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Marianne Heimbach-Steins {*}

For the Sake of the Church

A Plea for More Gender Equality


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 3/2011, P. 129-134
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The initiated dialogue process for clarifying and affirming the Church's identity must also deal with gender relations and the desideratum of more gender equality. By an unbiased and constructive debate on these issues the church will achieve a better understanding of the human realities.


The year 2010 was marked by shock and crisis, by efforts to clarify and reappraise the facts, to analyse the causes, but increasingly also by the debate on scope and border lines of the crisis. What has become a certainty among many believers and at least part of the responsible leaders is the sober realization that the handling of sexual violence in the church reflects structural problems of the institution, and that the reappraising of the crisis will be unsuccessful without a radical reform. But opinions differ on the question of whether the church will be capable of such an awakening. Many Christians have left the Catholic Church and expressed thus that they do not (no longer) believe her capable of a fundamental and structural renewal.

Some others - bishops as well as certain groups who are claiming to be capable to represent particularly well or even exclusively Catholicity - slow down the renewal. The unrest - currently the only alternative to quiet resignation - arouses misgivings. Not a few people are alarmed by the prospect of change, of inevitable debates on participation and transparency, power and responsibility in the Church.

However, at the latest since the much-noted opening speech by the Chairman of the German Bishops' Conference at the General Assembly in autumn 2010 the call for an open dialogue, the reversal to a "listening and serving church" is officially on the agenda. The parishes are still waiting for the pastoral letter on the opening of the dialogue. It was initially announced for the beginning of the Advent season. Reportedly, it will come at Lent. The delay, however, has again brought skeptics on to the scene. Is there really sufficient willingness for a dialogue worthy of the name?

Initial responses of the German Bishops' Conference to the on February 4th published memorandum "Church 2011: A necessary Awakening", which by now has been signed by more than 250 professors of theology, are mildly encouraging that the church leadership will tackle the pressing challenges and issues in a dialogue with the believers - by involving the potential of academic theology (see this issue, 115 et seq.).

It's nonetheless no accident that misgivings exist. They have been nurtured and confirmed for far too long and often by concrete experience. Important decisions - for example on the future of parishes, on the staffing of rectorates and bishoprics - were made without the participation of the people affected. One calls admittedly for the commitment of the laity in an honorary capacity and as full-time workers but without the willingness to share really responsibility. Necessary discussions, be it on questions of interpretation of doctrine or issues of social structures of the Church, are prevented by force of church discipline or forced off into the area of disobedience. There is claimed doctrinal authority without providing any comprehensible arguments regarding controversial questions, inter alia in the area of lifestyle and sexual ethics and of a workable form of the ordained ministries (which does not only refer to the criteria of admission).



The Rupture between Gospel and Culture

If, however, because of such experiences "Catholic" is associated above all with an attitude that is authoritarian and refuses dialogue and participation, the Catholic Church has squandered her opportunities to act in society and to present convincingly her message. The current stimuli to an open dialogue reflect the insight that an authoritarian habitus, uncommunicative and resistant to participation, is diametrically contrary to the mission of the church.

It is her task (and she has to be judged by it) to proclaim credibly the Gospel under the conditions of the present time. She has therefore, as the Council [GS 4] has stated, "the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel". It is not primarily caused by the present time, by the shape of our society and by the people living in this society, if the church does not "reach" them. It is rather due to the fact that within the Church too many obstacles are blocking the awareness that she is part of this society, and that she time and again must find favour with this society without dissolving into it; theologically speaking, she must always become "incarnate" in this world.

For many Catholics, the tension between church and society is hardly any longer bridgeable. They experience in concrete terms what Pope Paul VI called "rupture between Gospel and culture". Good Catholic parents no longer see how they can open the Church as home to their children. (Prospective) teachers of religious education despair of the discrepancy between the task to lead their pupils to maturity and the Church's claim to regulate the life of individuals according to standards that can hardly any longer be plausibly imparted. People who are accustomed and willing to bear responsibility are no longer willing to accept dictation, paternalism and double standards in the church.

The dialogue that is feared by some and expected by others is not a churchly public relations event but a process of clarifying and assuring her identity. It is not about strategic advantages but about the consistency of claim and appearance, of message and practice of the church. The question that must guide the dialogue reads, "How can the Church again become a place of freedom of faith, a spiritual home of responsible citizens - and thus a credible witness of the Gospel, of Jesus' liberating message for the people in our society?" Everything else - style, structures, traditions - has to be subject to this ultimately sole criterion of the Church's legitimacy.

One of the topics that in a dialogue under such sign is relevant to the agenda concerns the gender relations and the desideratum of greater gender equality in the church. Contrary to certain reflex reactions in different "camps", the complex of themes can not be restricted to the "issue of ministries". On the basis of the already described tensions experienced by adults (and also adolescents), tensions between the expectations and challenges in society and in the church, the coordinates of the subject can be defined. It is not about a "niche issue". In fact, key aspects of the church-world relationship appear, a relationship that - almost fifty years after the beginning of the Second Vatican Council - has to be put again under the claim of "aggiornamento", the "update" of the Church to the present day.


High Requirements for an Independent and Responsible Conduct of Life

In contemporary society both women and men find themselves confronted with high requirements for an independent and responsible conduct of life. Today the individual course of life as well as the change of societal and state patterns of solidarity are shaped in a very specific way by these demands. This also applies to the transformation of gender relations, role patterns that were long regarded as a matter of course: the dominance of men in public, asymmetric gender patterns as regards professional life and authority - at the expense of women's participation, the normative fixing of the (married) woman to motherhood, and the for a long time well-functioning patterns of solidarity in family and welfare state - patterns that were connected with a patriarchal gender order. All these supposed matters of course and normative central themes of a particular era of civil society are now questioned or are obsolete as exclusive orientation patterns for gender relations, family and welfare state by the change in society.

Whether we like it or not, the progressive, politically controlled individualization of responsibility for one's own life does shape the self-perception, expectations and the experience of being overtaxed with which adults have to cope every day in our society. Women and men are increasingly challenged to plan their individual life on their own responsibility. The pursuit of individual interests and participation opportunities in education, employment and social security has an effect on forming one's life, on partnership and family, on caring for others, and on shouldering further social or ecclesiastical duties.



Taking up the Positive Provocations of the Current Situation

The findings of this analysis of society are in so far significant for the Catholic Church as she can neither in Germany nor elsewhere retreat to an "island of the blessed" and pretend that all that is no concern of her. As if this would not affect the reception of those normative expectations that are supported by her - as for instance in the area of one's personal lifestyle but also regarding the natural willingness of parish members to do certain tasks in an honorary capacity.

Due to her self-understanding, the church can (and must) of course offer - according to the basic orientations of the Gospel and Christian ethics - criteria that allow a critical perception of actual change of society and offer orientation, as e.g. with regard to the highly ambivalent effects of progressive individualization on the solidarity potentials of society. But in her awareness and interpretation of the "signs of the times" she is also challenged to inquire after the positive provocations that are inherent in the current situation and provide learning opportunities for the church. For the upcoming dialogue, it is necessary to clarify and illustrate this aspect.

The church can gain a better understanding of these human realities by an unbiased and constructive debate about the developments of gender relations, the institutional framework conditions for partnership, marriage and family and for the cooperation of men and women in the public places of modern society. By her attention to positive, humanity-enhancing developments, the church can get impulses for a clearer implementation of the Christian concept of human beings as man and woman in their creaturely relationship with God and all creation. The more she accepts that her own structures and institutional boundaries are put under the microscope of (gender) justice, the more she will then be able consistently to criticize credibly deficiencies of humanity, solidarity and justice in societal gender relations. According to the programme of Incarnation, she must not neglect such mutual learning opportunities.



This thesis includes preconditions that are not given naturally. An unbiased awareness of gender relations cannot be presupposed within the communication area of the church. This applies especially to recent official statements, particularly to those concerning the universal church. It should not be ignored here that there are very attentive voices among those who bear the responsibility in the church. They have properly understood and clearly articulated the need of reforms for more participation and greater gender equality. But when bishops speak out in this sense, when they mention more participation of women in leading positions and also the admission requirements for ecclesiastical ministries, they usually soon fall silent again - there is obviously great resistance.


Anti-gender Campaigns

In the Church's rhetoric, issues of gender relation and gender equality are mostly either excluded or treated in a highly ideologized way. Certain Roman circles have been cultivating for years downright conspiracy theories as regards scientific and political actors (as e.g. the bodies of the United Nations) dealing with gender policy and strategies of promoting gender equality. In what way specific scientific theories and policies are to be assessed in this field, this can only be decided in precisely conducted discussions, where the addressees, the benchmarks and the arguments of the critics are clearly described. All this does not apply to the anti-gender campaigns launched with significant energy by church agencies (among others the Pontifical Council for the Family) and certain Catholic groups.

With the claim of educating ignorant church-goers and protecting them against a global conspiracy against the family and the abolition of natural gender differences, they preach rather a biologistic ideology that is neither substantiated by the biblical-Christian understanding of man nor by a scientifically reliable theological anthropology and ethics (see Heimbach-Steins, "... nicht mehr Mann und Frau". Sozialethische Studien zu Geschlechterverhältnis und Geschlechtergerechtigkeit, Regensburg, 2009, 163ff. ["... neither male nor female." Social Ethical studies on gender relations and gender equality]).

A humane form of gender relations is and remains a task for modern societies but also (and in certain respects even more so) for the Church that is living in and with this society. The legal principle of gender equality is characterized as task. It is enshrined in Article 3 (2) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany. "Men and women shall have equal rights. The state shall promote the actual implementation of equal rights for women and men and take steps to eliminate disadvantages that now exist." In the expectation that disadvantages exist at the expense of one gender, the state is obliged to compensatory action. Although women are still typically disadvantaged in many respects, it becomes apparent inter alia in the education sector that the discrimination patterns change. In Germany e.g. the "Catholic working-class girl from a rural area" as the stereotype of the educationally disadvantaged youth has been replaced by the "boy of Turkish origin from the neighborhood".

The Catholic Church with her exclusively male elite must ask herself what it means that she with her institutional and hierarchical structure is now embedded in the context of a societal development that is oriented towards the human rights standards of gender equality and political participation. It can admittedly be pointed to the difference between secular society and church in legal and ecclesiological terms. This happens regularly when one emphasizes that the church is "different" than society. One can also refer to the global dimension of the church. At the same time she is rooted in very different societal contexts and she neither can nor must adapt herself to everyone.

But on the one hand the human rights form a globally valid (though not everywhere exemplary implemented) ethos of politics, and on the other hand the people who form the church are always citizens of a specific society. Through her members the Church "on the spot" is part of this society that she wants to influence. That's why she "on the spot" must look for models of understanding, of communication. She is then well adviced when she understands the places where she takes root as places of learning - an encounter in the attitude of fundamental sympathy and critical and constructive openness.


Gender Equality - a Human Rights Standard

In this country, in a long historical process, women and men have learned to live as citizens, as people who bear responsibility and participate, or where this is not possible for them, to perceive the denial of participation and responsibility as a deficiency. In the past two hundred years in society and Church, women have persistently fought for their rights of participation and have gradually enshrined the cause of equality in the political agenda. This is for the Church in this society, as at least in all Western societies, a potential that she has not yet learned to appreciate adequately.



The participation of the faithful in church life, in the up-to-date development of the structures of parishes and dioceses and of the universal church, and the sharing of responsibility in decision-making and leadership tasks are subject to specific institutional contexts. There are unequal opportunities for participation not only between men and women but also between ordained ministers and Christians (men and women) without ordination. Both constellations overlap and reinforce each other in certain cases. They exist, on the one hand, between ordained ministers and so-called lay people (men and women) not only in terms of responsibilities and powers which are connected with the ordination, but also with regard to the question of which tasks in the churchly administration and elsewhere are de facto reserved to priests, whether and how "lay people" participate in decision-making processes that affect them (as e.g. the restructuring of "pastoral areas") etc.

On the other hand, there are differences as regards the participation of men and women. For a long time e.g. the "altar boy question" was within the church a symbolic place where this tension was virulent; today, it is replaced by the topic diaconate. This track can also be followed in the field of theological science. For the longest time only priests were admitted to the professorship of theology. After its opening for non-ordained persons it took again some time (and required for the women concerned quite dramatic confrontations) until also women got the church's permission to habilitation and the actual admission to the academic professorship of theology.

"We live in a women's church led by men" Claudia Lücking-Michel noted in her keynote speech at the by the Bishops' Conference and the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) jointly organized launch event of the dialogue process. Whether on a honorary or full-time basis, women bear the bulk of the concrete work of the church and her "servants" in parishes and associations, social institutions, religious orders, church administration, presbyteries and bishops' residences. They had only to "strike" for one day, so that it would become visible how little the church, which is led and represented by men, is able to do without women.

The importance of women (and men) as volunteers is admittedly emphasized and volunteers are gladly praised at appropriate occasions, but the verbal appreciation is not convincing if the female addressees are only treated as the "extended arm" and "executive organ" of the management responsibilities reserved for men. That a different practice is possible and desirable for the flourishing of the local church is shown by the still few examples in which women participate in the leadership responsibility in a diocese (for example, as director of the Office of Pastoral Care in the Diocese of Osnabrück) or lead a Catholic Academy (as e.g. in the Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, formerly also in the Archdiocese of Berlin), to mention only two exemplary constellations.


Structures of Male Associations

Overall, the laity's, especially women's participation in responsibility, in church leadership and decision-making powers has a stark disproportion to the "pivotal" role that they de facto play in the church. "I sense (...) what we withhold from ourselves as church, if we do not intensify the involvement of women in management and decision-making", declared the Osnabrück Bishop Franz-Josef Bode in an interview with the 'Frankfurter Rundschau' in the summer of last year.

With it he has mentioned a central point, namely the exclusion of women's experience and expertise from important areas of church life. With it the church does not only treat women as unequal in a way that is difficult to justify but deprives herself of a part of the charisms and talents in her ranks. How can the liberating message of the Gospel be preached for all people by a "closed male society" (Bode), which all too often gives the impression of being solicitous about preventing any "unauthorized person" from looking behind the scenes of the hierarchically structured apparatus of power, let alone questioning its rules. The child abuse scandal has in a dramatic way brought to light, where such structures of male societies can lead. In the mirror of this crisis, not a few people suspect that men, too, are lacking something in a church where the experience and skills of women are only very selectively admitted.

However, many people regard the question about communication, participation and power as insubordination. Those who critically analyse the structures of power in the church and their justification patterns have to be prepared that they are accused of "sinful striving for power". This seems not only unjust but cynical, in view of the actual patterns of participation and exclusion. What is articulated here is above all the due to a closed system developed disability to analyse self-critically the church structures and to allow the question of how the communication within the church and between church and society can be improved, and the opportunities can thus be increased to fulfil appropriately the mission of the Church.



To the extent, however, as pre-modern church structures and feudal patterns of relationships have lost their plausibility in modern society, they must be called into question. The criterion is not the actual or supposed striving for power of certain actors in the Church but the Church's fidelity to her mission. If it becomes clear that outdated structures are an obstacle rather than a means of proclaiming the Gospel, self-examination is indispensable. Without the willingness to do so, the "hierarchy of truths" gets mixed up within the Catholic Church.

There are dynamisms within the church - they find expression e.g. in the over decades continuing debates on structural issues of the church, as e.g. the admission requirements for those who want to be ordained - which may be a sign of the spirit, and in which the sense of the faith [sensus fidei] of the people of God is possibly articulated. In the Church it is the duty of those in authority to listen to these voices, to take them seriously, and to search for the right path in a patient dialogue of the whole Church, i.e. with the participation of the faithful, who have their especial ability to interpret the faith. It is necessary to exercise the discernment of spirits, instead of fending off certain voices from the outset and delegitimizing them, as if the Spirit of God was unable to make His voice heard within them.

It is necessary to use the appropriate tools, in order to enable reliably these communication processes and procedures and to cultivate them over a long period. The existing opportunities for participation of the faithful have to be realized consistently, authentically and transparently within the local church contexts. The hierarchical decision-making procedures have to be completed by more synodal elements. In this way the individual bearers of responsibility are relieved, because then the involvement of the "laity" is no longer a question of the personal style of leadership and of individually setting priorities as regards theology and church practice, and 'difficult' decision processes can be based on a broader consensus.

The dedicated believers, too, are relieved, because they can rely on and refer to reliable instruments. They need no longer play the part of "troublemakers" when they demand "seat and vote" for the laity, for women and volunteers with regard to certain issues.


    {*} Marianne Heimbach-Steins (born in 1959) is since 2009 Director of the Institute for Christian Social Sciences at the University of Münster. She habilitated at Münster and was since 1996 professor of Christian social teaching and general sociology of religion at the University of Bamberg.


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