A German theologian has ripped the Vatican’s “hostility” to Church reform and to science, claiming that Church authorities are holding on to “petrified traditions”.

– Magisterium “immunising itself against all reform movements”

The Church’s magisterium “is immunising itself against all reform movements”, the director of the Institute for Catholic Theology at the Humboldt University of Berlin Georg Essen denounced to the KNA news agency in an October 20 interview.

In the 19th century the Church “gave itself a dogmatic and legal framework that completely blocks it because it can no longer get past its own petrified traditions”, the professor of dogmatic theology lamented.

Essen regretted that the blockage in the Church with regard to necessary reforms is felt above all in its “latent hostility” towards progress in the human and natural sciences.

The theology emanating from Rome “has been disconnecting itself from scientific knowledge, for example with regard to sexuality, for about 100 years”, the academic criticised.

– ‘Synodal path’ “overloaded with expectations that can hardly be met”

Exactly what is at stake in the Church’s refusal to reform and modernise is being felt above all in the continuing fall-out of the clergy sex abuse crisis, which theologian Essen described as “dramatic” and “a blow to Catholic self-understanding” which the Church is still trying to come to terms with.

In its ongoing response to the crisis of priestly pedophilia and the institutional cover-up of those crimes, the Church is threatened with “a loss of legitimacy such as we have never seen before”, the theologian warned.

One answer to the loss of Church credibility that manifested itself in the sex abuse crisis is the German Church’s ‘synodal path’, a self-described multi-year “transparent process of dialogue” between bishops, priests, laypeople and outside experts on aspects of Church teaching and practice that are thought to have contributed to clergy abuse and the negligent institutional responses to those crimes.

Those aspects that been identified as enabling abuse and its cover-up include the abusive exercise of power and authority in Catholic structures, the marginalisation of women in the Church, an overly-restrictive Catholic sexual morality and the onerous imposition of compulsory clerical celibacy.

Since it was set up in 2019, the German synodal path has become a rallying point for a multitude of demands for reform in the Church, including the ordination of women and the reintroduction of married priests.

For that reason, Vatican authorities have repeatedly tried to put the brakes on the reform process, and Essen too in his interview with KNA attempted to talk the debates down, though for different reasons.

“The synodal path is overloaded with expectations that can hardly be met”, the theologian warned.

He added that “even if I sincerely support the goals” of the path, “I remain sceptical” that it can lead to real change, among other reasons because of the Vatican’s demonstrated inability to truly reform.

Nonetheless, Essen pointed out that the ongoing debates over the synodal path – between those in favour and those against – reflect a “dead end of the Roman Catholic Church”, with no way out of the progressive-conservative impasse on the horizon.

Essen warned that expecting too much of the reform dialogue “could lead to even more helplessness, frustration and resignation… which would be bitter”.

“After all… topics that have been postponed and sat out since the 1970s are being taken up [in the synodal path] and that today with a much stronger polarisation of positions”, he observed.

More news on Novena on the need for reform in the Church:

“Embarrassing”, “nonsense”: German priest blasts Catechism condemnation of homosexuality

“Cold comfort”: Female priest accuses Pope of paying only lip service to women’s equality in Catholicism

Austrian bishop insists ordination of women, married men “not excluded for all time”

Spiritual director of German Church’s ‘synodal path’ doubts Pope expressed “dramatic concern” over reform process


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