The National Catholic Reporter published a story today that has garnered much-deserved attention and has sent ecclesiastical shock waves throughout the Church. The article, “144 Theologians Confront Hierarchy: Blunt letter says reforms necessary in light of scandals, priest shortage,” details the efforts of some of Europe’s top academic theologians — largely from German-speaking nations — to raise several serious issues that challenge many of the Church’s current leadership models and disciplinary or practical positions (such as clerical celibacy or male-only presbyteral ordination).

Among other demands, the statement calls for ending celibacy requirements for priests, opening the priesthood to women, and in general introducing significantly more democracy into the church’s structures in the German-speaking world and beyond. “We feel that we have the responsibility to contribute to an authentic new beginning,” the theologians continue, referring to the “unparalleled crisis year of 2010″…

“2011 must be a year of renewal,” says the letter, released just weeks before Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to visit his homeland.

Many of the issues raised might strike U.S. Catholics, particularly those who consider themselves to be “conservative” keepers of the Church’s tradition, as brash and disrespectful. Yet, a spokesman for the German Bishop’s Conference expressed, on behalf of the bishops, an optimistic welcome to the theologians’ request for dialogue, while also acknowledging that some of the more tension-inducing issues will need further clarification.

The German bishops welcome the contribution of the theologians to dialogue about the future of the church, said a Feb. 4 statement released by Jesuit Fr. Hans Langendörfer, secretary of the German bishops’ conference.

“The church in Germany has to examine with new intensity where its path leads,” Langendörfer said. “The church should recognize and discuss the mistakes and failures of the past, as well as current deficits and calls for reform.”

He noted that several issues raised in the letter are in “tension” with core church theology and teaching and these will “require urgent further clarification.”

Langendörfer said the bishops will discuss the issues addressed in the theologians’ letter at their plenary meeting in March.

It will certainly be interesting to see if and how Church leaders respond to the open letter. There are some German bishops that have expressed disapproval of its content and publication, asserting the unchangeability of some of matters requested by the theologians. With Pope Benedict XVI, who has the unique distinction of having been both a German Catholic theologian and a German Bishop at some point in addition to now being pope, visiting his homeland soon, it would be significant if he were to respond to the letter.

My guess is that he will not. If the response is anything like the German theological backlash to Pope John Paul II’s more autocratic leadership style in the early 1990s, then Benedict XVI will likely respond through the local Churches, pressuring the local bishops to make statements or respond.

The fundamental issue at play here is the right to theological freedom, the notion — closely associated with that more standard academic freedom — that for theologians to be able to do their work for the good of the Church and the world, there must be the freedom for open dialogue, research, publication and teaching on issues of theological and ecclesiological import without fear of censure. In a sense, these theologians — representing more than 1/3 the total number of German Catholic theologians — are preempting precisely that concern. They wish to dialogue about important, practical theological concerns that have, after the last papacy, been effectively “taken off the table.”

Perhaps its time to put some of these concerns back on the table and have another, academically rigorous look.



  1. This situation and a couple of other recent “happenings” e.g.resignation of the well respected Fr. Anthony Ruff over the process surrounding the new liturgy and the Open letter by 1/4 of Irish priests over the same issue seem to be too easily dismissed by certain sectors of the Catholic press. One English commentator described the situation of the dissent to the new liturgy by the Irish priests as a revolution in a nursing home.
    I have commented several times on my blog and elsewhere over my concerns that there seems to be a stormtrooper brigade that show a pincer like movement of denigrating and destructive perosnal comments whenever any person is brave enough to voice any dissent from Rome.
    Please also see the comments here from Dr. Rosemary McHugh and Finbarr Corr on a similar issue that highlights the problem people are facing.

    1. Oops I forgot to add the web address to go with the previous comments :
      is whwer you can read the comments of Rosmeary McHugh and Finbarr Corr and to get a flavour of the English commentator I mentioned ;his name is william Oddie this webpost will give you an insight into what I am talking about. Read the comments section here too and you can see the sort of bullying tactics used against ayone who upholds the need for liberal change.

  2. In the midst of all of the negative and disappointing things that we see in our Church, there are glimmers of hope, as presented above. These are interesting times and I do believe that the Holy Spirit is at work here. I pray for those who love the Church and realize that it is time to ‘open the windows and let some fresh air in’. Thanks for posting this and for your link, Phil.

  3. Wouldn’t it be nice if once more the Bishops would acknowledge that the Theologians were part of the Teaching Mageristerium? I suppose the forthcoming reply will at least be an indication of how the German Bishops feel about such. In the meantime, there are some glimmers of hope among Europe’s doom and gloom. The following is a part of a post from a seasoned European theologian who has spent a lifetime there:

    ”In Belgium right now there is one young and very dynamic bishop: Johan Bonny the bishop of Antwerp. He is terrific fellow and has no connection with abuse cover up……He is working very hard – along with a very dynamic St Egidio community in Antwerp to live and create a Church community that is contemporary and pastoral in very good sense of the word. But he has a big job…. And he also has to deal with an archbishop who is a regressive and repressive nineteenth century CHURCHMAN.

    I am afraid the Catholic story in Much of Europe for the next ten or more years will be very bad news. The RCC has not only lost just about all credibility but people are officially leaving in great numbers……requesting that their names be removed from all parish listings. This exodus is strong in Ireland, Belgium, Austria and Germany…..

    But there are also some positive signs. Europe still has some very good schools of theology – and the professors today tend to be young, dynamic and pastorally focused and engaged men and women. I had lunch with a group of our younger professors last week and afterwards walked back to my home with a big smile on my face. They know their theological history. They are rooted in the scriptures. Their vision of church is broadly ecumenical. And they are contemporary BELIEVERS in every good sense of that term. They and their students will SOME DAY generate a new experience of church.”

    What we cannot know yet is whether all these European theologians will be working within or without the RCC. Isn’t God is too large to be contained by a single religious group, and perhaps is too large to be contained by all the religious groups?

    Time will tell. It usually does.

    george bouchey
    evening division ’76

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