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.