Karl-Heinz Menke, member of the International Theological Commission, on Church Polarization

As I understand it, the International Theological Commission has the task of bringing currents of theological renewal into the organs of church leadership, specifically the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which it advises. Karl Rahner was an early member, but he resigned when he felt that real consultation wasn’t happening. Over the years it has become clearer that ITC members are selected for their adherence to the magisterium, which is to be the basis for theological exploration.

It is thus interesting to read the thoughts of newly appointed ITC member Karl-Heinz Menke, who is professor of dogmatics at the University of Bonn, Germany. There is a striking “let’s get real” quality about his remarks.

Menke recently told the General-Anzieger,

One must admit that the Church is polarized. That applies also to the Germans. There is tension between those who wish to adapt to modernity and those who have more conservative tendencies. It is found in the bishops’ conference. This internecine battle has made its way right into the Vatican.

On the question of the day, communion for the divorced and remarried, Menke spoke honestly about the state of affairs in Germany:

I have the impression that there are only a few divorced and remarried people in our communities who wish to live a church life. And those who want this have found a path for themselves. I have never heard of a pastor who turns someone away at the communion rail.

He spoke of the inherent contradictions in giving lay people leadership roles without ordination:

In many dioceses we have just as many pastors as laity in church ministries… Even when some of these [lay leaders] have the same or a better academic training and would leave the pastor in the dust intellectually, according to church law they have no say. They may not preach, because only the one commissioned by laying on of hands – i.e., the priest – may do that.

Asked if there is need for change, Menke responded,

Yes. This must be regulated in church law. It does not work that the layperson de facto leads the community, but canoncially is considered equal to a normal church member.

And this:

I’ll name another topic for you: we keep acting as if we’re still a church of the whole population [Volkskirche]. At Confirmation, for example, the bishop receives the promises of the youth that they will be models of faith. But certainly 90 percent of them have utterly no intention of keeping this promise – one sees that they do not observe the law to go to church on Sundays. The official teaching and reality have spun free of each other.

Menke hopes that the International Theological Commission will take up such issues. Speaking of topics such as sexual ethics he remarked,

Long term, it can’t continue that we teach something that is ignored by 90% and more of the grass-roots.

He hopes for a middle path:

It’s not an “either/or.” It is just as false to adapt to the zeitgeist as it is to work toward a ghetto Catholicism in which those remaining think of themselves as the elite believers. A healthy middle way would be important.

Asked what that would look like, Menke said,

The church must reflect upon how much agreement with the ideal to demand from the individual believer in order be considered a full member, or perhaps some sort of partial member [“gestufte Zugehörigkeit”]. Whoever cannot, or cannot yet fully identify with the confession of faith of the local bishop and the pope, is to be considered precisely as such. Those who disagree should not separate themselves. Any further hierarchicalization would be disastrous.

Trans: awr.


  1. This guy is on to something of critical importance. We need a new paradigm. The present one says that whatever is true is already known and the magisterium teaches it and everyone else follows it. Is that really how Jesus perceived the truth and taught it. I don’t think so.

  2. Whether we need to get a new paradigm (on Black Friday – I hear paradigms may be on deep discount that day – or otherwise), the very idea puts the cart before the horse.

    The ability of Catholics to discern in communion with one another ossified centuries ago. It’s not going to be willed into being, let alone on a snap. Basically, we have the kind of barbell curve of cheap and remote polemic (e.g., St Blog’s), and the bell curve of avoidance and passive aggression of in-person interactions at the parish level. Right now, bishops are the only intramural institutional group with an empowered culture of discernment (unfortunately, I don’t think academia in its current institutionally decadent, industrialized form offers much hope of being a grain of sand around which a pearl may form well).

    First and foremost: what are our metaphysical and epistemological assumptions, and are they sufficiently shared to really have communal discernment? (Assumptions, being in a sense pre-logical, aren’t really subject to much fruitful argument, so it pays to spend perhaps even more time exploring and identifying assumptions before bothering to argue.)

    Who, btw, is “we” in this (and are “we” perhaps tending to forget and discount)? Et cet.

  3. “certainly 90 percent of them have utterly no intention of keeping this promise – one sees that they do not observe the law to go to church on Sundays.” … “it can’t continue that we teach something that is ignored by 90% and more of the grass-roots.”

    I see two immediate answers to this dilemma: either we no longer teach it, or we try to overcome the tendency to ignore (or more often, directly oppose) the teaching.

    I’m curious what a “church of the 90%” would look like: what it would believe and teach, what it would practice.

  4. Jeffrey Pinyan I’m curious what a “church of the 90%” would look like: what it would believe and teach, what it would practice.

    In mission lands, the institution can’t provide the weekly Eucharist. I suppose one might blame close-mindedness to viri probati. Feminists would suggest we expand the possibilities.

    Where faith is strong, generations have managed without priests. So I suspect that there would be pockets of spirituality, but largely an individualistic sense, in keeping with post-modern privileged Western culture.

    Perhaps we might frame the “loss” in terms of the community left behind. Doing an orthodoxy litmus test on people who read the Sunday paper in bed doesn’t excite me at all. But make no mistake: the Church is far weaker for having the 90% going about their own business on the Sabbath. It’s a conviction that perhaps the 10% aren’t so strong in their own belief, teaching, and especially evangelical practice. Maybe I’d rather spend time with the 90 than the 10.

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