LIMBURG, Germany (ChurchMilitant.com) - Germany's Catholic bishops made history on Tuesday when they named progressive theologian Beate Gilles as the first woman — and layperson — to lead their conference as the top administrator.
Gilles, who had worked for the bishop of Limburg in programs directed at women and young people, replaces Fr. Hans Langendörfer, S.J. as secretary general. She will take over on July 1, implementing the bishops' decisions for the Church. She had previously served in Bätzing's Limburg diocese as the head of women, youth and childcare.
Speaking at a virtual press conference on Wednesday, Bp. Georg Bätzing, who presides over the bishops' conference, said that having Gilles is a "strong signal that the bishops are fulfilling their pledge to advance women into leadership positions."
The bishop has described Gilles, who received her doctorate in liturgical studies, as a deep thinker who is rooted in the structure of the Church and has excellent management skills.
Gilles thanked the bishops on Wednesday, telling them that this is a great opportunity for her to work toward the future of the Church.
She said, "This is a moment of great challenges but also very exciting for the Church in Germany. With the process of reform and the Synodal Way, something new has begun."
The "Synodal Way" is a two-year project ostensibly launched by the German hierarchy in 2019 to restore faith in the Church over sex abuse scandals, but its heterodox push to change Church teaching on sexual morality, the exercise of ecclesial power and the Church's role for women and priestly celibacy has been rebuked by a chorus of German Catholics and bishops who fear it will result in schism. When the German bishops proclaimed the results of the deliberations would be binding on the Church in Germany, the Vatican intervened.
According to Spanish news site Religión Digital, Gilles is already marking a path for the German bishops.
"The taboo against talking about the blessing of homosexual couples has been broken," she told the site.
In an interview with Catholic DomRadio of Germany, when asked about the pastoral care efforts she's been involved in for couples in "so-called irregular situations, for example homosexuals" and what she wants to contribute in this area, she said:
With the Synodal Way, the questions are already on the table. In Limburg we dealt with the topic under the motto "Request for a blessing." It became clear to me that the answer to the question about the blessing cannot simply be "yes" or "no," but that the situation is more differentiated.
We went the way that scientists give feedback from their respective professions, incidentally, before the start of the Synodal Path. With this we have created an exciting ecclesiastical testimony because you can tell that this feedback has been much more restrained than after the first synodal assembly.
When asked whether the taboo to talk about homosexual unions has been broken, she agreed, saying, "The issues are now being discussed openly and clearly."
The possibility that this "open discussion" may adversely impact the Church in Germany is not lost on Gilles. There are currently 22 million Catholics in Germany, although that number has dropped in recent decades. "This is a sign within the Catholic Church, I'm very aware of that," Gilles admitted.
In September 2020, Cdl. Rainer Maria Woelki warned that the Synodal Way appeared to depart from Church teachings about the priesthood. At a conference for seminarians in Rome, he said, "The synod texts seem to want to prepare quite consciously for the consecration of women," adding, "If this should not succeed, new offices [for women] are to be created — not because one could cite concrete 'needs.'"
Earlier in the year, he criticized the initiative, saying that the "Catholic Church must remain Catholic."
Additional critics see changes affecting the priesthood as a sure means of abolishing it, and hence the power of the Church, altogether.
Cardinal Robert Sarah, whose retirement was accepted by the pope upon his 75th birthday, has clarified that male, celibate priests "incarnate among them the figure of Christ," hence the Latin term in persona Christi ("in the person of Christ").
Archbishop Erwin Josef Ender, a former papal nuncio to Germany, wrote an op-ed in the Catholic newspaper Die Tagespost, observing, "Without any consideration for the genuine sources of faith and revelation — namely, Scripture and Tradition — the Church is supposed to reinvent itself, so to speak."
In February 2020, after meeting to discuss Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, the German bishops announced that "Catholics who have been remarried under civil law after a divorce are invited to go to the church ... and mature as living members of the Church."
While the statement offered "no general rule" and there was no requirement to distribute the Eucharist to divorced people, it did call for "differentiated solutions, which are appropriate to the individual case."
The Church has long held that civilly divorced Catholics must receive an annulment of their sacramental marriage and are otherwise in a state of sin. Additionally, without an annulment, a Catholic who is unmarried and cohabitating with another person may not receive the Eucharist.
At 256 pages, Amoris Laetitia ("The Joy of Love") has been controversial ever since its publication in 2016. For example, Cdl. Raymond Burke, the former archbishop of St. Louis, Missouri, who led the Curia before being dismissed by Pope Francis, joined three other archbishops in sending questions to the pope asking for clarification of the document.
The apostolic exhortation asked the clergy to welcome unmarried couples, homosexuals and single parents, even while it underscored Church teaching about sacramental marriage and that homosexual unions and "marriages" are not equivalent.
However, Pope Francis has said that he favors civil unions for homosexual pairings, reiterating a view he held as archbishop in his native Argentina, which was the second country in the Americas, after Canada, to legalize same-sex "marriage."
Referring to the Catholic women's movement, called Maria 2.0, Gilles said its efforts are "formed by women who participate in our parishes and are the heart of our Church."
In Germany, the Maria 2.0 movement has been pushing for female ordination, an end to compulsory celibacy for clergy, and further investigation into cases of sexual abuse by clergy.
On Feb. 20–21, members of the movement posted their demands for reform on the doors of cathedrals and parish churches in Augsburg, Cologne, Freiburg, Mainz, Munich, Würzburg and elsewhere. In this, they emulated Martin Luther, the former Augustinian friar who nailed his own 95 theses on the door of the Augsburg cathedral in 1517, setting off the discordant and bloody Protestant revolt that divided Christendom into warring camps.
The seven theses posted by Maria 2.0 denounced "blatant grievances in the Catholic Church," while decrying abuse of power, sexualized violence and cover-ups. They called for "a gender-equitable Church with access for all people to all offices as well as the education, prosecution and combating of the causes of sexual violence."
Maria 2.0 wants to abolish compulsory celibacy but institute a new Catholic sexual morality that should no longer be "alien and discriminatory," but respectful of all forms of "self-determined, mindful sexuality and partnership."
The Catholic Church teaches that sexuality is designed by God as a permanent sacramental union of one man and one woman for their mutual good, the procreation and rearing of children and the preservation of family.
The theses also denounced "pomp, dubious financial transactions and personal enrichment of Church decision-makers," who have shaken the laity's trust.
The bishops called for the women's group to be patient. Speaking for the bishops, Bonn-based spokesman Matthias Kopp said of the theses, "Protest is certainly a legitimate means," but added, "We cannot change the Church overnight. We have to do it in a good and trusting dialogue."
When asked whether he understood the alleged unrest felt by many believers, Kopp replied that the bishops know that changes are needed and that is the reason why they launched the Synodal Way.
Gilles, like Kopp, appreciates the concept of incrementalism in accomplishing any goal.
Accustomed to running in her spare time, she said, "I am an endurance athlete," adding, "That means I know that a marathon is not decided in its 40 kilometers, but rather by the 1,000 kilometers in training — that's my distance."
When Sueddeutsche newspaper of Germany asked her whether she is a feminist, Gilles said she is a "self-confident woman" who has "been around the Church for a long time."