“I’m pessimistic . . . Nothing will change.”
– Uta Ranke-Heinemann, January 17, 2008
Jane Paulick of the German broadcasting corporation, Deutsche Welle (on the web at DW-World.de), recently interviewed theologian and author Uta Ranke-Heinemann about “where Germany’s Catholic Church was headed” after the announcement that Cardinal Karl Lehmann, the “liberal voice of German Catholicism,” was stepping down as head of the German Bishops’ Conference.
Uta Ranke-Heinemann was the first woman to ever hold a chair in Catholic theology, and the first woman to lose it. Born in 1927, the eldest daughter of former President Gustav Heinemann (1969 – 1974), Heinemann converted to Catholicism in 1953 and studied in Munich alongside Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), becoming a professor in 1970. In 1985 she began teaching at the University of Essen (now known as the Duisburg-Essen University) but lost her position and was excommunicated in 1987 after she pronounced the virgin birth a theological belief rather than a biological fact.
Like Hans Küng, who had similarly been silenced by the Vatican, Ranke-Heinemann transferred to a history of religion professorship. As far as I know, she continues to teach at the Duisburg-Essen University.
As you’ll see from Paulick’s interview, Heinemann takes a pessimistic view of the Church’s future. Well, at least the institutional Church’s future. As I’ve noted previously, there are many signs of hope in the Church beyond its institutional component. Accordingly, I’m not as pessimistic about “change in the Church” as Ranke-Heinemann, primarily because I don’t restrict “the Church” to the pope and the Vatican.
Mind you, if I were to have such a narrow understanding of the Church, then I could only describe it by borrowing the words used to describe the U.S. by Angels in America character, Belize: “terminal, crazy, and mean.” That description pretty much sums up my view of the institutional Roman Catholic Church.
Following is Paulick’s interview of Ranke-Heinemann in its entirety. (It can also be viewed here, on the DW-World.de website.)
DW-World.de: Cardinal Karl Lehmann is often referred to as the liberal voice of German Catholicism. Is this a description you'd agree with?
Uta Ranke-Heinemann: Cardinal Lehmann is a tragic figure. He and I were both students of Karl Rahner, the most influential theologian of the 20th century. We were friends. He took me home on occasion – only as far as the front door, of course, but nonetheless – and we agreed on everything. These days, however, Karl Rahner is more or less dismissed by the bishops as a heretic. You can’t find his books anywhere. But in 1984, Lehmann wrote an introduction to an anniversary publication marking Rahners’s 80th birthday, in which he explicitly praised him and other theologians as forward-thinking and progressive on questions such as the Virgin Birth, brothers and sisters of Jesus and the matter of Joseph being the biological father of Jesus, the son of God. In 1987 he became head of the Bishops’ Conference, and this was the year I lost my professorship because I quoted Rahner’s views on the Virgin Birth. When I turned to Lehmann for help, he failed to respond. He clearly has one opinion for theology professors and another for the flock. So while I consider Lehmann likeable, I believe that he is a master of the double standard. On a number of key issues, he has one truth for the pope and the simple-minded, and another for theology professors such as Karl Rahner.
DW-World.de: Which ones?
Uta Ranke-Heinemann: The question of the Virgin Birth, use of condoms, abortion from the moment of conception. Personally I am against abortion, but not from the first moment of conception. Lehmann on the other hand called an embryo that's just seconds old an individual, i.e. something indivisible, which is scientific nonsense. . . . Now and then, Lehmann tried in vain to find compromises with Rome, which is why he is referred to as a liberal. But under the current pope and his predecessor, he allowed the gap between the shepherd and his flock to become ever wider.
DW-World.de: Lehmann has said he'd like to see generational change in the Catholic Church here in Germany. Do you think this will happen?
Uta Ranke-Heinemann: Nonsense – they don’t want generational change at all. All that matters is that they are all clones of the pope. Pope John Paul II only ever appointed clones and Benedict does the same. All the bishops are made in his image. Even the younger ones are no more modern or liberal. Characters such as Joachim Meisner [Editor’s note: the archbishop of Cologne] are all hand-picked. They all go along with exorcism at christening for infants and “great” exorcism for adults (in keeping with John Paul II’s World Catechism 1992, no. 1237, 1243, 1673), and all they’re interested in is the abortion issue. As part of the Church’s worship of the Virgin Mary, it believes in the ensoulment of human life at the first moment. Prior to 1869, it adhered to the principle of successive ensoulment and required excommunication for abortions only after 80 days. Rahner returned to the principle of successive ensoulment without attaching a particular time-frame to it. Today, the Church pulls the wool over people’s eyes, and in essence it comes down to double standards and dishonesty. And that’s my main reproach against Lehmann.
DW-World.de: Are there any liberal elements in the Catholic Church?
Uta Ranke-Heinemann: Not among the bishops. Pope John Paul II put paid to the old guard – either their authority to teach was rescinded – such as Hans Küng [Editors’ note: Küng rejected the doctrine of papal infallibility and was stripped of his license to teach as a Roman Catholic theologian] – or they died, like Karl Rahner, and were replaced by new ones who were closely vetted. One reason why the percentage of homosexuals in the Vatican is so high is because all that matters is that none of the bishops have a record of relationships with women. They must oppose birth control – and of course, women priests are unacceptable. Christianity has become reduced to a credo of celibacy.
DW-World.de: Does it really matter who heads the German Bishops Conference, given that the final authority is always with the pope?
Uta Rane-Heinemann: No! That’s the point. Lehmann was seen as liberal because he would complain a little, he would take a humanitarian stance now and then and bleat a little. He was never a fanatical hardliner like Meisner. But ultimately he always caved in. He kept his mouth shut. All that matters is the pope. The bishops are utterly incapacitated.
DW-World.de: Which reforms do you think the Catholic Church needs most?
Uta Ranke-Heinemann: The pope should not be infallible. But I’m pessimistic. This will never happen. Nothing will change. Anyone who doubts the anti-abortion and anti-condom stance, for example, will simply never be allowed to become a bishop.
DW-World.de: Why is the Catholic Church incapable of changing?
Uta Ranke-Heinemann: As an entity, the Catholic Church has taken 2000 years to achieve a theocratic concentration of power. The pope doesn’t just want to rule the Vatican, he wants to rule the world. He wants God acknowledged in state constitutions, but of course only his God – after all, a donkey sees God as a donkey, man sees God as man. But people seem to be able to accept this ridiculous fairytale figure of a pope. So long as one doesn’t ask too many questions, it’s all very easy to believe.
See also the previous Wild Reed post:
In the Garden of Spirituality: Uta Ranke-Heinemann
Recommended Off-site Links:
A 2005 interview with Uta Ranke-Heinemann.
“My Travels with Uta” by John D. Spalding.
A summary of Ranke-Heinemann’s best-selling book, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven.
For other Catholic theologians highlighted at The Wild Reed, visit:
John Allen on the Censuring of Jon Sobrino
Paul Collins and Marilyn Hatton
“The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex”– An Interview with Daniel Helminiak
In the Garden of Spirituality: Joan Timmerman
Mary Hunt and Our Catholic “Stonewall Moment”
See also the related Wild Reed posts:
Crisis? What Crisis?
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
It’s Time We Evolved Beyond Theological Imperialism
“Uncle Vince” is at it Again
Beyond a PC Pope
Australian Bishop’s “Radical” Call for Reform
The Old Catholic Church: Catholicism Beyond Rome