The crisis in the church and the opportunities it brings for women

A conversation with Benedictine sister Philippa Rath OSB about the crisis in the church and the opportunities it brings for women.


“We have to drill through thick planks”

An interview with Benedictine Sister Philippa Rath about the crisis in the Church and the opportunities this might bring, especially for women. Frau und Mutter: (a monthly magazine published by the association of Catholic women in Germany, kfd, for its members).

Interview: Jutta Laege

The Catholic Church finds itself in a deep crisis at the moment. How do you view the present situation?

My perception is that many people, and they include devoted Christians – women as well as men, lay people, priests and members of religious orders of all generations – are all shattered. They are angry, furious even, and disappointed.  Nearly every day, in conversations and encounters, I meet faithful Christians who are dissociating themselves more and more from the Catholic Church, turning their backs or thinking about doing do.

Their belief and their confidence are severely shaken. They ask themselves how everything they are experiencing today can be compatible with the gospel and what has happened to Jesus’ liberating message. We may well be going through the worst-ever crisis of credibility for our church in recent decades. The reason is, of course – and above all – the absolutely inconceivable MHG-study that looked into abuse of all forms, as well as the scandalous financial misconduct on the part of some church leaders. Other reasons for the present crisis are in my view the frustration about diocesan structural reforms, the current state of pastoral work, a feeling of powerlessness in the face of antiquated and rigid power structures and increasing dissatisfaction with the role of women in the Church.

You are one of the faces of the global campaign #OvercomingSilence a campaign that wants to clarify the importance of women in the Church and give them a voice. What are the goals of this campaign?

Sister Irene Gassmann, the Prioress of the convent in Fahr near Zürich, Switzerland, drew my attention to it. Catholic women all over the world have committed themselves to this campaign, because they will no longer accept that so few women are admitted to leadership-sharing and decision-making processes in the Catholic Church. Keywords are participation and gender equality. Women who “lend their faces” to the campaign #Overcoming Silence want their faith and spirituality, their charisma, their skills and education to be accepted and integrated into all levels of the Catholic Church. We have 1.28 billion Catholics worldwide and more than half of them are women. But the decision-making roles of women are still insignificant. We want to stand up and speak up for change.

The clear and unambiguous pledge coming from women and men for equal gender participation in the Church hierarchy is not new. There has been a discussion going on about whether to consecrate a deaconess since the synod in Würzburg in the early `70s. Women’s associations, the diaconate network and even the ZdK (Zentralkomitee der deutschen Katholiken: Central Committee of German Catholics) have pressed this claim for some time now. On 29th April we will celebrate Deaconess-Day again. What will be different from the situation as it was about forty years ago?

You are right: The equality claim in the Church is not new. But as we all know, there has been regrettably almost no significant change over the past forty years, in spite of many attempts and initiatives. One of our Sisters, Marianne Schrader OSB, who is long since deceased, was already fighting for this cause in the run-up to the Second Vatican Council. More than fifty years ago she was writing letters about the diaconate for women to the representatives of the Council, reminding them tirelessly that it was common practice to consecrate deaconesses in the early days of Christianity.

Unfortunately all her efforts came to nothing because the decision-makers at that time were exclusively men who considered ‘the time was not yet ripe’. Today, fifty years later, the world is a totally different place. From my point of view, it has changed dramatically. First, women throughout the world are on the verge of losing their patience where the Church is concerned. We are witnessing an exodus of women and young people. Second, our society has changed radically. Gender-equality in political and social participation has become the norm, even though there are still only a few women leaders. Third: Thank God, the awareness and attitudes of church leaders  have changed too. I see a gradual process of re-thinking, greater open-mindedness and even, among some, a serious desire to change. It looks like a tender plant which needs time to grow. But I am full of hope that we will soon be able to establish productive cooperation between women and men. A gain for both sides. We only have to focus on the service for humanity we have in common, the responsibility we have in common and our common answer to Jesus’ quest of healing.

In a position paper the General Superiors of the German-speaking Congregations representing thousands of female religious orders recently called for participation and gender-equality. How can nuns influence the male-dominated Church hierarchy?

I am convinced that nuns owe their great importance solely to their sheer numbers and their unbroken dedication and commitment inside and outside the Church. They only have to be more courageous and raise their voices. And that is precisely what is happening at the moment, I am happy to say. As always, we all have to reach a pain threshold before we take clear positions and start resisting. It is certain, too, that this was also partly a result of the sad and harsh reality that nuns became victims of physical, psychological and pastoral abuse. For far too long this aspect went almost unmentioned in the debates about abuse. By the way, the General Superiors of convents launched an appeal for a new “culture of dialogue”. A genuine dialogue requires mutual respect and esteem and abstains from any kind of duress. The General Superiors claim: “It goes without saying that in the future more women will have to become full voting members of episcopal synods. Only then will they be able to take decisions. This position paper also demands that women be admitted to all church-related offices and services. I personally want to support these claims by taking part in actions and by my prayers.

I believe strongly in the transformative power of prayer. That is why the Congregation of the Abbey of St. Hildegard regularly takes part in the “Prayers on Thursdays”. ( How wonderful it would be if as many women, groups and communities as possible took part in the world-wide transformation of our Church.

Gender equality has now reached all women at the grass roots. In the diocese of Münster women working for the Church are going on strike in May this year. Young Catholic female theologians are claiming the right to priesthood for themselves loudly and publicly. Do we need more than that?

It’s beyond doubt that there is a great variety of valuable actions, initiatives and campaigns going on. But my impression is that it will be a long time before it becomes a mass movement. We have to “drill through thick planks”, not only men’s minds and hearts, Church structures, organizations, groups, in short the whole Church, but that even applies to us women. To be honest, we have to admit that we have internalized systemic discrimination for centuries. And the first step is to liberate ourselves from old patterns of thinking and behaving.

Let me give you an example. I am thinking of how submissive and humble a demeanour some women still adopt when a priest or even a bishop is around. Meeting one another must happen on equal, reciprocal terms. I think we ought to be critical of our own behaviour. We have to acknowledge that this kind of clericalism, which we rightly reject, is sometimes fostered by our own obsequious behaviour. Only if we become aware of our own distinctive dignity and our specific mission as women in the Church and become serious partners at all levels of the Church will we be able to promote a real change.

You are quoted in the above mentioned campaign as saying: “I am sure that very soon the Catholic women’s issue will become a question of ‘to be or not to be’ for our Church”. To put it bluntly: without women the Church will soon die?

This is going far too far. But I am convinced that the Catholic women’s issue will be of existential importance for the Catholic Church. If the exodus of women and their retreat into internal immigration proceeds, some senior Church officials will be left in a desolate situation. In this context, we should not forget that the major part of church services, be it pastoral, catechetical or, most of all, diaconal work, is done mainly by women. And it must be mentioned that it is mostly grandmothers and mothers who pass on our faith to their families. If all this were to fall apart, our Church would have a very hard time of it.

Women have been fighting for centuries for their rights in politics, society and the Church. Is there any hope? And what makes you optimistic about women becoming  witnesses, designers and architects of a new era?

Let me answer you with Rom. 4, 18, where Apostle Paul testifies in front of Abraham. “Against all hope he believed in hope.” We must never lose hope. Women who fought for their civil rights had to summon up their courage, they had to suffer many setbacks, again and again, but they never got disheartened. And take the founder of my religious order: St. Hildegard of Bingen. She was self-confident, strong and brave. She was a great prophetess and a preacher. She defied the clerical and secular rulers of her time. But even she would have been powerless and would have failed in the end without the overwhelming force of hope. It took 850 years, until 2012, for Pope Benedict XVI to canonize her and make her Doctor of the Church.

The Holy Father clearly recognized that St. Hildegard was just the role model our time needed. He seized the “Kairos”, the one and only distinctive moment in history. That is exactly what I expect from Pope Francis and the top leaders of the Church in our country. Above all, I expect it from the women themselves. The present crisis could be a very big opportunity. For us women and for the Church as a whole.

Sister Philippa Rath OSB has been a Benedictine nun at the Abbey of St. Hildegard in Rüdesheim-Eibingen for thirty years. She is a theologian, historian and political scientist. Before entering the convent, she worked for various media groups. She is currently the executive board member responsible for the convent’s St. Hildegard Foundation and the association of “Friends of the Abbey” as well as public relations.

She has worked on the life and work of St. Hildegard for 25 years. In 2011/12 she was the postulator for the canonization of St. Hildegard and her being proclaimed Doctor of the Church.

After doing more advanced studies of logotherapy and existential analysis in Vienna and Tübingen, she has been able to support many people at times of crisis and conflict.