BERLIN | Shrinking parishes, a dwindling number of clergy and the taint from the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse scandal are prompting calls in parts of Europe for church leaders to re-examine some of the institution’s basic policies.
More than 140 Catholic theologians from Germany, Austria and Switzerland this month published an open declaration to the church, urging officials to phase out the celibacy requirement for priests and implement other drastic reforms, such as ordaining women, allowing divorce and recognizing same-sex couples.
With more than 1 billion adherents, the Catholic Church has made significant gains in recent years in Asia, Africa and South America, but has been losing followers in the industrialized West, its longtime source of social, financial and political support.
“2011 must be a year of departure for the church,” said the declaration, published in the German daily newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung on Feb. 3. “We consider it our responsibility to contribute to a true new beginning.”
Signed by 143 theologians when it was first published, the number of signatories has grown to 224, and the initiative continues to gain momentum. It marks the strongest appeal yet to church officials to implement significant reform, say theologians.
“We want an open discussion,” said Rainer Kampling, a Catholic theology professor at Berlin’s Free University and one of the signatories. “This is an invitation for dialogue, not a break from the church.”
In response to the declaration, the German Bishops’ Conference said in a statement that it recognizes the need to address the church’s underlying problems, but it didn’t elaborate.
Though lacking any decision-making power in the Vatican, theologians enjoy significant influence in church thought and generally are held in high regard, especially in the universities and seminaries where church doctrine is taught.
Some theologians, such as Manfred Hauke of the Faculty of Theology in Lugano, Switzerland, disagree with the declaration’s proposals.
“These theologians are demanding changes that have already been implemented in liberal Protestant denominations, so they should just convert,” he said. “They’re not bringing about change. They are departing from the Catholic faith.”
Still, backers of the declaration say that ending celibacy could serve as one solution to the problems plaguing the church in Europe: Germany is facing a major shortage of priests, and German bishops estimate about two-thirds of the country’s parishes will lack clergymen by 2020.
“We’re not saying that celibacy isn’t valuable,” said theologian Martina Blasberg-Kuhnke, vice president of the University of Osnabruck in Germany. “But what we have seen is that young men who want to be priests turn away from the profession because of the celibacy requirement.”
Pastor Klemens Armbruster of Freiburg, Germany, said attitudes toward the priesthood have changed dramatically since he was ordained in 1988: “Today, I see that both directly and indirectly I have to justify why I’m a priest, why I’m celibate.”
Pope Benedict XVI has not commented on the topic. But a recently released document dating from 1970 revealed that when he was a young priest, he signed a memorandum calling on the church to seriously examine the policy of celibacy. Then, the church also faced a shrinking number of priests.