Julie Knopová, professor of dogmatics from the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Erfurt
Between reform demands on the one hand and their rejection on the other: the church in Germany is debating its future. Before the upcoming session of the Synodal Path reform project, Erfurt professor of dogmatics Julia Knopová talks in an interview about the various diagnoses of the current situation in the church and why these diagnoses make the path to a common solution difficult.
Professor, the Catholic Church in Germany is currently occupied with many serious debates. Not so long ago, the Vatican made a critical statement about the German reform process, the Synodal Journey. Theologian Magnus Striet from Freiburg thinks that we don’t have to worry about a split in the church, a schism – it has been here for a long time. Do you agree with that?
I don’t think this old term is suitable to describe such a huge alienation of many Catholics from the Church and services. But of course it’s true. There is tremendous conflict and tension in the church. It is about how we want to be Catholic today in the 21st century, in the face of the terrible history of (systemic) sin in the Church. I am glad that these debates are finally taking place.
However, the current situation in the church is assessed very differently
In this assessment, it is primarily about how we evaluate the abuse and its clerical cover. Is this abuse of power typical of the Catholic Church system, or is it systemically alien? Does the church’s self-awareness support or prevent abuse of power? The MHG-Study and all subsequent investigations identify typically Catholic factors that promote abuse and its clerical cover-up. I continue to find it highly problematic to deny it.
Does the current diagnosis lead to different solutions?
Anyone who thinks that abuse has nothing to do with how the church understands itself is simply displacing the problem. Although he invests energy in investigation and prevention, he denies the need for church reforms. From this perspective, the solution is rather that the existing power relations are protected and the existing sexual morality is strengthened. However, those who see abuse as symptomatic of problematic dimensions of church self-confidence seek more fundamental solutions: solutions to issues of power, authority, sexuality, and gender roles. In this perspective, it would be remiss not to correct the doctrine and structures that have been shown to be supportive of abuse. And that is the starting point of the Synodal Journey…
… which is hotly debated. How realistic is it that the two positions would meet?
It is very difficult because the diagnosis is diametrically different. The first perspective sees the problem in the second and vice versa.
If we step back a little, those debates will not be completely foreign to us. Already at the beginning of the 19th century, theology was arguing about how the church should understand itself. As a system outside the influence of time preserving eternal values, or as a system that is itself historical?
If we are to understand church doctrine outside the influence of time, we must not change even a comma in it. Anyone who thinks this way today considers the very intention of the Synodal journey – to look critically at structures and doctrine – to be wrong. But we know God’s will only in human interpretation, God’s word only in the word spoken by men. Church doctrine and structures did not fall from the sky, they grew up historically. That is why they can continue to develop. If they no longer prove themselves in life and faith, they need to be corrected. They are not ends in themselves.
In an article in 1910, the cultural philosopher Ernst Troeltsch asked himself the question whether the church only offers ready-made truths to believers, or whether it searches for them together with them.
From II. The Church understands the Vatican Council as a joint search. He wants to plant his understanding of the gospel in society – always aware that we are on the way, not at the destination. This also applies to its institutional form. The church – historically speaking – was constantly changing. In doing so, it was still, albeit belatedly, adapting to the given politics and society. This is possible and necessary even today. We must not lag behind either the intellectual or the cultural standards of our time. Even more: as a church we can realize the best of a free democratic culture. Whoever recognizes God’s image in every person and recognizes the freedom and equality of God’s children should actually stand at the head of the movement for human rights and speak out against discrimination of any kind – and above all prove it in their own context.
Many people today probably do not see the church as a standard bearer on these issues.
Because too many certain structures have crept into her system. Consider, for example, clericalism, which has been recognized as a problematic factor in abuse. Clericalism is not a subjective but a structural problem. A priest who behaves clerically acts in complete conformity with the system. Because even in 2022, the Catholic Church is cultivating a class society. The difference between clerics and laymen stretches through church law and worship, the power structure and self-awareness of the church. A few hundred years ago, it might still have seemed understandable and appropriate for the time. Today it is an anachronism. A strange bizarre world. Theologically, this is highly problematic. This forces priests into a precarious situation, where they are defined not by their profession and tasks, but by their difference in relation to the laity.
Another look at the synod meeting in September. What will be its decisive indicators?
The first reading will include, for example, a text on the fundamental rights of believers in the church and another on the approach to the abuse of adult women. Texts in the second reading can already be voted on, e.g. stabilization of synodal structures at all levels of the church, mandatory priestly celibacy, a new assessment of the sexuality of queer persons and the corresponding consequences in church labor law. We will see if the awareness of the problems regarding reality and unhealthy church concepts is also matched by the willingness to reform and the will to act. This is primarily a question for bishops. For although overcoming toxic structures, concepts and habits begins in the mind, it takes more than the good will of a good shepherd to be effective. A legal, possibly doctrinally reliable basis is necessary. The bishops must vouch for this. Even with regard to Rome.
Translated from the German original by Pavla Holíková