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German women look at change in the Catholic Church

Fifty-eight out of 63 vote in favor of a policy paper on reforms of power and the separation of powers

Catholic News Service

Catholic News Service

Published: October 04, 2021 04:15 AM GMT

Updated: October 04, 2021 04:37 AM GMT

German women look at change in the Catholic Church

Georg Bätzing (right), bishop of Limburg and president of the German Bishops' Conference, speaks to demonstrating members of the Federation of German Catholic Youth on the sidelines of the Second Synodal Assembly of the German Catholic Church. (Photo: AFP)

The role of women in the Church is among the top issues of the Synodal Path, but the decision on the ordination of women is ultimately up to Rome. The German Catholic news agency KNA asked women participating in the Synodal Assembly — the supreme body of the Synodal Path — how they view the situation.

"For us women, the pressure to act is much greater, because we're excluded more strongly and more fundamentally in many areas, from ministries and from opportunities to shape things," said Claudia Luecking-Michel, 59, on the sidelines of the Sept. 30-Oct. 2 Synodal Assembly.

Luecking-Michel, vice-president of the Central Committee of German Catholics, has no illusions: "Of course, no decision can be taken here on admitting women to ordained ministries, but little strokes fell big oaks! If the first bishops are now speaking out in favor of it, that shows a change -- and that's important."

"It is above all women who still have hopes that something can be changed," she added. The anger and rage of women was a "vital sign."

Andrea Heim, executive director of Catholic Adult Education of Germany, said: "It's not as if a few weird Catholic women want to become priests here. How many women before us have already given up, couldn't take any more and left in bitterness? This 'collateral damage' must give us food for thought. That's another reason why it's important to keep at it."

Her optimism was tempered, however. "Whenever women want to reach for power, men stand in their way. This doesn't just happen in the church, but it's more extreme there."

I don't want to give up my vocation because of that — my community is too important to me

And where do women get the motivation to keep fighting? Katharina Norpoth, former chairwoman of the Federation of German Catholic Youth, said: "A lot comes from the positive experiences we have had in our associations, where democracy and equal rights are already possible in a church context."

Women are also making their mark in the Synodal Assembly. Fifty-eight out of 63 voted in favor of the policy paper on reforms of power and the separation of powers. The female approval rate was far above the overall approval rate in percentage terms.

Vincentian Sister Nicola Maria Schmitt said: "I came to the brink with my church one or two years ago." Other female members of religious orders felt the same way, she said.

She considered leaving, but came to the conclusion, "I don't want to give up my vocation because of that — my community is too important to me," more important than the institution of the church and its hierarchy. This also became evident in the course of the Synodal Path discussions.

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Some women already made their views abundantly clear in the opening debate Sept. 30.

"Women in the church are getting desperate, also about the decisions taken in Rome," said Ulrike Göken Huismann of the 400,000-member Catholic Women Germany. She was referring to Pope Francis' decision to keep the archbishops of Hamburg and Cologne and two auxiliary bishops of Cologne in office despite the mistakes they had made in their handling of clergy sex abuse.

Another delegate, Gudrun Lux, said she had come to the assembly with a lot of anger and little hope: "What has this church come to, if it is the same here as it is in the world outside: The big guys can do what they want, the little ones are hanged, the big guys are let off the hook." She said she was hoping to leave the assembly with a changed heart.

The second Synodal Assembly of German Catholics ended Oct. 2 with overwhelming support for a range of proposals that, if adopted, would bring widespread reform to the church.

The assembly -- 230 members including laity, academics, clergy and bishops -- wrestled for three days in Frankfurt with decisions on which direction the church should take in future. The German Catholic Church has been struggling to regain its credibility and trust after a decade in which it was rocked by sexual abuse scandals and saw Catholics in large numbers turn their backs on the church.

Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German bishops' conference and co-president of the Synodal Path project, said afterward: "Texts have been debated that are not just texts, but dreams put into words of how we want to change the church in Germany: a church that is participatory, gender-just and going on this path with the people."

This was the second Synodal Assembly, the main body of the Synodal Path, the schedule of which has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Four topics are being discussed: the position of women in the church, future management and division of power, Catholic sexual morality and priestly celibacy. Because of the workload and the time-consuming discussions and voting, the executive committee has decided to extend the Synodal Path and to add a fifth assembly, scheduled for early 2023.

The assembly considered 13 of 16 texts discussed earlier in synodal forums, and 12 were adopted on first reading. The assembly ended abruptly and unexpectedly an hour earlier than planned when, on the third day, no quorum was in place, because many delegates left early to return to their homes. Those remaining were angry and disappointed.

Celibacy has become so much of an exclusion criterion for the clerical ministry that we see now that we have almost no candidates for the priesthood anymore

The delegates voted electronically, and the three days were livestreamed. Speakers were strictly limited to two minutes each. Delegates were seated alphabetically and not according to rank, with some cardinals at the back of the room. Some criticized this arrangement as being "too Protestant" in form.

The texts put to the vote received an approval rating of between 76% and 92%, suggesting that three-quarters of those present were in favor of reforms. However, the decisions of the Synodal Path have no binding legal force in the church.

One text discussed dealt with a new division of power, with more participation of laity and with bishops expected to relinquish some power. There were specific proposals that laity and congregations have a say in the appointment of bishops and that women be admitted to ordained offices.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, who started the Synodal Path process in 2019, summarized: "I think the basic text 'Power and Separation of Powers in the Church' is good because it is realistic and doesn't say we have to change the Codex in the world church, but we can move forward step by step."

When the participation of the laity in the appointment of the diocesan bishop was discussed, delegates -- specifically and openly -- referred to the "bad" examples of the dioceses of Cologne and Regensburg, where Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki's predecessor, the late Cardinal Joachim Meisner, and Regensburg's current leader, Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer, were appointed against the express wishes of many Catholics. Cardinal Woelki and Bishop Voderholzer were present at the assembly and listened, but did not speak.

A text on new processes of dealing with victims of sexual abuse was discussed, and Archbishop Ludwig Schick of Bamberg said the process under canon law should be "faster, more transparent and the victims should be involved and heard." Johannes Norpoth, a spokesman for the Victims Advisory Council, said his own case under canon law took nine years.

Bishops Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen and Gebhard Fürst of Rottenburg-Stuttgart stressed to the assembly that "the position of a bishop in Germany has been very damaged."

Bishop Overbeck said in the discussion on the image of priests, "Celibacy has become so much of an exclusion criterion for the clerical ministry that we see now that we have almost no candidates for the priesthood anymore. And this is not just a German problem."

The Vatican sent no observers from Rome despite an invitation, but Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, the papal nuncio to Germany, attended the proceedings

Claudia Lücking-Michel, a theologian who participated in the same forum, told the German state broadcaster ZDF that it is "Now or never. When otherwise should it (reform) then happen?" The vice president of the Central Committee of German Catholics added, "Because what we experience is, from my point of view, rather a betrayal of the Gospel than good discipleship."

Thomas Sternberg, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics and co-president of the Synodal Path, said, "We are practicing the synodality that the pope calls a constitutive element of the church."

Sternberg told a post-assembly news conference that he arrived in Frankfurt "with great misgivings, due to the different positions of synod members and the heavy agenda. But ... there were fair debates and constructive discussions. I am glad that we have experienced a calm presentation even of controversial positions."

The assembly had 20 observers from ecumenical bodies and international Catholic organizations. One observer from Luxembourg, Théo Péporté, a former spokesman for the Archdiocese of Luxembourg, told a news conference that the Synodal Path in Germany "will affect the church and it does matter how it turns out."

The Vatican sent no observers from Rome despite an invitation, but Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, the papal nuncio to Germany, attended the proceedings.

As Archbishop Eterovic was leaving the assembly, Karin Kortmann, vice president of the Central Committee of German Catholics and of the Synodal Assembly, asked him from the stage, "Please do not go yet -- your car will wait."

She thanked him specifically for coming and pleaded that he should report back to the pope "about a more people-friendly and participatory church." She also raised the issue that the central committee has been waiting for an invitation from the Vatican to discuss the Synodal Path, adding tersely, "And letters, by the way, can be responded to." She later told a news conference she hopes that the nuncio puts at the end of his report that a meeting with the central committee was "urgently recommended."

The German Catholic Church counts just over 22 million members and is the largest faith community in the country.

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