Maria 2.0 and the debate about processes of change
Dr. Astrid Heidemann / Catholic Theology
Photo: Axel Klugmann

Canon Law is an Anchor of the Centralization of Power

Theologian Dr. Astrid Heidemann on Mary 2.0 and the debate about change processes for women in the Catholic Church

"Equality initiatives working for gender equality within the Church point out that this image of Mary as the ideal woman has been used again and again to expect women to be passive, to be quiet and not to demand changes in the existing structures," says Dr. Astrid Heidemann, Academic Councilor for Systematic Theology at the University of Wuppertal. In a week of action in Münster in May 2019, the Maria 2.0 initiative, also known as the church strike, demanded, among other things, that women finally be admitted to ordination offices, thus pushing once again a debate whose end is open.

The Virgin Mary (detail) on the Ghent altar, created around 1430 by Jan van Eyck.
Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia

Maria 2.0 - an initiative picks up speed

The Maria 2.0 initiative is not the only association campaigning for more rights for women. The name is a kind of term of art, the theologian explains, and represents a counter-image to the traditional image of Mary. "That would be the image of Mary, handed down in the church for centuries, as a devoted but ultimately passive servant of God, of whom no activities of her own, certainly no needs of her own, are expressed, and of whom no autonomous positioning is known. except for the very offensive story that she was willing to give birth to a child for whom she cannot indicate any - certainly no conjugal - producer," Heidemann explains and continues, "and even this point was still glorified as the unity of virginity and motherhood."

Anglican Church leading the way

The call for greater visibility of women in the church is not new, Heidemann says. During the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and to some extent beyond, it was already common in many places in Germany for women to preach, including in Eucharistic celebrations - a practice that was ultimately not supported by church law with regard to the homily of the Eucharistic celebration and was banned by the Vatican in 1997. In March, the Synodical Way voted overwhelmingly to allow this preaching activity to lay people, and thus to women, through an exemption to be worked out by the bishops."

In the Church of England, the priesthood has been open to women since 1994, which contributed to a breakdown in ecumenical relations between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church that had flourished until then, Heidemann knows. "At that time, Pope John Paul II, in his Apostolic Letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, emphasized with regard to Anglicans that the Catholic Church had no authority to confer ordination on women because the current order was based on a divine decree and the faithful had to abide definitively by that decision. The lively discussion about the ordination of women that preceded this letter continued only subliminally because of the letter, but has picked up steam in recent years."

Equality of people

The initiators of Maria 2.0 are not only concerned with their own role as women in the church, Heidemann explains, "because, among other things, they also advocate for the sharing of power as well as for a recognition of self-determined mindful forms of sexuality and partnership. Many other reform circles within the Catholic Church call for an appreciative attitude toward different sexual preferences and sexual identities, that is, in a sense, for extensive equality of people regardless of their personal lifestyles, as has become largely common in the secular sphere in Germany as well." Corona stopped many events of the church activists of Maria 2.0, but in 2021 they drew attention to themselves again in reference to Martin Luther's legendary Thesenanschlag of 1517 and shook up church power structures by posting a total of 7 theses on various church portals throughout Germany. With this posting of the theses, they pointed out glaring grievances in the Catholic Church and thus underpinned their demands for reforms toward a sustainable, fraternal and diverse church.

Headwind from leading church representatives in Rome and Cologne

Although many pastors and bishops support the Maria 2.0. initiative, influential opponents of the reform demands also spoke out. For example, in April 2019, Curia Archbishop Georg Gänswein, private secretary to the late Pope Benedict XVI, warned against "trying to invent a new church and tampering with its DNA." To which Heidemann responded, "I find it quite strange what is considered the DNA of the Church. I very much hope that the DNA of the church is not misogyny (pathological hatred of men against women, editor's note) and homophobia, but rather the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the naturally always fallible attempt to live it in today's world and translate it into it." Issues of office and access to power are not central in relation to the continuation of this gospel, the proclamation of the kingdom of God and concern for the salvation of believers, the scholar says firmly, but they become an issue at the point where people are excluded from leadership positions because of their gender. That is not communicable in our society, she says. "Many people then have the impression that church structures and power relationships that have been handed down are to be safeguarded. That impairs the credibility of the entire Christian message in this country." However, he said, demanding and promoting de facto gender equality is by no means a given everywhere in the world. "When I was at a partner parish in Kenya, the people there did not even share my rejection of polygamy," Heidemann recounts, "they asked whether in Germany not even the president was allowed to have several wives. No, I said, after all, no woman is allowed to marry several men, even if she is president. But this reciprocity was incomprehensible there."

Cardinal Woelki is also critical of the reform process of the Synodal Way, which among other things wants to change the position of women in the church, and says of the potential opening of the priesthood to women that this is "not realistic." Very little can be done against such encrusted structures, Heidemann explains: "What is needed are changes in church law! Without that, nothing really works. Unfortunately, many people do not know what canon law is for and how the 1983 Code was actually created. Canon law is an anchor of the centralization of power in the Church, and a different canon law might well be conceivable."

Depressed retreat - alternative paths

It seems as if all the protests and the desire of the women, for more co-determination in their church, remain unheard in Rome. The two initiators, Elisabeth Kötter and Andrea Voß-Frick from Münster, in any case, announced their withdrawal from the Catholic Church on March 25, 2021, and at the same time set a depressing sign for a reform wish initiated by women. "Yes," Heidemann emphasizes, "protesting for changes in the church can lead to the fact that one is depressed at some point because one achieves nothing and resignedly leaves the church." For herself, the dedicated professional has found a way and says, "I myself feel that I cannot use my limited strengths at this point. I have long since stopped hoping for fundamental change in the Catholic Church on issues such as the ordination of women, and am more involved in the area of spirituality, of a certain sustainability ethic and a so-called green theology for the preservation of the planet. So I'm not resigning in frustration, but I'm looking at alternative ways." That includes, for example, making a conscious decision to work at a university rather than in church ministry because, as a woman, she doesn't always want to be in the second row in certain respects, she said. "But here, too, I keep experiencing exclusion, because Christianity and the Catholic Church in Germany in particular are now causing such strong negative resentment within society that as a professing Christian and professing Catholic, you are practically permanently under a compulsion to justify yourself."

Actions bring unrest into the Catholic Church

Actions such as 'Maria 2.0` or also the initiative '#Out in Church - For a Church without Fear`, founded in 2022, are high-profile forms of protest. They are also perceived in the Vatican at least as unrest in Germany, Heidemann describes the situation. "One wonders, what is happening? Do the bishops in Germany not really have their sheep under control? Such initiatives, wherever they occur, definitely keep the awareness of the urgency of these issues alive and create permanent pressure." Over time, he said, this can lead to a change in consciousness, but that can only be measured indirectly. A good example, he said, is the initiative '#Out in Church - For a Church without Fear`. "This has certain parallels to Mary 2.0 in terms of the way it is structured. They don't focus on conversation and dialogue, but on high-profile actions. At '#Out in Church,' many people came out to their queer gender identity publicly and in the media. Only a few months later, the German bishops adopted an amended Basic Order of Church Service and, soon after, a new model order for the awarding of the Missio canonica (the Missio canonica, also called ecclesiastical commissioning, is the commissioning of teachers of religion in the Roman Catholic Church ed.). According to this, forms of private lifestyle, gender identity and sexual orientation should no longer play a role in church service in the future. Of course, this had already been discussed before, but the initiative has certainly given it a good boost."

Decisions from Rome could take decades

In 2022, Cardinal Marx speaks out in favor of women as deacons, without backing from Rome, saying, "I believe the time is ripe." The fifth and final plenary session of the 2023 "Synodal Way" reform project also recently ended with a clear vote in favor of opening this ordained ministry in the Catholic Church to women. But have the chances of implementation improved? "I'm rather skeptical about that" Heidemann sums up. "It is a declaration of intent within the Synodal Way of the Catholic Church in Germany. However, questions concerning the sacramental structure of the church, such as the conditions for admission to ordained offices such as the diaconate, can only be decided by church law and the universal church." A decision from Rome, if any, could take decades, he said, and what a diaconate for women would look like then is another question entirely. "If an ordination to the diaconate for women were then introduced, it would mainly cause disappointment, at least in Germany, because then only the ordination office with the lowest rank in perception would be open to women. The secular social expectation of a comprehensive equality of the sexes is so far removed from the positioning of the Catholic world church that a satisfactory result can hardly be achieved here. On the other hand, it is clearly to be welcomed that the Synodal Way has spoken out so clearly in favor of admitting women to the diaconate."

The practice of the vast majority of Catholic parishes in Germany, he said, is clearly characterized by equal, appreciative cooperation between full-time and volunteer men and women. However, church law is centralized on the leading priest, who is always a man due to the conditions of access to priestly ordination, and thus promotes a centralization of power from which women are excluded per se. The centralization of power also impairs the Synodal Way, he said, because it relies on the "voluntary self-commitment" of the bishops to implement its decisions, but under church law, the powers always rest with the bishops. "The delegation of power is voluntary and therefore reversible. It can always be reversed."

Uwe Blass

Dr. Astrid Heidemann has worked as an academic councilor for systematic theology at the University of Wuppertal since 2014.

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