Abuse of power is as old as the Gospels, must be tackled theologically, with the courage to listen and change: The Church must move from moralizing to liberating people, says German bishop

In his view that will require the Church to ask itself what the power abuse crisis means for “the way we speak about God, the Church and the way we proclaim the Gospel.”

Engaging the laity in discussions about clerical power, the Church’s sexual morality and the priestly lifestyle will not be easy but it would prove successful, says German bishop

One of Germany’s most recently named bishops has raised eyebrows by calling for a “new theology” as an urgent response to revelations of the clerical abuse of power.

“We still haven’t fully realized that the crisis of confidence is charging into the Church’s timberwork with unmitigated force,” warned Bishop Heiner Wilmer SCI in a recent interview in the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Although the 58-year-old has headed the Diocese of Hildesheim in Northern Germany only since last September, this is not the first time he has made headlines with his outspoken views.

Wilmer, who was superior general of the worldwide missionary and teaching order known as the “Dehonians” (Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart) before becoming bishop, drew criticism just three months into his new job when he told the Kölner Stadt Anzeiger that abuse of power was in the Church’s DNA.

“I had reckoned with criticism, but not that so many people would be quite so distressed,” he admitted in this latest interview in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, which was published June 12.

“My statement (last December) hit a nerve, admittedly more painfully than I had imagined. But I stand by it,” the bishop said.

Abuse of power, as old as the Gospels, must be tackled theologically

He argued that the Church had forgotten that abuse of power was as old as the Gospels, pointing to several examples in the New Testament, including how the disciples quarreled over who was first among them.

Wilmer noted that the Church’s reaction to the abuse crisis up to now has been to apply discipline and canon law, improve prevention and communications and work together with the judiciary and state authorities.

“That is all good and right, but we have not yet got around to tackling the problem fundamentally,” he said.

In his view that will require the Church to ask itself what the power abuse crisis means for “the way we speak about God, the Church and the way we proclaim the Gospel.”

He claimed that hushing up clerical sexual abuse was the consequence of an excessive exaltation of the Church’s sacrality. Since sexual violence was seen as something that sullied the holiness of the Church, it had to be covered up.

“We must come down from there and see the Church’s sinfulness but also tackle the problem theologically,” he said.

The Church must move from moralizing to liberating people

Bishop Wilmer, who studied at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome before earning a doctorate in theology at the University of Freiburg in his native Germany, argued that an overly exalted image of the Church was one of the reasons that had led to the terrible extent of sexualized violence that had now come to light.

“We were far too interested in polishing the Church’s image and failed to see the human being. I find that truly terrible!” he said.  The bishop lamented that over the past century the Church had “slid” into a way of proclaiming the Gospel that had led people to see simply an institution centered on sexual morality.

“We allowed the Church to deteriorate into a moral institution focused on what may or may not take place beneath the sheets,” he said, while also stressing that the sixth commandment is not the only commandment.

Wilmer said Jesus Christ’s message was “not primarily a moral (message),” but aimed at liberating and redeeming human beings.

In Saint Matthew’s Gospel he does not say, ‘If you pull yourselves together, you will be the light of the world’ or ‘if you conform to sexual rules, you will be the salt of the earth.’ He uses the indicative and not the conditional or imperative and says, ‘You are the salt and the light as you are,'” the bishop said.

He pointed out that Jesus had a wonderful sense of beauty.

“He saw a fantastic beauty in a cripple and made him feel this beauty and lift his head.”

From mere survival to arousing fascination with the Gospel

Bishop Wilmer said it is crucial for the Church to become a community that uplifts people. And he said that, most decisive for him, is that the Gospel be proclaimed in a way that fascinates people.

“We must get the embers under the ashes to glow again and begin with people’s longings for security and peace. We must give them room to grow, scope to develop and enough breathing space,” he said.

He warned that those who are only interested in the Church’s survival “have already lost.”

The most recently named head of a German diocese also spoke hopefully of the synodal procedure the national bishops’ conference has begun.

He said engaging the laity in discussions about clerical power, the Church’s sexual morality and the priestly lifestyle would not be easy. But he said he was convinced that it would prove successful.

The courage to listen and to change

However, he said it’s going to take a lot of courage on the bishops’ part to be able “to walk shoulder to shoulder” with the laity and discuss issues such as priestly ordination, celibacy and the place of women in the Church.

Wilmer, who has been a priest for some 32 years, said he is “passionately” committed to celibacy. But he said, “it must be made to shine more radiantly.” The best way to do that, he argued, was to make it voluntary, rather than mandatory as it is today.

At the same time the bishop said it is crucial that women be put in leading positions in the Church and given greater responsibility.

“We can no longer simply say that the question of women’s ordination has been decided once and for all, full stop,” Bishop Wilmer said.

He concluded by warning that if the Church does not find a way of putting these reforms into practice, it will become marginal.

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