DISCERNMENT – JUSTICE – COURAGE: ORDENSFRAUEN FÜR MENSCHENWÜRDE SUPPORTS THE GERMAN SYNODAL PATH
Munich, 28 February 2021, OrdensFrauen für MenschenWürde
Sr. Susanne Schneider MC, Munich, Sr. Hilmtrud Wendorff CJ, Nuremberg
In the summer/autumn of 2018, a group of nuns from the greater Munich area came together to form a group of nuns committed to working on behalf of human dignity: OrdensFrauen für MenschenWürde. In view of several trends in society and the Church, we were not content to remain silent and resolved instead to make our voices heard in public, together. At first the focus was on the effort to take in refugees, after a certain number of our parishes had sheltered women for years in church sanctuary. Before long, however, other important concerns were added. Here is how we stated our objectives in the spring of 2019:
- For the dignity of every human being: For brotherly and sisterly togetherness; for the rights of the weaker; for respect and dialogue; for non-violence.
- For solidarity with refugees: For church sanctuary; for combating the causes of flight; for climate protection; for a halt to exports of arms.
- For reforms in the Catholic Church: For coexistence of women and men on an equal footing; for the consistent resolution of cases of abuse; for an overdue update of ecclesiastical teachings around sexuality; for the admission of women to all ecclesiastical offices and functions.
Your objectives are our objectives
Our objectives stemming from ‘for reforms in the Church’ correspond to the four forums of the Synodal Path: Power and Separation of Powers in the Church – Joint Participation and
Involvement in the Mission; Priestly Existence Today; Life in Succeeding Relationships – Living Love in Sexuality and Partnership; and Women in Ministries and Offices in the Church. This broad consensus is not accidental: The Synodal Path responds to concerns that many reform groups, associations and individuals, for years or decades, have qualified as topics to be discussed and addressed for the sake of the Gospel.
We were encouraged by the news we heard about the first Synodal Assembly in January 2020. We noted that the German Conference of Superiors of Religious Orders was able to send 10 delegates, including 7 nuns. We also took the fact that the Synodal Assembly would include 15 ‘young people’ to be a positive sign.
Since March 2020, however, the Synodal Path seems to have slowed down somewhat, for a variety of reasons. In addition to the coronavirus pandemic, as was to be feared, there were numerous attempts to slow these efforts from within the Church. While the majority of the many competent and dedicated Christians and bishops are working with great commitment on this reform project, there is also a small but vociferous minority that rejects changes. Many from Germany also found the Pope’s June 2020 letter, ‘To the pilgrim people of God’ [‘An das pilgernde Volk Gottes in Deutschland’], to be rather inhibiting. The ranks of those who deny this reform attempt any chance of success, are also increasing.
If the Synodal Path were to lose its determination for renewal, it would come as a fatal sign, not just for our Church but for society as well. This must not occur! That is why we, OFMW, would like to encourage the bishops, and everyone involved in the Synodal Path, to continue to advance in the strength of God, in the spirit of Jesus and driven forward by the power of the Holy Spirit.
We read with great interest the preliminary considerations of Synodal Forum 1, ‘Power and Separation of Powers in the Church’. This text corresponds in a special way to some of our concerns. That is why we would like to provide feedback and thus encourage and support the forces for reform in the Church, particularly now on the Synodal Path.
We write as women who, due to their vocation, live in this Church and want to help shape it. Our questions for the text were: Where does this turn serious for me? Where do I feel it resonates with me? Where can I breathe freely and feel the liberating power of the Gospel?
Women of/in the Church
As nuns, we love the Church – in spite of everything! We have found the gift of faith and of our calling in the Church; and the Church, alongside society, is the self-evident space in which our lives take place. In this space, we proceed from the Christian image of humankind, which is based on equal dignity for all people as brothers and sisters. For theological reasons, this Christian ideal includes the unconditional acceptance of all people – regardless of their sexual orientation – and gender justice.
We are not new to this life as Christians and as nuns in religious orders, and we must confess that, alongside our continuing enthusiasm, we feel considerable disillusionment with regard to the rigidity we encounter – and lasting shock at the manifold instances of abuse within the Church: Over the course of our lives, we have unfortunately had to learn that there is a ‘horribly broad gap’ between the Gospel and practice in the Church, even from the point of view of canon law. By this we do not mean the normal tension between ideal and reality, but rather the trend in the Church over the past 200 years, in which the Catholic Church developed into an alliance of male power to the exclusion of ‘disruptive’ people and ways of thinking. What we have in mind, for example, are topics such as democracy, gender, sexual education, self-determination, freedom of conscience, ecumenism, dialogue among the religions and human rights.
The Second Vatican Council and the Würzburg Synod built helpful bridges to the ‘world’, but this upheaval was not consistently pursued. This gap is underscored right at the beginning of the paper referenced above. It explains that the mission of the Church is to reflect both the Gospel and the ‘signs of the times’, and that there are many structures within the Church that must change in light of this. The effort on behalf of constant renewal is not a luxury; instead, it corresponds to the mission of the Church. As we know today, an ‘understanding of the Church distinguished by charging the ordained ministry as a “sacred power” (sacra potestas), integrated into a hierarchy in which the faithful are unilaterally seen by priests as dependent. … [is] by no means an expression of a centuries-old and established tradition, but in many ways a new invention subsequent to the Enlightenment.’
In our experience, justifying the authority of the ministry with the will of God has done great harm and continues to do so. That is why it sets off alarm bells for us when God’s will is invoked in an abusive effort to cement power. An example of how good can be turned into evil in the Church is the ‘spirituality of obedience’ described in the text. In point of fact, obedience, dressed up in religious garb, brought forth infantility, manipulation, arbitrariness and oppression. This is clearly abusive and needs to be addressed. As nuns, naturally we would like to distance ourselves unmistakably from an obedience understood in this way. None of us professed this kind of obedience!
Unfortunately, many actually valuable and Christian attitudes, ideals and values have lost their positive meaning as a result of the abuse: Here we have in mind the evangelical counsels as a whole, as well as ideas such as humility, service, self-control, sacrifice, etc. Even power is not bad per se, but if power is obscured or abused.
We can emphasize that the crisis of the Church is home-grown – not brought about by the ‘evil world’: In other words, it was not carried into the Church from the outside but rather brought on through structures that make improper use of power and thus encourage abuse. This story of guilt must be examined, even if doing so is not always easy. One problem is the lack of a sense of injustice on the part of some (or many) of the perpetrators. This is where the community of the Church must listen to those affected and, if necessary, enlist the assistance of experts from outside the system.
We expect a clear acknowledgement of the perpetrators’ own guilt and active contrition. Under no circumstances should the impression continue that the people in charge will respond only if pressured by outside actors. We want a Church that does not hush up, keep secrets or downplay problems. We derive our motivation for this from the Gospel and have little use for regaining people’s trust by offering false comfort and reassurance.
We do not exclude ourselves from these considerations and can now see that we have put up with injustice far too often: As ‘sheep’, rather than resist, we gave the ‘shepherds’ free rein. This is how we, like many Christians, became co-clerics, failing sufficiently to heed our own consciences.
Ecclesiastical structures are also responsible for the spiritual abuse that has not yet been sufficiently examined or worked through. In this respect, much work remains to be done in the Church in Germany. For all those affected, we extend our wishes for recognition of their suffering – and for justice! We must no longer speak about those who have been affected and should speak to them instead: That is why we welcome the fact that those finally had an opportunity to speak up at the last plenary session.
As nuns and members of international religious orders, we are thinking especially of our fellow sisters around the world. Outrageous things have been perpetrated on women members of religious orders around the world. If the Synodal Path in Germany could do more to create justice for the German Church, it would mark a beginning that could help nuns and other women all over the world.
In light of the urgency of coming up with a response to this ‘existential crisis’ of the Church, and because the backlog of reforms that has since emerged impacts the Church’s future, offers of consolation and little ‘repairs’ will no longer suffice. What we need are ‘genuine reforms’ and binding decisions.
We can identify with women’s experience of being unseen, as described in the section on ‘precarious concepts of power’. Our experience has been: If a woman wants to be active in the Church, she needs to know: There is a ‘glass ceiling’. That ceiling may be invisible and is often kept under wraps, but it often prevents proper manifestations of vocation and charism.
Here is how a bishop qualified the task of a woman in a relatively high position in the diocesan ordinariate in 2020: ‘She should cover for me.’ Now of course that is something we are willing to do, depending on the situation, but what if it is also all we are permitted to do? In our experience, we have permission to pray, perform various forms of groundwork, mend things, help others out of a sticky situation … For an undersecretary in the Vatican to be granted voting rights at an Ordinary General Assembly of Bishops, or for the German bishops, under public pressure, to appoint a woman as their new Secretary-General, is a long overdue yet nonetheless a tiny step in the right direction.
We doubt that churchmen are aware of what our vocation does and does not involve! There is an urgent need, for example, for a redefinition of services (hitherto assigned to women) and offices (hitherto for men only). This presupposes a rethinking of the classification of common and ministerial priesthood, the separation of powers, and an exercise of offices based on gender equality. This also includes, as the working paper warns, a sound separation of sacramental authority and the power of leadership.
In the book edited by Sr. Philippa Rath OSB, ‘Weil Gott es so will’ [‘Because God wills it’], many women admit to performing priestly functions in spite of a host of obstacles and difficulties. None of these women, however, wants to be inducted into the prevailing clericalism. What is needed is a redesign of the system.
A new, charism-oriented concept of decision-making must also be developed. In this context, we draw attention to the spiritual tradition of the Church practised by members of religious orders in the past and present, a tradition that helps individuals and groups alike realise their personal Christianity. The key terms we have in mind here include ‘formation of conscience’, ‘discernment of spirits’, ‘sexual and spiritual self-determination’, ‘Christian experience’, ‘spirituality’ and ‘mysticism’.
Some dioceses have since developed plans for the promotion of women, and some bishops take pride if there are women working in high places in their ordinariates. These are the first steps towards participation and separation of powers. To which we respond: Excellent; keep it up; this is the beginning, and further steps must come…. Thus, the aim would be, as stated in the paper, the collaboration of all in the service of pastoral work in which the decisions taken are based on the criteria of vocation and suitability.
Our conclusion: Yes, the Synodal Path can and must become a success – for the sake of God and humankind alike. With this in mind, we wish all those involved the aid of God’s life-giving spiritual power.