“People have moved away from the Church because the Church has moved away from them”, a Swiss Benedictine has lamented.

– A plea to the Church: “Get out of the snail shell!”

“If the Church is only perceived as an institution that says this and that must not be done – what reason do people have to belong to it?”, Father Martin Werlen asked in an interview with katholisch.de October 12.

Werlen – who was from 2001 to 2013 the abbot of the famous Swiss monastery of Einsiedeln – has just written a book, Raus aus dem Schneckenhaus! (“Get out of the snail shell!”), in which he criticises the self-righteous Church that socially distances so as not to be infected by the “viruses of the time”, and in so doing betrays its mandate to share the fears, joys, hopes and sorrows of people where they are in life and the world.

And indeed, Werlen explained that the coronavirus crisis has taught him two things: that “God is not where we want to be, but where we are”, and that consequently “the Church must be deeply creative, because God is creative”.

“If [the Church] wants to bear witness to this living God, she cannot help but be creative. If one speaks of the Church ‘succumbing’ in this situation [of COVID-19], then that is an image that is anything but Catholic”, the religious warned.

To tackle the Church’s loss of credibility in the modern world, the former Einsiedeln abbot said it must make sure to train clerics who do not segregate themselves because of their status, but instead stay with people no matter what.

“The question is: does one have authority in the Church because one’s status sets one apart from others? Or does one have Christian authority precisely because one is in the midst of people?”, Werlen asked.

– “If we rule out reform, we are no longer Church”

On the topic of castes in the Church today, Werlen had harsh words for those he termed Catholic “Pharisees”: those Catholics who prioritise the “law” over people in need, those who consider themselves better than others and look down on those around them, and those who insist on the observance of rules at all costs.

Speaking from his first-hand experience as a member of the Swiss Bishops’ Conference, the Benedictine denounced that “Pharisaic circles are very dominant in the Church”.

“Bishops who realise that reform is… urgent do not have the courage to take steps because they are afraid of the reactions – or they are blocked by people for whom everything has to stay the same”, Werlen denounced.

“In Germany you notice this very clearly with the Synodal Way: a fear comes to the fore. And fear is typical of Pharisees. When we look at the Pharisees in the Gospel, there is always this fear that if rules are not obeyed, faith will be lost. Such an attitude also prevails in the Church”, he lamented.

The Benedictine warned strenously that “if we rule out reform, we are no longer Church”. As justification for that position, he pointed to the fact that “being a Church means being on the move”, as Luke in the book of Acts points out with his description of Church as “way”.

– “How often the Pharisees used their dubia to set a trap for Jesus! But he did not give in”

“If we take the Pharisees passages in the Gospel seriously, then we suddenly realise how familiar this is to us. I have realised more and more how topical these controversies are”, Werlen continued in the interview.

“How often the Pharisees used their dubia [literally, doubts] to set a trap for Jesus! They accused Jesus of breaking the law. And today, when someone calls for reform, certain circles very quickly say: This is no longer Catholic. Or: That is heresy. This is exactly the situation in which Jesus was”, the religious went on, alluding with the reference to dubia to the 2016 trap four conservative cardinals set for Pope Francis requesting clarifications to the pontiff’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation on love in the family, Amoris laetitia.

But despite the Pharisees’ traps, Jesus “did not give in”, Werlen recalled. “He also did not constantly try to justify himself. He acted”.

“And just now in the corona crisis it became clear: if we don’t have the courage to dare something, then it is clear that this is the end of the system. This freedom, this daring of faith – that is what God demands of us today”, the Benedictine stressed.

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

German bishop says he “would be happy” with married male priests “today”

Priest goes viral with sermon backing ordination of women and blessing of gay couples, blasting Catholic “bouncers”

French laypeople decry “huge damage” done by clericalism, demand say in much-needed “rebirth of the Church”

German bishop criticises reform-phobic Catholics: “Catholicism is not armour, but backbone”


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