcome this.) Second, the response of the bishops is enlightening. NCR reports that Fr. Hans Langendrfer, secretary of the German bishops conference, says that the bishops welcome the contribution of the theologians, and the bishops will consider the letter at its next meeting. But NCR also reports that Auxiliary Bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschke of Hamburg, Germany "spoke out sharply against any attempt to apply pressure on the Catholic church from outside of its structures." Are Catholic theologians really "outside" the structure of the Church?This echoes a lament from across the world heard at the Trento moralists' conference last summer--bishops and the theologians who also serve the Church are increasingly strangers to each other. The very fact that this document emerges as an open letter rather than an item submitted for the bishops' meeting agenda to start with shows this distance. A sad situation. The theologians raise important basic questions--it will be interesting to see how the German magisterium responds.

Lisa Fullam is professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).

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