The Catholic dean of Frankfurt has called for a “separation of powers” in the Church to reverse the institution’s “landslide loss of reputation and trust”.

– To pass “centralist” and “absolutist” Church as Jesus’ will “is to take people for fools”

Johannes zu Eltz took to the pages of the Die Zeit newspaper September 9 to lament that 700 Catholics, aged mostly between 25 and 35, left his cathedral parish last year, giving up a Church “whose rigidity they find repulsive”.

“Why does the official Church still stick to a centralist and absolutist form of organisation that no longer works? Its pre-modern structure generates much resistance and reluctance in this country. And to pass it off as Jesus’ will is to take people for fools”, zu Eltz wrote.

Deploring the “archaic” and “authoritarian” structure of Catholicism today which he accused of being inimicable to freedom, zu Eltz urged Church reform along the lines of the Weimar Constitution and the German Basic Law, whose 100th and 70th anniversaries respectively were celebrated in 2019, in the year in which more German Catholics left the Church than ever before.

– “Hardness is not strength! It is rigidity, and people feel that and it is repugnant to them”

In zu Eltz’s opinion, Catholics are leaving the Church because the institution can’t boast of the separation of powers enshrined in the Weimar Constitution, on the one hand, but also because the “trust” the Basic Law grants the Church in providing for certain forms of cooperation with the State “has been used up”.

But even despite the fact that an astonishing 272,771 people left the German Catholic Church in 2019, “many who have holed themselves up in Church echo chambers are left unmoved” by the mass exodus, preferring a “new evangelisation” over necessary structural reforms, zu Eltz lamented.

“Hardness is not strength! It is rigidity, and people feel that and it is repugnant to them”, the priest warned, urging that structural reform and the separation of powers become the principal focus of the German Church’s ‘synodal path’ renewal process.

– Bishops must voluntarily “restrict their power”, laypeople must be involved in their appointment

Zu Eltz pointed out that unlike changes to Catholic law on compulsory clerical celibacy, the exclusion of women from ordination or traditional sexual morality, modifications to the exercise of authority in the Church can come much faster, especially if bishops voluntarily “restrict their power” to bring the institution beyond the “impasse of absolutism”.

That voluntary restriction of power on the part of bishops “would help to separate the powers of lawmaking, law implementation and jurisdiction that have hitherto been united in the episcopate”, zu Eltz pointed out.

The priest also suggested that authorities “involve the faithful in the appointment of priests and bishops, so that Catholics no longer feel ashamed of the ‘democracy’ in their Church”.

Insisting that reforms to the procedure of episcopal appointments would bring the Church “a new kind of bishop” other than “a prince of the Church whose power prevents him from being a human being”, zu Eltz called on his fellow clerics to “stop fearing the loss of power”.

“Ministries in the Church and the power given with them are not an end in themselves”, the priest recalled, writing that “the faithful must tell us whether our service is fruitful. If they can no longer bear us, we must leave. If we ignore their criticism, they have no choice but to leave the Church”.

“We must open our doors and come out of ourselves. Especially now, in the pandemic: only when we are free, instead of walling ourselves in, will we be with those who need us”, zu Eltz concluded.

More calls for Catholic reform, on Novena:

Nun blasts clericalist priests: “‘To be holy’ cannot mean uptight, superior, arrogant, contemptuous of women, hypocritical…”

German bishop hopes for change in “discriminatory” Catholic sexual morality

Would-be female archbishop: “When there are more women in positions of responsibility in the Church, there will be less abuse”

German Catholic women decry “male dominance” in Church: “Instead of monarchy and hierarchy, democracy and empathy!”


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