Church 2011: The Need for a New Beginning


Memorandum of professors of theology on the crisis of the Catholic Church

The Church in 2011: A Necessary New Departure
It is over a year since cases of sexual abuse of children and youth by priests and religious at the Canisius School in Berlin were made public. A year has followed that has plunged the Catholic Church in Germany into an unprecedented crisis. The picture emerging today is very mixed. Much has been undertaken to do justice to the victims, to respond to all the wrong that has been done, and to search out the causes of abuse, cover-up, and double standards within the Church’s own ranks. After their initial horror, many responsible Christians, women and men, in ministry and outside of ministry, have come to realize that deep-reaching reforms are necessary. The appeal for an open dialogue on structures of power and communication, on the form of ecclesial office, and on the participation of the faithful in taking responsibility, on morality and sexuality have awakened expectations, but also fears. Could it happen that what might be the last chance for a departure from paralysis and resignation be missed by sitting out or minimizing the crisis? For some, the disquiet of an open dialogue without taboos is not a comfortable prospect – especially since the papal visit [to Germany] will soon take place. Yet the alternative would even be worse: a “peace of the cemetery” because the last hopes have been extinguished.

The deep crisis of our Church demands that we address also those problems which, at first glance, are not immediately linked to the abuse scandal and its cover-up that lasted for decades. As theology professors, women and men, we can no longer keep silent. We recognize our responsibility to contribute to a truly new beginning: 2011 must be the year of a new departure for the Church. In the past year, more Christians than ever before have left the Catholic Church. They have officially terminated their public membership, or they have privatized their spiritual life in order to protect it from the institution. The Church must understand these signs and must itself depart from ossified structures in order to recover new vitality and credibility.

The renewal of church structures will succeed, not with an anxious separation from society, but only with the courage for self-criticism and the acceptance of critical impulses – including those from the outside. This is one of the lessons of the last year: the abuse crisis would not have been dealt with so decisively without the critical accompaniment of the larger public. Only through open communication can the Church win back trust. The Church will become credible only when the image it has of itself does not completely diverge from the image others have of it. We address all those who have not yet given up hope for a new beginning within the Church and are committing themselves to this. We build upon the signals of a new departure and dialogue which some bishops have given in recent months in speeches, homilies, and interviews.

The Church does not exist for its own sake. The church has the mission to announce the liberating and loving God of Jesus Christ to all people. The Church can do this only when it is itself a locus and a credible witness for the liberative good news of the Gospel. The Church’s speaking and acting, its rules and structures – its entire engagement with people within and outside the Church – is under the claim of recognizing and promoting the freedom of human beings as creatures of God. Unconditional respect for each person, respect for freedom of conscience, commitment to the law and justice, solidarity with the poor and oppressed: these are the theological foundational standards which arise from the Church’s obligation to the Gospel. Through these, love of God and neighbour are made concrete.

Finding our orientation in the biblical message of freedom implies a differentiated relationship to modern society. In many respects, it surpasses the Church when the recognition of each person’s freedom, maturity, and responsibility is concerned.  The Church can learn from this, as already the Second Vatican Council emphasized. In other respects, critique of contemporary society from the spirit of the Gospel is indispensable, as when people are judged only by their productivity, when mutual solidarity is crushed, or when the dignity of the human person is violated.

It remains the case in every instance, however, that the Gospel’s message of freedom is the standard for a credible Church, for its action and its social shape. The concrete challenges which the Church must face are by no means new. And yet, it is hard to make out any traces of future-oriented reforms. Open dialogue on these questions must take place in the following spheres of action.

1. Structures of Participation: In all areas of church life, participation of the faithful is a touchstone for the credibility of the Gospel’s message of freedom. According to the ancient legal principle “What applies to all should be decided by all,” more synodal structures are needed at all levels of the Church. The faithful should be involved in the process of appointing important office-holders (bishop, parish priest). Whatever can be decided locally should be decided there. Decisions must be transparent.

2. Parish Community: Christian communities should be places where people share spiritual and material goods with one another. But the life of the parish community life is eroding at present. Under the pressure of the shortage of priests, ever larger administrative entities (“XXL Size” Parishes) are constructed in which neighbourliness and sense of belonging can hardly be experienced any longer. Historical identities and social networks achieved over time are given up. Priests are overburdened and burn out. The faithful stay away when they are not trusted to share responsibility and to participate in more democratic structures in the leadership of their parish communities. Ministry within the Church must serve the life of the communities – not the other way around. The Church also needs married priests and women in ordained ministry.

3. Legal culture: The recognition of the dignity and freedom of every human person becomes evident especially when conflicts are worked out fairly and with mutual respect. Canon law deserves its name only when the faithful can truly make use of their rights. It is urgent that the protection of rights and the legal culture within the church be improved. A first step is the creation of institutional structures of an administrative justice system in the Church.

4. Freedom of Conscience: Respect for individual conscience means placing trust in people’s ability to make decisions and carry responsibility. It is also the task of the Church to support this capability; this task must not revert to paternalism. It is especially important to take this seriously in the realm of personal life decisions and individual life styles. The Church’s esteem for marriage and for the unmarried form of life goes without saying. But this does not require the exclusion of people who responsibly live out love, faithfulness, and mutual care in same-sex partnerships or in a remarriage after divorce.

5. Reconciliation: Solidarity with “sinners” presupposes that we take seriously the sin within our own ranks. Self-righteous moral rigourism ill befits the Church. The Church cannot preach reconciliation with God if it does not create by its own actions the conditions for reconciliation with those whom the Church has wronged: by violence, by withholding law, by turning the biblical message of freedom into a rigorous morality without mercy.

6. Worship: The liturgy lives from the active participation of all the faithful. Contemporary experiences and forms of expression must have their place in it. The Eucharist and other celebrations of the sacraments must not become frozen in traditionalism. Cultural diversity enriches liturgical life; this is not compatible with a tendency toward centralized uniformity.  Only when the celebration of faith takes account of concrete life situations will the Church’s message reach people.

The dialogue process that has already begun in the Church can lead to liberation and a new departure only when all participants are ready to take up the pressing questions. Through a free and fair exchange of arguments solutions have to be sought that lead the Church out of its crippling preoccupation with itself. The tempest of the last year must not be followed by a period of rest! In the present situation, this could only be the “quiet of the grave.” Anxiety has never been a good counsellor in times of crisis. Christian women and men are compelled by the Gospel to look to the future with courage, and walk on water as Peter did, spurred by the word of Jesus: “Why do you have fear? Is your faith so weak?”

The names of the signatories can be seen here.

Translation by awr (Source: …) and M. Junker-Kenny, Dublin.

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