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For decades now, with mixed success at best and with virtually no impact at all on the Church’s hierarchy, I have repeatedly called attention to the serious, growing crisis within the Catholic Church, pointing out that it is primarily a crisis of the Church’s leadership and not of the faithful, as many in the hierarchy would have us believe. In recent years, however, the revelations of countless cases of sexual abuse by Catholic clergymen – cases that have been occurring for decades and which have been consistently hushed up both by Rome and by bishops around the world – has made this systemic crisis clearly visible to the world at large, and calls for a well-thought-out theological response. With Pope Francis’s appointment of a panel of cardinals to advise him on a reform of the Roman Curia (the machinery of power surrounding the pope in the Vatican), such a theological response is now more urgent than ever to support the voices of many people within the Church who have long been crying out for change.
A reform of the Curia presents us, at this fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, with an opportunity to effect a paradigm shift in the Catholic Church. Under Popes Karol Wojtyla and Joseph Ratzinger, over the last three decades, a course of restoration to pre-Council times, rather than reform, was pursued relentlessly and this continues to exert an increasingly dramatic and deadly influence not just within the Catholic Church but also within the whole Christian ecumenical movement. Benedict XVI’s pontificate was, for me, a pontificate of missed opportunities. None of his triumphal appearances and journeys (whether staged as ‘pilgrimages’ or ‘state visits’), none of his brilliant encyclicals, nor his communication offensives, could hide the existence of the long-standing crisis in which the Church now finds itself. In the Federal Republic of Germany alone, in the last five years, hundreds of thousands of people have left the Church, and the population generally is becoming increasingly estranged from church institutions of any kind.
I repeat: I would have preferred not to write this book. In fact, I would not have written it, if:
• my hope that Pope Benedict would lead our Church forward in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council had not been so thoroughly destroyed. Back in 2005, in our four-hour, private and friendly conversation in Castel Gandolfo, my former Tübingen colleague seemed to hold out such a promise. Instead, however, Benedict obstinately adhered to the path of restoration pursued by his predecessor, distancing himself from the Council’s spirit in important points and from the many faithful Catholics whom the Council inspired. Furthermore, Ratzinger signally failed in his handling of the sexual abuses committed by Catholic clergymen all over the world.
• the bishops had exercised their collective responsibility for the Church as a whole – a responsibility explicitly acknowledged and encouraged by the Vatican Council – and had themselves vigorously spoken out and taken effective action against the scandals in the Church. Instead, however, under Wojtyla’s and Ratzinger’s rule, most of them became subservient once again to the Vatican, only too eager to toe the line without attempting to voice opinions of their own or to act independently. At best, they gave only hesitant and unconvincing answers to questions raised by the modern challenges facing the Church.
• the theologians had, as in former times, strongly and publicly stood together to oppose Rome’s new repressive measures and its attempts to control the selection of the next generation of teachers in university faculties and seminaries. Instead, however, most Catholic theologians, fearing censure and marginalization, now skirt around taboo topics of dogmatic or moral theology rather than face up to them in an unbiased and critical manner. Only very few, therefore, dare to support the global and grassroots Catholic reform organizations such as We are Church, Call to Action and, in Ireland, the Association of Catholic Priests.
To make matters worse, the advocates of reform in the Roman Catholic Church receive little support from Protestant theologians and church leaders, many of whom consider the reform issues to be a purely internal affair of the Catholic Church. All too often, they are content to cultivate cosy, friendly relations with the Vatican instead of exercising the freedom of a true Christian to speak out when needed. In the latest disputes about the Catholic Church and other churches, just as in other public discussions, lively theological discussion and fruitful controversy play only a minor role; thus the theologians miss their opportunity to issue a vigorous call for much-needed reform.
From many quarters, I have been urged to take a strong and clear stand on the current and future condition of the Catholic Church. And so, rather than writing individual newspaper columns and articles, I have decided to pen this compact summary to set forth and justify my carefully considered view of the crux of this crisis: namely that the Catholic Church – this great community of faith – is seriously ill, suffering under the Roman system of rule, a system which developed during the second millennium and which, despite opposition, remains in place today.
As I will show later, this Roman system of rule is characterized by a monopoly on power and truth, by legalism and clericalism, by hostility to sexuality, by misogyny and by clerical use of pressure on the laity. This system is not exclusively responsible for (though it does bear the main responsibility for) the three great divisions, or schisms, of Christianity: first, the East–West schism in the eleventh century, dividing the Western from the Eastern branches of the Church; then, the Reformation schism in the sixteenth century, dividing the Western (i.e. Roman Catholic) Church from the Protestant churches; and, finally, in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the separation of Roman Catholicism from the enlightened modern world.
The Cause of the Illness
To begin, let me make one thing clear: I am an ecumenical theologian concerned with the Church in all its manifestations, and I am by no means fixated exclusively on the figure of the pope. In my book Christianity: Its Essence and History (1995), I devoted over 1,000 pages to a description and analysis of the history of Christianity as a whole. But it cannot be denied that the papacy is the central element of the Roman Catholic paradigm, and it is the papacy and its power that is primarily and urgently in need of reform.
The papacy as it took shape in the Christian Church of the first centuries, i.e. as a ministry in succession to St Peter, was and remains to this day a meaningful institution for many Christians, not just Roman Catholics. But, from the eleventh century onwards, this institution gradually morphed into the monarchical–absolutist papacy that has dominated the history of the Roman Catholic Church ever since. It is this monarchical–absolutist papacy that has been responsible for the three great schisms mentioned above. Ever since the Middle Ages, the growing power of the papacy within the Catholic Church, notwithstanding numerous political setbacks and cultural defeats, has become the crux of the Roman Catholic Church’s history. Thus, Catholicism’s contemporary neuralgia is not a problem of liturgy, theology, lay piety, monastic rules or art, but rather a problem linked to the very constitution of the Roman Catholic Church. In traditional histories of the Catholic Church, however, far too little critical attention has been given to the problems generated by how the papacy has developed. For this reason, I will examine these problems with special care in the present book, not least because of their explosive ecumenical significance, for their consequences are not confined to the Roman Catholic Church alone; they also affect the other Christian denominations, the dialogue with other religions and ideologies, and the relationship of the Catholic Church to the modern world as a whole.
Fifty years ago, Joseph Ratzinger and I were the two youngest official advisors to the Second Vatican Council (1962–5). That Council tried to reform important elements of the Roman system, but, unfortunately, the stubborn resistance of the Roman Curia managed by and large to hamper these efforts and to restrict their success. In the decades since the Council, Rome has gradually been turning back the clock on the proposals for reform and renewal, and this has in turn led to a renewed outbreak of an already rampant and alarming disease in the Catholic Church. The sexual abuse scandals caused by Catholic clergymen are only the latest symptom. The objections to these scandals have become so vehement that, in any other large organization, they would have triggered an intensive investigation into the reasons behind such a tragedy. Not so, however, for the Roman Curia or the Catholic episcopate! At first, Rome and the episcopate simply denied any share in the responsibility for the systematic cover-up of these cases. And, when that strategy failed, they have, with very few exceptions, shown little interest in uncovering the deep historical and systemic reasons for such horrific aberrations.
The regrettable refusal to look at the causes of this sickness compels me to bring out into the open the historical truth about the Christian Church, starting from its origins – in the face of all the current attempts to forget, conceal and cover them up. For people with little detailed historical education, for traditional Catholic readers, and possibly even for some bishops, these facts will undoubtedly prove frightening and disillusioning. Someone who has never been seriously confronted with historical facts of this kind will certainly be dismayed to learn how things have been done over long periods of time and how all too human so many Church institutions and constitutions – particularly the core Roman Catholic institution of the papacy – are.
However, there is also a positive side to these disappointing and disillusioning facts: they show that the Church’s institutions and its character – beginning with the papacy – can in fact be changed, even fundamentally reformed. The papacy need not be abolished, but it should be renewed in such a way that the Petrine ministry once again becomes the office in the succession to St Peter described in the Bible. However, what does need to be abolished is the Medieval Roman system of governance and control. My critical destruction is therefore done in the service of committed construction, of reform and renewal, in the hope that, despite all appearances to the contrary, the Catholic Church will remain viable into the third millennium.
Physician, not Judge
Many readers will be surprised that I use so many medical metaphors in this book. This is because, in terms of health and disease, similarities between the body corporate of the Catholic Church and the human organism immediately spring to mind. Moreover, using medical language in analysing the Church’s condition allows me to formulate certain truths more clearly than if I were to use legal language. I do not see myself as a judge, but rather – in the broadest sense of the term – as a kind of physician.
My fundamental criticism of the Roman System is grave, and I will give my reasons for it, point by point. I will attempt, to the best of my knowledge and in all conscience, to make an honest diagnosis throughout this book and to offer effective suggestions for treatment. Doubtlessly, the medicine will often be bitter, but the Church requires such medicine if it hopes to recover. The story I tell here is a gripping one, and – as is usually the case with descriptions of progressive disease – it is hardly pleasant. But I have not described my diagnosis so explicitly simply because I testily insist on being right or because I enjoy being contentious, but only to fulfil my duty in conscience to offer this service (possibly my last?) to my Church, a Church which I have endeavoured to serve all my life.
Based on my previous experience, I expect that Rome will do everything it can, if not to condemn such an uncomfortable and inconvenient book, then at least to keep it as far as possible under wraps. I hope, however, that this book will receive support from within the church community and from the public at large, in particular from theologians and, if possible, also from those bishops who genuinely wish for change. I also hope that this book will shake up those who are ideologically hidebound, and awaken the legally and financially entrenched Roman hierarchy from its complacent slumber, so that they will at least begin to take note of the pathogenesis presented here and to give thought to my explanation of how the disease from which the Catholic Church is suffering has developed, and of the consequences of this disease, so that they will not obstruct the unpleasant but urgently necessary therapy.
What a wonderful way this would be to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the prophetic Second Vatican Council! While not everything can be healed overnight, the agenda set forth here will, I am convinced, remain on the table as an important order of business for the Catholic Church in the coming years. And if that is the case, all of my effort has been worthwhile.
The Church Cannot Go On in This Way
‘Things just can’t go on like this in our Church’; ‘The powers that be, those up there in Rome, are doing their best to tear the Church apart!’ Complaints like these, and similarly bitter, outraged or despairing cries have frequently been heard over the past few years, in both Europe and the United States.
As Alois Glück, the clear-sighted and courageous chairman of the Central Committee of German Catholics, put it after the Second Ecumenical Church Congress in Munich back in May 2010:
The alternatives are either resignation, accompanied by a deliberate shrinking of the Church until it consists of only a small community of ‘staunch Christians’ as some have little or no regrets about doing, or getting up the courage and determination to try something new.
His words expressed the concerns and hopes of many Catholics, especially the most dedicated and highly motivated members of the Church. The response of the bishops, however, was slow and reluctant; many clearly wanted to continue as before. And that explains the frustration, the anger and the despair that is particularly strong among the most loyal Catholics, who have not yet forgotten the Second Vatican Council.
The Catholic Church is in its deepest crisis of confidence since the Reformation, and nobody can overlook it. As Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger missed a great opportunity to make the forward-looking ideas of the Second Vatican Council the lodestone of the Catholic Church worldwide and especially within the Vatican itself. Instead of courageously pushing forward the reforms begun by the Council, he did the opposite: again and again, he qualified and weakened the statements of the Council, interpreting them retrogressively, contrary to the spirit of the Council fathers. He even expressly set his face against Vatican II, which, as an ecumenical council, represents, according to the great Catholic tradition, the highest authority within the Catholic Church. He did this by:
• accepting, without any preconditions, the illegally ordained bishops from the traditionalist Pius X Fraternity, which has separated itself from the Catholic Church and which continues to reject central elements of the Council’s teaching;
• actively promoting the use of the Medieval Tridentine Mass and, on occasion, celebrating the Eucharist himself in Latin with his back to the congregation;
• creating a deep mistrust of the Protestant churches by continuing to insist that they do not constitute ‘Churches’ in the true sense of the word;
• failing to pursue the paths to understanding and communication with the Anglican Church as outlined in official (ARCIC) ecumenical documents, attempting instead to lure conservative married Anglican clergymen into the Roman Catholic Church by waiving their obligation to celibacy; and
• strengthening the forces opposing the Second Vatican Council within the Church by appointing men who are opposed to the Council to important administrative positions (e.g. the Secretariat of State, Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and the Congregation of Bishops) and installing reactionary bishops around the world.
Benedict XVI’s now-notorious faux pas made it clear that Pope Ratzinger was becoming increasingly distant from the great majority of churchgoers and believers in our countries, many of whom pay increasingly little attention to pronouncements from Rome. At best, these churchgoers relate to their local parish, their pastor and possibly their local bishop. Benedict’s courageous decision, in February 2013, to resign his office deserves our full respect, but it was motivated explicitly for reasons of health; it is not an acknowledgement of mistakes made in the past or a call to take a different course in the future. Thus, of itself, Benedict’s resignation changed nothing, and everything will depend on the course steered by his successor, Pope Francis.
In implementing his anti-Council policies, Benedict XVI, like his own predecessor, enjoyed the full support of the Roman Curia, a Curia in which those persons who support the Council have long since been isolated or eliminated. In the years that have passed since the Council, a highly efficient propaganda machine has been set up to serve the Roman cult of personality. Modern mass media (television, the internet, YouTube and now Twitter) are being used systematically, professionally and successfully to promote the vested interests of the Curia. When you watch the huge Masses at the Vatican, or the gatherings surrounding papal visits and journeys, you could be excused for believing that all is in order in the Catholic Church. But the question we must ask is: what is the substance behind this glittering façade? On the local level, things look quite different.
Decline of Church Institutions
I do not, of course, underestimate the immense amount of good work done all over the world at the local level, especially in individual parishes and in local institutions, the countless pastoral and social contributions of innumerable priests and lay people, men and, above all, women; time and again I have met these people, whose work is a true testimony to their faith. Where would the Catholic Church be today without the untiring commitment of such people? But who has thanked them? So many of them feel they are hindered rather than helped by ‘those up there’, by policies, theology and discipline formulated in Rome. Complaints are pouring in from all over the world about the decline of traditional church structures built up over years or even centuries.
I, too, have been affected personally. I refer to the drastic reduction in pastoral care not merely in the university city of Tübingen and in the entire diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart but also in my native Swiss town of Sursee near Lucerne, where I return every year in the summer and where I continue to celebrate the Eucharist. But the joy I experience in celebrating the liturgy is diminishing year on year. What I learned in August 2010 provides a saddening snapshot of the current state of affairs.
For centuries, the town parish of Sursee always had at least four ordained priests, the so-called ‘Vierherren’. Now, however, it no longer enjoys the services of even a single ordained priest. Instead, it is headed by the lay theologian and deacon Markus Heil, who would make an excellent priest; however, because he is married, he cannot be ordained. And, therefore, although he and his team do an excellent job, in order to be able to celebrate the Eucharist they must fall back on the services offered by retired priests – for as long as such retired priests are still available. In Switzerland, too, celibate clergymen are a vanishing species. Nobody knows how long it will be possible to continue to offer pastoral care or regular Eucharistic services.
The Capuchin friars, important providers of pastoral care since the early seventeenth century, have had to close their monastery in Sursee and sell the site; the same has happened in many other places due to the lack of new blood. New recruits to the diocesan clergy are equally rare.
In nearby Lucerne, the theological faculty (and the kernel out of which the university developed in the last century) now fears for its survival. Because of the declining numbers of students, some politicians have proposed that it be merged with the Catholic Theological Faculty of Fribourg or with the Protestant Theological Faculty in Zurich and that the medical school should be expanded in its place. The fact is that, in Switzerland today, there are simply too few students wanting to study Catholic theology and too many centres offering theological training.
This is a typical example of the damage that can be done by a single bishop pursuing the reactionary policies of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. The responsibility for this sad state of affairs lies in no small measure, in my view, with Kurt Koch, the former Bishop of Basle, who became extremely unpopular with both the clergy and the laity in his diocese because of his hard-line Roman views, his opposition to established Swiss laws on church–state relations which ensure strong lay participation in church life, and finally the way in which he handled a five-year conflict with one of the parishes of his diocese after he had arbitrarily dismissed its pastor. Thus it came as no surprise that, at the end of July 2010, Koch hastily abandoned his diocese, announcing his resignation while sojourning in Rome. In recompense, the pope soon appointed him head of the Secretariat for Christian Unity, and in connection with his ecumenical activities as a Vatican official I will have reason to come back to him later.
The situation in my home diocese is typical of many other dioceses all over the world. Not long ago, our Sursee pastor wrote to me that it is
noticeable how many people have already emotionally and mentally written off our Church … Perhaps we too should note how a mood of resignation is taking hold within ourselves. This resignation is rooted in the feeling that, whatever we do, nothing will change.
The gradual withering away of the Church continues apace in other places of the world as well. Since the Council, tens of thousands of priests have abandoned their ministry, mainly because of the obligation to live in celibacy. Similarly, the number of people in religious orders, nuns, clerics and lay brothers, has dropped sharply, and the pool of intellectually and emotionally qualified potential candidates for both the secular priesthood and the religious life is shrinking alarmingly. Resignation and frustration are spreading among the clergy as well as among the most active lay people. Many of them feel that they have been abandoned in their difficulties, and they suffer intensely from the Church’s evident incapacity for reform.
More and more places of worship, seminaries and presbyteries now stand empty. In many countries parishes are being amalgamated into large ‘pastoral units’ contrary to the wishes of their parishioners, simply because there are not enough priests to serve the separate parishes. The priests in these new conglomerate parishes are so completely overburdened with work that they rarely know many of their parishioners personally and have little time for real pastoral ministry. Such changes only simulate an attempt at Church reform.
Canon 515 of the Code of Canon Law gives every bishop the unlimited right to establish parishes and to abolish them again. This canonical law was recently cited by the highest court of the Roman Curia in support of bishops such as Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, when ten parishes that he had abolished appealed to the Holy See – of course, to no avail! Since then, the expression doing the rounds in the United States, and elsewhere, is: ‘No parish is safe.’ The parish churches may be safe from robbers, but they are certainly not safe from those higher up in the Church who insist on economizing. The hierarchy prefers to deny the faithful a close-to-home celebration of the Holy Eucharist – the central element of the New Testament religious community – for the sake of maintaining the ‘even holier’ Medieval obligation of celibacy. This allows the Church not only to save on priests but also to save money, of course. Thus, Bishop Richard Lennon closed 27 parishes in his diocese of Cleveland, Ohio and announced plans to merge an additional 41 into only 18 new parishes. These affected parishes also appealed, but given the stubbornness of the bureaucrats in Rome it was once again merely a waste of time and effort. In many places in Germany such parish mergers are being denounced as a ‘persecution of Christians from above’.
I suspect that a theologian like Joseph Ratzinger, who has lived at the Vatican court for more than three decades, is not able to understand how sore my heart is when I see only a few dozen of the faithful attending Sunday church services in my home parish where, in earlier decades, I used to see a full congregation. But this is not, as Rome repeatedly insists, merely the result of increased secularization but is also the consequence of fatal developments within the Church for which Rome must be held responsible.
Many places still have active Catholic youth groups and a functioning community life, supported by the work of brave women and men in these parishes. Yet, on the whole, the Church appears to be disappearing more and more from the consciousness of the younger generation. This younger generation does not even feel annoyed any more by the out-of-touch backwardness of the Church hierarchy in so many areas of morality and dogma. The younger generation simply is no longer interested in the Church: it has become meaningless to their lives. Little of this, however, has been noted within the Vatican, which still proudly boasts of the high numbers of pilgrims (even though many of them are simply tourists) and considers the elaborately staged youth rallies with the pope to be representative of the youth of today.
The Failed Restoration Policies of Two Popes
It never ceases to astonish me how even secular contemporaries who do not consider themselves part of the Church and aesthetically minded intellectuals allow themselves to be dazzled by the return of Baroque splendour and impressively staged papal liturgies used by Rome to demonstrate the presence of a strong Church and the undisputed authority of the pope. All this religious magnificence, however, cannot disguise the fact that the restoration policies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI failed in the areas that count the most. All the papal appearances, journeys and teachings have not been able to change the opinions of most Catholics on controversial questions or to convince them to toe the Roman line. Even papal youth rallies, attended for the most part by conservative charismatic groups and promoted by traditionalist organizations, have failed to slow the numbers of people leaving the Church or to increase substantially the number of candidates for the priesthood. Even in the diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, commonly considered to be broad-minded and appreciative of grassroots initiatives, 17,169 deeply disappointed Catholics, i.e. 0.9 per cent of the total membership, left the Church between January and mid-November 2010.
This progressive erosion of the Church, sketched above, has accelerated over the past three decades. However, despite all complaints and lamentations, the process is largely accepted as irreversible and irremediable, reflecting the will of God (or perhaps only of the pope?). Only relatively recently has the world at large been awakened by the growing numbers of abhorrent sexual scandals, in particular the abuse of thousands of children and adolescents by Catholic clergymen in the United States, Ireland, Belgium, Germany, the United Kingdom and other countries. And the revelation of how these cases of abuse have been handled by the hierarchy has resulted in an overall crisis of leadership and confidence, the like of which has never been seen before in the Church.
We cannot ignore the fact that the system devised to conceal clerical sexual misbehaviour and then set in motion all over the world was led by the Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger from 1981 until 2005. Under John Paul II, reports of cases were already being collected by the Roman Congregation under the cloak of strict confidentiality. As late as 18 May 2001, Ratzinger sent a formal letter (Epistula de delictis gravioribus) to all bishops. According to this letter, cases of abuse were to be classed as secretum pontificium – a pontifical secret. Thus, those who made the abuse public – rather than the abusers themselves – were threatened with the most dire church sanctions. That letter has still not been retracted.
Many people rightly demand a personal mea culpa on the part of the then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Ratzinger. But, regrettably, he missed the opportunity to do so in Holy Week of 2010. Instead, in an unprecedented and embarrassing ceremony on Easter Sunday, staged before the beginning of the solemn Easter Mass, he let Cardinal Angelo Sodano, formerly Cardinal Secretary of State and Dean of the College of Cardinals, attest to his innocence urbi et orbi. This scandalous ceremony was all the more shameful because Sodano himself had come under public criticism for his personal embroilment in the scandal. Although Benedict XVI has repeatedly voiced his regret about the abuse, he has remained silent about his own personal responsibility for its cover-up, just as many other bishops have remained silent about their own similar roles. Not even in his recent book Light of the World did Ratzinger offer any comment on his role in the affair. This is not a mere coincidence; it is part and parcel of the overall structure.
The Transition from a ‘Wintry’ Church to a Gravely Ill Church
In an interview given shortly before his death in 1984 and later published in Faith in a Wintry Season: Conversations and Interviews with Karl Rahner (1990), Karl Rahner, the great Jesuit theologian of the Council, described the desolate state the Church had fallen into as existing ‘in a wintry season’; this striking image soon made the rounds as a perfect description of the Church’s plight. Already in 1970, only a few years after the Council, Rahner used the opportunity afforded by his nomination as the first recipient of the Romano Guardini Prize to lash out openly against those responsible for this situation. At the award ceremony attended by Germany’s leading bishops, Rahner pilloried the ‘institutionalized mentality’ of the episcopate, describing it as ‘feudal, rude and paternalistic’. Behind this bitter outburst lay Rahner’s deep personal disappointment over the German episcopate’s cold-shouldered reaction to the cautiously formulated, confidential memorandum on clerical celibacy that he had drafted some months previously and sent to the German bishops with the signatures of eight other prominent German theologians. Not only did the bishops fail to respond to the theologian’s appeal to rethink the matter and take appropriate action; with two exceptions, they failed even to acknowledge receipt of the document.
Despite Rahner’s bitter words at the award ceremony, Cardinals Julius Döpfner and Hermann Volk and the other attending bishops showed not the slightest indication of a willingness to reconsider the prevailing position or to express even regret; instead they reacted with incomprehension, indignation and anger. From that time on, Karl Rahner became persona non grata, even among more progressive churchmen. Even Rahner’s own former assistant Karl Lehmann, who as professor in Mainz had personally subscribed to the memorandum and who would later become the Cardinal-Bishop of Mainz, did not support the increasingly critical course of his old friend. Commenting on Lehmann’s decision, Daniel Decker, his authorized biographer, wrote: ‘on that day, it became clear that Lehmann’s path within the Church could not be that of his theological mentor K. Rahner’.
Although in 1968, in the wake of Paul VI’s encyclical squashing further discussion of the celibacy issue, Rahner, on the orders of Cardinal Döpfner, had dutifully supported the official position with his own widely publicized Open Letter to the Clergy and although he had painstakingly formulated his confidential memorandum two years later in a moderate, submissive tone, he was denounced in conservative Catholic circles for using provocative formulations and embarrassing exposures to foment scandals, making use of popular media in order to publicly orchestrate conflict and controversy. Since then, compulsory celibacy – despite the dwindling numbers of priests and the emergency situation of many parishes – had been a taboo topic for the German Bishops’ Conference until 2010, when suddenly the breaking news of numerous hushed-up cases of clerical sexual abuse brought it to the fore. In other countries, it was the same story; the bishops, intimidated by Rome or prevented by their own dogmatic views, did their best to sit out the ongoing debates and ignore the increasingly vociferous demands for reform until they were pushed to take up the matter by public scandal and indignation.
Karl Rahner died in 1984 in wintry resignation, without having seen any harbingers of a new spring under a new pope. What would he say about the situation of his Church thirty years later? After three disappointing decades of Roman restoration under the pontificates of Wojtyla and Ratzinger, I am sure that he would agree that the advent of spring after such an icy winter will only be possible when we frankly admit that the Church is now seriously ill. It is not simply a matter of the individual, ‘ecclesiogenic neuroses created by the Church’, which the eminent Catholic psychotherapist Albert Görres had long ago diagnosed in the Church; the illness under which the Roman Catholic Church has long been suffering goes far beyond that: it consists in pathological, morbid structures within the Church itself. Not surprisingly, many now ask themselves: is the Church not critically, even terminally, ill?
My assessment of the prevailing condition of the Church has been confirmed by the analysis undertaken by Thomas von Mitschke-Collande, and underpinned by the results of numerous surveys. Mitschke-Collande, director emeritus of McKinsey/Germany and himself a committed Catholic, published a book in September 2010 entitled Kirche – was nun? Die Identitätskrise der katholischen Kirche in Deutschland (‘What’s Next for the Church? The Identity Crisis of the Catholic Church in Germany’). According to him, the problem involves five interlinked crises mutually reinforcing each other:
• a crisis of faith;
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