“Reactionary insistence drives people out of the Church in droves”, the dean of the German city of Frankfurt has deplored.

Driving the news

Johannes zu Eltz spoke to the German Catholic news agency KNA January 24 about the upcoming German Church “synodal path”, which has its first assembly, precisely in Frankfurt, from January 30 to February 1.

That two-year reform dialogue on Church power, the role of women, the priestly lifestyle – including compulsory celibacy – and Catholic sexual morality is the “last great opportunity” for the German Church to get with the times “so that it can bring its timeless message to the people”, zu Eltz said.

The priest added that the possibilities for change in the Church that surge along the synodal path “must be grasped and implemented with courage”.

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Zu Eltz explained that although Christ promised the Church would never collapse, “the guarantee of existence that Jesus gave the Church does not apply to its historical attire”, which “always has to be adjusted”.

In the context of the synodal path, that adjustment to the times doesn’t mean a one-size-fits-all approach to the resolutions passed in the path forums and assemblies, in the sense of a “brute enforcement of majority decisions… against the will of individual local bishops”, the dean said.

Rather, it is up to bishops in agreement with the synodal path proposals to gradually implement them in their local dioceses, and leave to Rome the decisions that correspond to Rome.

“The experience that moderate reforms do not break the church in the dioceses, but on the contrary put wind in their sails and give them speed, can also give courage to the sceptical or opposing bishops over time”, zu Eltz added.

“In any case, the faithful will [take courage]. When they see that the Church in the neighboring bishopric is gaining in passion and life, they will go to their bishop and say: ‘Come on, we can do that too. Let’s go'”.

Why it matters

As for the relationship of the Pope to the synodal path, zu Eltz called on Francis to “discern the differences well and allow different regulations in the world Church that take sensitive account of the respective cultures”.

Part of those regional differences, the Frankfurt dean explained, would involve permitting the diaconate of women “as quickly as possible”: at least in the West, or “wherever gender equality is a general requirement of justice”, and “otherwise the Church will break”.

Such jursdiction to ordain women deacons should apply in “cultural spaces” and regions and not just countries, zu Eltz said, thereby rejecting the conservative accusation that the synodal path is about forging a “special way” for the German Church to go it alone.

In that sense, dean zu Eltz defended his bishop Georg Bätzing, the Bishop of Limburg, who has been at pains to point out that the synodal path is “not an organised ‘uprising’ by liberal forces with the aim of finally pushing through long-demanded changes and even negotiating the secession [of the German Church] from the worldwide Catholic Church”.

Bätzing “is absolutely right”, zu Eltz said, also insisting on the need in the synodal path to preserve communion with the universal Church.

“But I believe that sticking to the shapes and styles of the 19th century would make the split that has long existed irreversible”, the dean admitted.

“This reactionary insistence, which at first glance looks like faithfulness, drives people out of the church in droves. They find no other way to express their protest against the rigidity and lifelessness of the Church than the way out.

“They will not come back if we are later forced to undertake the reforms that we are too afraid to carry out in freedom. We only have this chance today!”, zu Eltz warned.

For the record

Zu Eltz also agreed with Bätzing that the most urgent issue on the synodal path agenda is the place of women in the Church, and their possible incorporation into official Church ministries.

Framing the issue of making more space for women in the Church as an “important question of justice”, like Bätzing, zu Eltz explained that “I am surrounded by wonderful Catholic women, whose ties to the church are now so loose that it wouldn’t take much more to drive them out of the Church”.

“These are women who have been faithful to the Church throughout their lives. They love the church that they suffer and we have to listen to them”.

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