German Catholic women are pushing for a new female Bishops’ secretary after the incumbent in that post today said he would be stepping down.

– Incumbent Hans Langendörfer SJ: “Good time to hand over to younger hands”

The Jesuit Father Hans Langendörfer announced today that he wouldn’t be seeking re-election at next week’s spring assembly (March 2-5) of the German Bishops’ Conference (DBK) in Mainz as secretary of that body following a term of 24 years in the post.

Langendörfer, 68, told the KNA agency that “I have come to the conclusion that it is now a good time to hand this position over to younger hands”.

The Jesuit’s departure from the leadership of the German Church comes after that of Cardinal Reinhard Marx as DBK chairman, who on February 11 announced he would not seek re-election at the spring assembly, also out of the concern that “it should be the turn of the younger generation”.

Along with the influential lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), Langendörfer and Marx were instrumental in initiating in 2019 the German Church’s “synodal path”.

That’s the two-year process by which bishops, priests, laypeople and non-Catholic experts are discussing – as a response to the clerical sex abuse crisis – possible reforms to power in the Church, Catholic sexual morality, compulsory priestly celibacy and the exclusion of women from Church office.

Jesuit Langendörfer has been defending the synodal path against criticisms from the Vatican and other places right to the end of his tenure as DBK secretary, insisting in an interview at the end of January that the German Bishops “believe it is unacceptable that all issues decided in Rome, now and in the future, should be taken largely without the participation of the local Churches”.

“We believe that proposals can and must be brought to Rome from the different regions of the world, in order to allow a balanced approach, and consideration of different cultures at the level of the universal Church”, Langendörfer argued on that occasion.

The Jesuit was echoing Cardinal Marx’s famous 2015 ‘declaration of independence’ from the Vatican when he insisted “Germany is not just a subsidiary of Rome”.

– A woman secretary would be a 172-year first… but not without precedent, and a “glimmer of hope”, say women

Asked for his opinion as a possible successor as DBK secretary, Langendörfer told the KNA that the person for that post “need not

Should a layman or laywoman come to occupy the position, it would be a first in the 172-year history of the German Bishops’ Conference.

That’s not to say that such a move would be without precedent in Europe, though.

The post of General Secretary of the Scandinavian Bishops’ Conference – taking in the dioceses of Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland – is presently held by a woman religious, Anna Mirijam Kaschner.

That fact of Kaschner’s appointment – along with Langendörfer’s own suggestion that his successor could be a layperson, and the absence of any directives in the DBK statutes indicating the Conference secretary must be a man – are what German Catholic women are holding on to in hoping that the new secretary of the DBK might be female.

“A woman as head of the secretariat would send a clear signal: women are also welcome in higher management posts” in the Church, Agnes Wuckelt, vice-president of the German Association of Catholic Women (KFD), said today after Langendörfer’s announcement.

The appointment of a woman as DBK secretary would also be a “glimmer of hope” for everyone who wants a gender-sensitive Church, added the representative of German Catholic women.

Theologian Wuckelt also recalled that in their spring assembly in March 2019 the German Bishops had committed themselves to a 30% quota for women in Church leadership positions.

“Now is the opportunity to put these words into action”, urged Wuckelt, calling once again on the bishops to do everything in their power under current Church law to give more responsibility and decision-making power to women.

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