“It's about gender justice”

Julia Knop © Harald Oppitz (KNA)

"Gender justice has become a church-dividing barrier between the churches," says dogmatics professor Julia Knop. She spoke to the German bishops about power, sexual morality and the priestly way of life.

Interviewer: At the spring plenary meeting of the German bishops, you spoke clearly to the bishops' consciences. The Catholic Church in Germany, according to the tenor of your speech, has gambled away all credit. That alone is something special, that you as a woman were able to speak plainly before the lord bishops, or?

Julia Knop (Professor of Dogmatics): It's a question of perspective. For me as a theologian, as a scientist, it is not so unusual to moderate a study day, to introduce a topic, to introduce speakers, to moderate discussions or a plenary session. This is our daily business. The only thing that was unusual for me was that the group at this conference was not as diverse as it is in a scientific context – where we have women and men, different status groups, different nations, sometimes different languages. That was probably the most important difference.

For the bishops, I think it was quite something to have their study day at the Assembly moderated by a woman – as far as I know, it was the first time, too.

Interviewer: Have you received feedback from individual bishops?? Do you think that you could initiate something there?

Knop: I have received an unusually large amount of feedback, there has been an extremely large response – also from individual bishops, from those responsible for the study day, who were involved as conference members, but also in the background. A great many colleagues have come forward; people I knew and people I didn't know. There has been a great deal of gratitude and relief expressed about the ies raised, which of course were given to me for moderation – the ies of power, sexual morality, and priestly lifestyle – but also about the way I raised these ies. I wanted to do this without polemics, factually and soberly, but with a high degree of seriousness. My impression is – and this was also reflected to me on site and in the aftermath – that the dynamic that arose at the study day was quite decisive for the development on the following day: that one now wants to go a synodal way with the entire church in Germany, which offers binding forms for open questions and is designed participatively from the beginning. There was really something happening in these two or three days. That such a process should get off to a good and serious start was my concern.

Interviewer: How, then, are abuses of power and concentrations of power in the church related to the systemic disadvantage of women?

Knop: These are, I think, complex interrelationships; monocausal derivations are certainly no good. But I do think that there are connections and interactions that you can look at on different levels.

We have a very strong connection in the Catholic Church between power, ministry, gender and lifestyle. The access to ordination offices, which always have to do with social as well as sacral power, is regulated in a gender-specific way. It is opened or also denied in a gender-specific way. Thus we have already structurally a gender-related asymmetry.

In addition to structural questions, one should also look at theological concepts that can have precarious effects. We have something like a sacral over-forming of the ordained ministry, also of the celibate way of life. In some cases, concepts that one would think had been overcome long ago have a subliminal effect. But there are also problematic theologies of ministry, which are strengthened doctrinally and which are wanted by the church. We have to address this theologically.

Interviewer: You complain that the discussion of some central questions in the church was not wanted for a long time. Do you also count the opening of the ordination offices for women in this?

Knop: Yes of course. The discussion of the ordination of women is, after all, from the very highest authority – in 1994 from John Paul II. – have been officially suppressed. This is clearly an example of discussions that are not wanted.

Interviewer: What do you think about the women's quota that the German bishops have imposed on themselves: 30 percent women in leadership positions by 2023?. Is this a step in the right direction?

Knop: This is definitely a step in the right direction – if only because it's a measurable commitment, but one that also needs to be evaluated. But a quota is always a B-solution. It is always also a symptom of a crisis and not already its solution.

To be honest, I'm also not even sure that there are 30 percent leadership positions in the church core that can be filled regardless of ordination. Whether this quota can be met at all. I believe we need a change in mentality, but also a structural change. You certainly can't solve this with good will alone.

Interviewer: What do you wish specifically for women in the Catholic Church??

Knop: I wish for full gender justice on all levels. And I think that this should be a matter of course in 2019. It is not access to decision-making competencies and certain roles that requires justification, but gender-specific exclusion.

In my eyes, this is not really an ie of women's advancement either. The problem is not that there are no competent and qualified women, or that women first have to be enabled by clerics to take on leadership functions. The fact that women are structurally underrepresented in the church is not because of women.

Gender justice is a central theological concern, but increasingly also an ecumenical problem. Lack of gender justice in the Catholic Church has become a church-dividing obstacle between the churches of the West – between the churches of the Protestant and the Catholic tradition. I find that enormously problematic. Surely it cannot be that what is indispensably Catholic is to structurally disadvantage women.

The conversation was conducted by Hilde Regeniter.

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