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German theology professor Nina Heereman.Steubenville Conferences / YouTube

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May 4, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — German theology professor Nina Heeremann has pointed out there is no “causal connection” between the abuse scandal among priests “and the so-called power wielded by the clergy.” Instead of identifying power as the problem, she stressed “the choice and formation of those men to whom this ministry is entrusted.”

Heeremann was originally trained as a lawyer but had a conversion experience at World Youth Day 1997 in Paris. She studied theology, culminating in a doctoral degree with the famous “École biblique,” a school for biblical and archaeological studies, in Jerusalem.

The German theologian is now an assistant professor of sacred Scripture at St. Patrick’s Seminary & University in Menlo Park, California. In addition, she provides a daily short video catechesis in German on YouTube, based on the Mass readings for the day.

The power of the priest is from God and, as such, “intrinsically good,” Heeremann explained during an interview with German Catholic newspaper Die Tagespost (see below).

At the same time, she said, priests are not automatically protected against abusing their power. That abuse takes place not only in the context of sexuality, but, for instance, “in the alarming number of clergy who have placed themselves in opposition to the teaching of the Church and the Magisterium.”

Heeremann countered demands for restricting the power of priests, as they are made during the Synodal Path of the Catholic Church in Germany, by saying their power “is already restricted by the Gospel and the teaching of the Church.”

Based on the Bible, she said, “[p]riestly life also used to be called sacrificial life, thus expressing a very deep truth. The priest is indeed called in a special way to be conformed to Christ Crucified, to ‘lose’ his life in the service of the people.”

Updating the Church’s teachings to the sentiments of modern man has led, Heeremann is convinced, to people “running away from the Church in droves,” as evidenced by “the last fifty years.”

“It is a phenomenon that I observe all over the world: where people truly make the Gospel their ‘rule of life’, the Church grows, and attracts young and old, women and men alike,” she said in conclusion.

Full text of the interview below:

“But it is not so among you!”

Power and abuse of power in the Church: Where to find the true cure. A conversation with theologian Nina Heeremann

By Markus Reder

Translated by Cecilia Fitzpatrick

Professor Heeremann, following the abuse scandal, the Church is in a deep crisis. The German Bishops’ Conference and the Central Committee of German Catholics wish to tackle it by pursuing the “Synodal Path”. Power and the division of powers in the Church is one of the central themes of the Synodal Path. Where do you see the causes of the abuse of power in the Church?

Your question implies a correlation between the abuse scandal and the so-called power wielded by the clergy in the Church. I cannot agree with this causal connection. It is indeed correct that those members of the clergy who are guilty of such crimes have abused their “power” in the most scandalous way. But this is not an abuse of power which is inherent to the priesthood. The danger of abuse exists in every relationship where power or authority plays a role. This is already evident in the example of the family. The parents are endowed by nature with a “position of power” in relation to their children. And it is no coincidence that the vast majority of abuse cases take place within families. Should we therefore abolish the family? The problem is not the “power” of the clergy, but rather the choice and formation of those men to whom this ministry is entrusted.

In contrast to the family, the power of the clergy has been legitimised by the Divine. This makes a significant difference.

Indeed, in the Church, we are not dealing with a democratically legitimised power. Rather, we are looking at an empowerment from God, which is why it is bound to the sacrament of episcopal or priestly ordination. As a power coming from God, it is intrinsically good. But, and we see this in both the Old and the New Testament, a power with divine origin does not protect against abuse. We cannot respond to the abuse of power in the clergy by changing the priestly ministry or its structures. We are not entitled to do so, because it is founded by Jesus. The answer is as old and as new as the Gospel itself: the ministers and the people are together called to repentance and conversion.

Where do you see abuse of power in the Church?

We have already spoken about the abuse scandal. However, there are other very different forms of abuse. I see such an abuse of power in the alarming number of clergy who have placed themselves in opposition to the teaching of the Church and the Magisterium. The staggering numbers of priests who proclaim just about everything except the Gospel and the teaching of the Church: that is what I perceive to be an abuse of authority. No one is forcing them to believe in the teaching of the Church. But when they are ordained by the Church, I expect them to take the “power” bound to the Sacrament, and use it to sanctify, to teach and to lead in loyalty to the teachings of the Church. Incidentally, in the language of the Church, “power” is munus, which means “service”.

Yet in the Church, “service” also means to lead and to govern. Whoever decides, has authority and power. Let us take the episcopal office, which is without a doubt a position of power.

Pastoral governance (munus regendi) is the only service in the Church in whose context the word “power” is appropriate. Yes, a lot of power is given to a bishop, and to a lesser extent, to priests. Again, the neglect of this power has done more harm to the Church than its overuse. To join the Council theologian Louis Bouyer: nowadays, “to serve” appears to mean that those entrusted with the office of ministry no longer need to take their responsibility as leaders and teachers seriously, and should rather follow the flock instead of courageously showing them the way of the Gospel. We would be in a different position today if the Church hierarchy had not stopped proclaiming the Gospel in an unabridged way. Also, the laissez-faire approach to perpetrators of abuse was basically an abuse of power stemming from a lack of leadership.

How should power in the Church be understood and practised? What does Holy Scripture say on this topic?

Power in the Church is very different from power in the world. When we speak of power in the Church, we are talking about an authorisation from God to sanctify people, to interpret the Gospel of Christ authentically and to lead the community of the baptised in the name of God. When we consult Scripture, the first thing we hear is that Jesus taught people with divine authority (Matthew 7:29; Mark 1:22), that the Son of Man on earth has the power to forgive sins (Matthew 9:6), that He commanded the unclean spirits to flee “with authority and power” (Luke 4:36), and that the Father gave Him power over all people to give eternal life to all whom the Father has given Him (John 17:2). We see, then, that where the New Testament speaks of power, it is first of all a question of an authorisation, an empowerment, of the Son from the Father, which is entirely at the service of the healing and redemption of humanity. Jesus transfers this authority to his disciples.

This does not say anything about how the hierarchy in God’s Church deals with this power today.

Jesus Himself has shown by His word and example how to ultimately live with this power. “You know”, He told His career-thirsty disciples, “that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and the great ones abuse their authority over the people. But it shall not be so among you. For whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45). This actually says everything. Priestly life also used to be called sacrificial life, thus expressing a very deep truth. The priest is indeed called in a special way to be conformed to Christ Crucified, to “lose” his life in the service of the people. At least, this is what all four Gospels and all the letters of Saint Paul testify. It is important to always keep in mind that the “power” of the clergy is purely sacramental. This means, on the one hand, that it is given by Jesus, who received it from the Father and delegates it with full effect to His disciples. On the other hand, it means that the power is precisely defined and takes Jesus as its only valid standard. Any exercise of power that goes beyond this is thieving presumption (John 10:8), and any refusal to exercise the power received in ordination to heal, teach and guide reveals that the priest is not a shepherd as the Gospel stipulates.

Does this sacramental dimension not lead to an adulation of the clergy, to a two-tier society in the Church? This is time and again being sharply criticised in the course of the discussions of the Synodal Path. Do not all of us share the same mission?

We all share in the same mission to carry the Gospel to the ends of the earth. But the concrete execution of this mission varies according to one’s state in the Church. The ministerial priesthood exists for only one reason: to serve the baptised. If there were a “two-tier society” in the Church – which does not exist – the clergy would be counted among the slaves and the laity among the masters. This is why St. Paul wishes that the Corinthians would come to reign (1 Corinthians 4:8), while saying of himself and the apostles that they should be “regarded as servants of Christ” (1 Corinthians 4:1). It is an expression of his deepest conviction when he says: “For I believe that God has put us apostles in the last place, as those who are condemned to death” (1 Corinthians 4:9).

In the course of the discussions about the Synodal Path, there are many voices that emphatically demand for the power of the clergy to be restricted. Is this unjust?

The power of the clergy is already restricted by the Gospel and the teaching of the Church. Yes, there are clerics who do not respect these limits, but they will have to answer to God’s judgment for this. It has always been the task of the prophets to call the religious leaders back to obedient service of the Word of God, and even to call them to once again place themselves under – and not above – the yoke of the Torah. This prophetic charism is given to the whole people and, according to a saying from Saint Hildegard, especially to women. If we, as the people of God, following the example of the early Christian community, return to the apostles’ teaching and hold fast to fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers (Acts 2:42), the clergy will soon follow.

Is there a biblical model for the division of powers in the Church?

The division of powers, as we know it from modern democracy, is not provided for in the Bible. This is partly because the Church is not a democracy. The Church is not a state and not even a people in the Old Testament sense. It is an assembly (ecclesia) of God, called and constituted by God’s Word, made human and given for us on the Cross, made present in the Eucharist. Each and every one of us is subject to divine authority and power. In the Gospel, this power comes to us ever anew, not only calling us, but enabling us to obey the divine legislature, thereby giving us the freedom of children of God in the knowledge of the truth.

That’s how the Church sees it. But many people no longer share such beliefs. And this does not only apply to the understanding of hierarchy and the clergy. Is it not high time to reconsider traditional positions and to adapt them to the world today, as demanded by numerous protagonists of the Synodal Path? Otherwise, people will surely run away from the Church.

In my opinion, the reason people have been running away from the Church in droves over the last fifty years is that we have preached according to the spirit of the times and not according to the spirit of the Gospel. It is a phenomenon that I observe all over the world: where people truly make the Gospel their “rule of life”, the Church grows, and attracts young and old, women and men alike.

The interview was originally published by Die Tagespost. It has been translated by Cecilia Fitzpatrick and is published here with permission.


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