German cardinal Reinhard Marx has called for a greater say for women and laypeople in Catholicism, explaining that 200 men sitting together at a synod discussing the Church on their own, for example, “is not a good thing”.

Driving the news

Marx, the Archbishop of Munich and Freising and President of the German Bishops’ Conference, was speaking in an interview January 22 published in the country’s diocesan newspapers.

The occasion was the upcoming January 30-February 1 230-member strong assembly in Frankfurt which will kick off the German Church’s two-year “synodal path”.

That’s the reform process dialogue between bishops, priests, laypeople and outside experts aimed at reconsidering aspects of Church life now considered problematic in light of the clergy sex abuse crisis: the exercise of power and authority, the role of women, the priestly way of life – including compulsory celibacy – and Catholic sexual morality.

The big picture

In his latest interview, Marx sought to dampen expectations that the synodal path will be a quick-fix to the Church’s problems.

“One cannot expect that in two years we will find all the answers in Germany to theological questions that have been discussed for generations”, the cardinal warned, recalling that “Church history is full of events in which there was no solution at the conclusion, but only in 20, 30 or 100 years”.

With the synodal path – and despite Vatican fears – “we don’t want to reinvent the Church”, Marx insisted, fending off criticisms that he’s leading the German Church down its own path, objections which he said annoyed him.

That said, and in communion with the universal Church, in the reform process “we have to recognise what is necessary and possible and then do it. We cannot avoid it and whitewash the situation”, the cardinal explained.

“The Synodal Path should not end up in no-man’s land, but should end up with the clearest possible results or votes. And if two-thirds of the bishops agree to things that can be regulated here in Germany, then they will probably do them”, Marx added.

Go deeper

One of the changes in Church life Catholics in Germany – and other places – are pushing hardest for are more roles for women in Church leadership.

Marx said he counted himself among that number who want to see more female leadership, referring to current Church practice and explaining that “in the future, I cannot imagine 200 men sitting together at a synod and discussing the Church on their own. That is not a good thing”.

“Why shouldn’t there be a proposal at the end of the synodal path that synods take greater account of laypeople and especially women, at world level or at national level, not only as consultants but also with a voice?”, Marx asked.

“Do we want future episcopal conferences where there are never women or even laity at all? We don’t want to talk about the future of the Church in a closed circle”, the cardinal cautioned.

Why it matters

Though more leadership spaces need to be found for women in the Church, Marx recognised that there are limits, John Paul II’s veto on women priests among them.

“I cannot see how one can overcome such a strong magisterial statement”, Marx admitted, adding: “but I don’t think the discussion about it is over”.

He explained that the discussion of women priests is not in the first place a yes-or-no question, but a matter of the deeper reception of John Paul’s veto in concert with the input of theologians.

On women’s ordination, the synodal path could possibly cast a vote, for example, in the sense of “We have the impression that further reflection is necessary here”, Marx said.

He explained that in his view that would be a big step and in any case, greater women’s involvement in the Church in higher levels of responsibility is only a matter of time, both in Germany and abroad.

To those who believe the question of women priests shouldn’t even be discussed in the light of John Paul’s veto, Marx responded, too, that such censorship is not feasible in “our culture”.

For the record

In terms of the exercise of authority in the Church, Marx advocated for greater accountability for bishops and the sharing of power.

“We have to be able to say that we are transparent in our decisions, we have clear responsibilities [and that] there is a control of power, for example through administrative tribunals and the ability to review decisions”, he said.

“That’s all there in the approach under current law. But we haven’t yet achieved what must be achieved”, the cardinal admitted.

On the topic of the priestly way of life, Marx said that after the storm of the clergy abuse crisis he hoped again for a calm in which the figure of the priest “can shine again”, so damaged as it has been by pedophile clerics.

Though he said he personally was not in favour of abolishing celibacy altogether, he did recall that celibacy is not about priests “liv[ing] alone in large rectories… tak[ing] care of themselves”.

“You have to embed this way of life in a social coexistence, a culture of life. It is about a holistic vocation and not just about renouncing sexuality”, Marx explained.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.