German church a problem child?

German church a problem child?

Worshiper holds a praise of God in his hands © Jorg Loeffke (KNA)

The Catholic Church is on the "synodal way". Bishops and faithful want to spend two years discussing ies such as power, the role of women and church sexual morality. Critics see more harm than good for the church.

Interviewer: The church has high moral demands on itself and on the faithful. In the cases of abuse, the perpetrators have trampled on these expectations and caused serious harm to the victims. Is it not understandable that the bishops now first try to win new trust??

Andreas Wollbold (Professor of Pastoral Theology; Dean of the Faculty of Catholic Theology at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich): This is absolutely understandable. The most wrong thing to have done would have been to duck away and hope that time heals the wounds. Time will not heal the wounds in this case, but will make the wounds chronic. And that must not be. For the sake of the victims for the sake of the damage that has been done, but also, of course, for the sake of the church and its mission to bring the gospel to the people.

Interviewer: The starting point for the synodal path was, after all, the abuse cases. The basic idea is to work through the abuse and gain new trust. Why then, from your point of view, is there sometimes such strong criticism of the synodal way??

Wollbold: It is obvious to ask: Are the big ies, which are now also potentiated by the media, the real challenges that are to be derived from the study on the cases of abuse?? I personally believe that one could be much more precise in examining the living and training conditions of prospective priests. That one discusses how the priests are built in, for example, relationally or how in a good sense also a social control would be possible. These are very concrete questions for priests today – priests in the church, priests in the parishes. That would be purposeful in my opinion. I have the impression that, basically, the abuse scandal has rather been used to push big ies, which have been controversial in church politics for decades, to a certain goal now.

Interviewer: And then there is also criticism of the fact that one topic is not explicitly mentioned, namely the topic of new evangelization. Again and again it is said that each individual Christian must first burn for himself, for the faith. Personal conversion is an important keyword. But actually this is not at all a contradiction to the synodal way?

Wollbold: In principle, it is not a contradiction if new evangelization becomes a basic perspective for the question of power, for the question of women, for the question of priests. However, I cannot see that at the moment. But rather, I have the impression that there is an overhang on structural ies, that there is the idea that if you change structures, the Church will have a more attractive face for evangelization. This is an aberration.

Interviewer: But one problem is that the perpetrators in the Church were, of course, almost exclusively men. Consecrated men have power in the church. In view of the abuse cases, is it not appropriate to rethink and discuss the role of women in the church??

Wollbold: You can do that, you should do that. I would, however, decouple it from the ie of the abuse cases, because the women's ie is an important ie in itself, but of course it needs to be dealt with in a differentiated way and according to the identity of the Church, its doctrine of faith and its theology of ministry.

Interviewer: But nevertheless it is so that one must consider, how it can go on now with the church. Must one not then also consider that it is simply not enough to say "We need to re-evangelize more," and the problems will solve themselves?

Wollbold: The core of the new evangelization is self-evangelization. This is what the popes have said again and again for 50 years. That is, at the core it is not about being more attractive, having great programs or bringing momentum into the store, but it is really about each individual, about getting – as Jesus says – a pure heart. And the pure heart is the best guarantee against all baseness, which has also been shown in the cases of abuse. That's what it's all about, that's the task of the entire church, and only from this inner conversion, regeneration, becoming a new person, a new creation, only from this can one approach the topic of power in a proper Christian way. Jesus says, "It shall not be so among you. He who wants to be first should be the servant of all". For this we need this self-evangelization, this conversion of the heart. Otherwise the question of power becomes basically only politics.

Interviewer: Surprisingly, however, the planned synodal path has also attracted considerable attention in Rome. The pope wrote his own letter on the matter, which was understood very differently. Another topic was the worldwide preservation of the unity of the church. I can remember many conflicts in the church, and again and again there was the keyword "German National Church". There were already warnings 30 years ago against a "German Sonderweg". Now isn't that a bit of scaremongering from the critics as well?

Wollbold: As far as one can observe the discussion so far, topics have indeed been raised and demands made which have relevance for the universal church and which, above all, also directly intervene in the faith, the doctrine of the church, thus, for example, the keyword "demand for the ordination of women to the priesthood". Of course, this is not something Germany can decide. There we are in Germany – on the contrary – bound to the valid doctrine. I miss this.

Interviewer: Nevertheless, no German bishop will seriously intend to found something like a German national church. Wouldn't it be good to say: "We don't always have to talk about division"??

Wollbold: There is certainly a lot of excitement on all sides, and in the excitement sometimes exaggerated criticisms, unjust criticisms are formulated. There I urge for a little calmer blood, for readiness for understanding and for differentiation. But of course, there is undoubtedly a danger of thinking in Germany, "We'll just do it now and hope that the rest of the universal Church will follow suit". I keep hearing from the universal church that many people are worried that the church in Germany is a bit like the church in Holland after the Council, i.e. from the perspective of the universal church it is more of a problem child.

Interviewer: And it is also clear that at the end of the process no really binding resolutions can come out. Each bishop can implement what he wants or nothing at all. There were also German bishops who now want to accompany the synodal way critically-constructively and are not so enthusiastic about the process. If you look at the fact that the resolutions are not binding – how great is the danger that you talk for two years and ultimately nothing happens or expectations are raised that cannot be fulfilled in the end??

Wollbold: First of all, of course, the expectation of a majority is that public opinion, public prere will do the rest, that bishops who refuse any resolutions will be at least extremely put on the defensive. This is very bad for church processes of understanding, because in the end one tries to use the prere from the street or today from the media and from public opinion for ecclesiastical self-contemplation. This can only go wrong. I think typical of ecclesiastical decision-making is the orientation toward consensus, that one spiritually seeks that which all can agree upon. Any form of decision-making that ultimately boils down to majority versus minority is not appropriate for the Church and should be avoided at all costs, especially in such sensitive ies as those addressed here.

Interviewer: What are your expectations or hopes for this two-year reform process?

Wollbold: I am by nature a rather sober, sometimes somewhat skeptical person. And in this respect, I must also say with this synodal path that my expectations are low. I fear that a lot of attention will be drawn to ies that are not really forward-looking for the Church and that, on the contrary, will lead us back to some of the hopelessness of the post-conciliar period, that we will give away valuable time, that the necessary unity of the Church in this country will suffer, that rifts will be further torn open, that there will be more polarization, and that the actual self-evangelization will no longer be an ie at all.

The interview was conducted by Mathias Peter.

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