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Women are pushing for equality in Germany's Catholic Church

October 17, 2020

When Germany's Catholic bishops gather, they find themselves facing some very determined critics. A growing number of Catholic women are demanding change. But will they be successful?

Maria 2.0 logo
Image: Lisa Kötter

Monika Schmelter is one of the women who crisscrosses the country to press for equal rights in the Catholic Church. The reason, she points out, is that people are leaving the church in droves — including her own children. Many women share her experience of seeing their children turn their backs on the church. In response, they have come together to form a movement called "Maria 2.0." 

Many of them are among the traditional church faithful: women who are the backbone of Catholic parishes across Germany. They raised their sons and daughters by giving them a spiritual home, and guiding them through important sacraments.

Read more: Opinion — Has the Catholic Church had its day?

More recently, though, they have been confronted by daughters and granddaughters choosing to leave the church — a church they see as unrelentingly male-dominated.

"Even women who, 30 years ago and more, were vehemently opposed to everything associated with feminism are now giving their backing to 'Maria 2.0,'" Monika Schmelter tells DW. The 64-year-old, who even spent a number of years in a convent when she was young, is now a 'Maria 2.0' spokeswoman. "Something is going on," she is convinced.

Women demonstrating for equal rights in the Catholic church
Maria Schmelter (second from the right) and fellow protestersImage: privat

The movement is being seen as a serious and radical challenge to male authority in the church.

It began in January 2019, in a small parish in the northwestern city of Münster, where women who felt that for too long they had been marginalized within the church went on what they called a church "strike."

What that meant in practice is that they refused to enter the church building, no longer helped in the sacristy, and eventually began praying together outside the church itself. It was not long before Lisa Kötter, one of the founders of the movement, was getting inquiries from all over Germany, as well as from Austria and Switzerland.

Sunday mass at the drive-in

And when they held their first "Week of Action" in May 2019, she was astonished to see, "hundreds of groups from German-speaking countries — tens of thousands of people —– taking part." Even women from other continents wanted to know more about what was going on. The next step was to have a national conference. But the coronavirus pandemic put an end to that.

Read more: During coronavirus, monasteries and convents take spirituality online

'Power-driven church in the grip of fear'

At the end of September, Lisa Kötter appeared on a prime-time nationwide TV news broadcast in Germany, where she criticized what she termed, "a power-driven church in the grip of fear."

"Jesus," she argued," never ordained a man as a priest. And he certainly never founded a purely Roman church." If the church were willing, at least to an extent, to change its patriarchal structures, and "treat women equally" then it could become a truly global church that would be able to do much more to support women across the world, "who are really suffering because of patriarchal structures."  

Kötter also highlighted the disappointment and disillusionment of "true women of faith who, despite their very best efforts, are failing to persuade their children and grandchildren not to lose interest in this male-dominated church." 

Lisa Kötter
Lisa Kötter is the woman behind the church "strike"Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Gentsch

In the meantime, many women struggle to see a role for themselves in a church tarnished by endless scandals involving sexual abuse and other reports of shocking misconduct. No synod of bishops takes place without the protests of women who have come from far and wide to vent their discontent, call for equal rights, and demand the ordination of women.

In short, what they want is an equal share in power. These are not young left-leaning church radicals. The protests have the backing of the large Catholic women's federations, with hundreds of thousands of members. Among them are the Catholic Women's Association of Germany (kfd) and the Catholic Women's Association (KDFB,) which are both headed by members of the German parliament, the Bundestag, for Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU.) 

Read more: German Catholic Church is losing priests and parishes

"'Maria 2.0' is just as strong and relevant as on day one and it is growing in a way that we never thought it would," says Monika Schmelter from the board of sponsors. She believes "it's the first time in a long time that the church has been discussed in this way," which she also puts down to the many groupings within the church which have long been pushing for reform.

'New target group'

From the start, "Maria 2.0" had an impact on the many publications put out by Germany's Catholic Church. At the end of November 2019, the Liborius publishing house put out a special monthly magazine called 'Maria 2.0' that carried the sub-title: "People Move the Church."

"'Maria 2.0' helped us to get through to people who didn't read our traditional publications," says publishing manager Manfred Schmitz, whose magazines report on 'Maria 2.0' activities from across the country. And "Maria 2.0" is now also on Facebook.  

One city where the movement has a foothold is the Bavarian capital of Munich. Social worker Renate Spannig (54) can remember the first meeting there, which she believes cast a lot of light on the current role of men in the church. There was a meeting of the so-called "Synodal Path," which was set up to discuss possible reforms within the church. At least a dozen women stood at the door protesting.

The Bishop of Munich, Cardinal Marx, appeared and started to listen to what the women had to say. As did the Bishop of Augsburg, Bertram Maier. But then, along came the Bishop of Regensburg, Rudolf Voderholzer. An 80-year-old woman asked him whether he, too, might not like to stop and talk. "He walked past and simply ignored us," says Spannig. The old lady reacted by turning to one of cameras: "You see, that's how these church people treat us women." For Spannig, it just meant that she was more determined than ever to get involved with "Maria 2.0."

Maria Flachsbarth
CDU politician Maria Flachsbarth heads the Catholic Women's AssociationImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/B. Zawrzel

Gabriele Postrach from the eastern German town of Zwickau says that a small group in the bishopric of Dresden-Meißen is supporting the call for reform. But she says she understands why some women in the Catholic Church in eastern Germany are cautious when it comes to a church "strike." "In the former East Germany, solidarity within each parish —– being able to celebrate Holy Mass together —– was very important." Still, "I was always interested in women's issues," Postrach tells DW.

"Mother church'

So, is the commitment to reform going to bring change? Michael Ebertz, sociologist and theologian based in Freiburg, is skeptical: "All the protests might come to nothing." With their eye-catching initiatives and actions, they have demonstrated a firm commitment to Mother Church both as an institution and a spiritual home. No wonder, therefore, that they feel such pain when later generations turn away from the church. He calls it a "cognitive dissonance." A disturbing feeling of losing your home. "Still, they don't leave the church. They want to stay. But they want the institution to change," he says.

Ebertz does not see much room for compromise. The church is following a "different logic," he says. But this "dissonance," the women's sense of feeling ill at ease, is growing. And what it has led to is not an "exit option" —– but the "Maria 2.0" movement. Bishops and priests are having to see that "committed women, who make up their reserve army, are going head to head with them." And after so many men left the church in the 1970s and 80s, now it is the women's turn, Ebertz says.

Men and power in the Vatican

Ebertz believes that this demise of the church is inevitable because the Catholic Church has failed to put in place, "orderly structures for decision-making," such as elections, procedures, partners for dialogue. Change is simply not going to come. Which, in turn, could mean the long-standing union between church and family may be coming to an end.

"The Catholic Church is not going to change," "Maria 2.0" spokeswoman Monika Schmelter agrees. "But I do think that women have woken up," she says, referring to those who have suffered under the breakdown of faith in the family and who — even at the age of 70 or 80 — have turned away from the church because of the sexual abuse scandals.

This article was translated from German.

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