A German theologian has warned that the Church needs “radical change” to exit the “dead end” it is currently stuck in regarding vital reforms.

– Church needs to face systemic problems with “change of mentality” that could take “a whole generation” to instill

The Church has to face the systemic problems undermining it and undertake a thoroughgoing “change of mentality”, even if that reorientation could last “a whole generation”, University of Erfurt professor of dogmatic theology Julia Knop urged in a weekened interview with the Salzburger Nachrichten newspaper.

Knop, who is currently participating in the Salzburg University Weeks summer holiday festival, insisted that taboos and “perennial issues” in the Church such as gender justice, women’s ordination and compulsory priestly celibacy must be openly discussed and serious responses sought.

That’s because, in the theologian’s opinion, the “old answers” to these and other questions have only proven to be exacerbating factors in the sexual abuse and abuses of power and conscience committed by clergy members.

– Rethink ‘noes’ on women’s ordination, sacralisation of priests to get back in sync with the times

On the question of the access of women to ordained ministries, Knop lamented that the Church is stuck in an impasse, with vast numbers of Catholic women and their male supporters still demanding the female diaconate, priesthood and episcopacy only to be met with firm ‘noes’ from the hierarchy.

The Erfurt theologian blamed a large part of the stalemate on the decisions of previous popes, but she added that even though Pope Francis is setting an example by appointing more women to positions of authority in the Vatican, women’s ordination still remains a limit and a barrier, moreover, that other Christian denominations have managed to scale.

Another area Knop said the Church needs change on is that of the idealisation and sacralisation of the priest. Instead of being aloof, detached and beyond reproach, the ordained ministry must become “grounded and accountable”, the theologian demanded.

That anchoring of the priesthood in reality would come with the widesprea and consistent application in the Church of the general standards wider society takes for granted, such as transparency, monitoring, the separation of powers and gender justice, Knop explained.

For the theologian, in sum, the reforms the Church urgently needs to commit to have to do with getting back into the loop of “social and cultural development” wider society set out off on but which the Church escaped.

That getting back in sync with wider social expectations is paramount for the Church to continue to reach people, Knop said, noting that after all the gospel cannot be communicated “in the same way at all times”.

– Signs of hope for reform: the Amazon Synod, Church’s reversal on earlier teaching on religious freedom, death penalty

The problems currently besetting the Catholic Church are many, but still, Knop revealed herself to be optimistic that the much-needed change will eventually come.

Last October’s Amazon Synod in the Vatican, for example, showed that “in fact there is still further discussion” on reforms at the Church’s highest levels, the theologian noted, recalling too that at various points in its history the Church has even gone so far as to correct its earlier teachings on issues such as the freedom of religion or the liceity of the death penalty.

One final point Knop spoke to in her interview was to the effect on the Church of the coronavirus pandemic, which the theologian said could give rise to a change in the practice of the liturgy.

During the lockdowns Catholics re-evaluated the role of Sunday Mass in their faith and rearranged their personal priorities in the practice of religion, Knop observed, noting that that rethink has led to “individual, pluralistic and secular thinking and living” regarding the Eucharist.

The theologian said that it is vital that the Church react to the changed mindset, learn to trust the faithful more and even, perhaps, revise its understanding of why people attend Church and with that the minimum of commitment it should expect from believers.

“It will probably no longer be possible to simply say that Sunday Mass in its traditional form is the only right thing for everyone. Now would be the time to try something different”, Knop urged.

More debates on Novena on the reforms the Church needs:

German priest backs ordination of women, married men; hits out at Vatican parish document “alienated from reality”

Vatican fires back at German bishops after criticisms of parish reform instruction but offers chance to clear up “doubts and perplexity”

German bishop renews “urgent” plea for more women in Church hierarchy: “Female leadership is important and enriching”

Papal confidant Antonio Spadaro says next pope “won’t be able to go back” on Francis’ reforms


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