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Germany's Catholic Church struggles with women

September 23, 2019

Catholic women are demanding change in the church and giving Germany's bishops an earful as they meet in Fulda. The bishops are under pressure — from the progressive grassroots at home and from a reluctant Vatican.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx speaks with demonstrators from the Catholic Women's Community of Germany (kfd) in Fulda
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Rumpenhorst

They won't let up. Catholic women protested in the central city of Fulda ahead of the plenary assembly of Germany's Catholic bishops on Monday afternoon. "We want to be visible and audible. And I believe that we owe it to the women and men of the Catholic Church that we are heard more," said Mechthild Heil, head of the Catholic Women's Community of Germany (kfd). With 450,000 members, the biggest Catholic women's group in the country is pressing for women to gain access to all church offices — including the priesthood.

Heil and around 150 kfd members demonstrated in Fulda, making their way through downtown with a group of drummers, banners, placards and big pink crosses on their way to the seminary next to the cathedral. There they issued their demands to the bishops and spoke with the head of the German Bishops' Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx.

Read more: Catholic women take on new role in Cologne Cathedral

The lead-up to this protest has been long: Nearly 10 years ago the scandal over sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Germany broke as numerous cases at a Berlin Jesuit school came to light. New information, as well as increasing numbers of cases and reports from victims, has continued to emerge since then. In the past decades, well over a thousand priests committed tens of thousands of offenses against thousands of victims. They were hushed up and ignored until a study in autumn 2018 revealed the magnitude of the scandal. That prompted a growing discussion about patriarchal thinking in the male-dominated church and the relationship between abuse of power and sexual abuse.

Mechthild Heil
Mechthild Heil believes it's high time the Catholic Church allow women in ministryImage: kfd/Tina Umlauf

But the issue is also about women. "We can't avoid the question of women," said Osnabrück Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, vice chair of the German Bishops' Conference. Bode and other bishops have been calling for a debate about allowing female deacons in the church.

Many prominent nuns go further still. Women should "pose the power question," said Sister Katharina Ganz, mother superior of the Oberzell Franciscan convent, and underlines that no pope has said that excluding women from the ministry — as deacons, priests or bishops — is part of church dogma.

Post from the pope

Bishops and laypeople in Germany want to embark on a "synodal path" and tackle fundamental questions. On the subject of women in church office, a preparatory working group found that as women and men are equal in legal terms in most countries, women's position in the Catholic Church does "not reflect the societal expectations of equitable participation in leadership services."

But there is a deep chasm in the church. In late June, Pope Francis wrote a letter to German Catholics that was interpreted as being as encouraging as it was admonishing. Ten days ago, important cardinals of the Roman Curia joined in and admonished the German bishops, while Cologne Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, Marx's most important opponent in the German Bishops' Conference, declared the discussion about women becoming priests over.

It remains unclear what will happen with the "synodal path." Marx spoke to Pope Francis late last week in Rome and will discuss those talks when he meets with the bishops, who are divided over "the women question."

German bishops congregate in St. Bonifatius Church in Lingen
There's little space for women when Germany's bishops convene twice a yearImage: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Gentsch

"Somehow it harks back to the old days when Woelki says: 'The debate is over,'" said Heil of the Catholic Women's Community. Woelki's rejection is out of tune with the times. "It is the last attempt to say: 'I am putting my foot down,'" she told DW. There are issues of power and historical arguments for excluding women from the priesthood but there is no theological argument, she said.

That's why they're demonstrating. Every September for the past 10 years, Heil's group has rallied under the slogan "Stand up for a gender-equitable church!" But this is the first time there's been a full-throated demonstration like in Fulda.

Compensation for abuse victims

There has been some movement when it comes to dealing with cases of sexual abuse. For the first time ever, a prominent representative of the victims will be allowed to speak to the assembly of bishops. Matthias Katsch, spokesman for the Eckiger Tisch victims' initiative, said he will present the 69 men with his group's recommendations for redress on Tuesday, which include financial compensation of €300,000 ($330,000) for victims of sexual abuse. So far, the bishops have consistently rejected across-the-board settlements.

Monday's women's demonstration won't be the only protest during the four days of discussions. On Thursday, the group Maria 2.0 plans to demonstrate under the slogan "Now it's time: Women fight for their church," while the Catholic Youth Community (KjG) will push for "courageous" structural change in the church.

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Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C