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Why Women Must Speak About Power in the Catholic Church

Keynote talk by Christiane Florin on 10 October 2020 -Voices of Faith online event. 

  1. The Power of the Ushers 

The Cologne Cathedral is one of the most visited architectural monuments in the world. Last year, a Cologne newspaper ran the headline: “This has never been seen before: Revolution in the Cologne Cathedral”. I thought: Cologne gets a female archbishop. A Maria without Rainer in front (the current archbishop’s name is Rainer Maria Woelki). 

But that was not so. The revolutionary sensation was that female cathedral guards were to be allowed. Cathedral guards make sure that no one in the cathedral behaves improperly. So now there are also female security forces. They wear the same red and black velvet capes. This sounds like a local news story, but the reason for this step is Catholic world class. The provost of Cologne Cathedral said: “We believe that women and men together would complement each other well in this activity, as in the other areas of work at the high cathedral church: in the sacristy, in the treasury, in the tower ascent.

So everything is in order. Because the gender order is being maintained despite the revolution. You can recognise this by the word ” complement”.  Complementarity is claimed, but in fact with these words a hierarchical relationship is formulated.  For what is missing, what is to be complemented by the woman, is definitely the consecrated man. 

If HE has the power, she complements humility. When HE speaks, SHE complements the smile. When HE gives, SHE says thank you. If HE gives nothing, SHE thanks likewise. 

For a long time women were called “other beings”. Man is the norm, woman the deviation. Men define what a woman is, how she has to be and in what radius she has to move in. Men know the natural, God-given role of the woman and they take care that the woman does not fall out of this role. 

To come back to the cathedral guards: This example shows a popular Catholic trick: women are granted with great fanfare something they have never demanded. In any case, in any case, I’m not aware of any movement for female cathedral guards. 

However, they are denied the obvious. Women must not take anything, they may only accept, writes Simone de Beauvoir. In the Catholic Church they may hope for a patronizing cleric who will make them a cathedral guard or even a leader. “May I show you my women’s advancement plan,” whisper supposedly enlightened bishops. And they sound like the seducer who asked: “May I show you my stamp collection? 

Self-determination in the sense of the Enlightenment is not foreseen in this system of role assignment. The woman is not self-determined, she has a determined purpose. The magisterium determines which that is. 

Emancipation movements endanger the gender order and thus the church order. The secular idea of equality – equal dignity, equal rights – has never arrived in the Catholic Church. At best as a distortion, a threatening backdrop. Equal rights are seen as egalitarianism, as masculinization. As would equality mean that a woman must want everything that churchmen want. Equality simply means that she may want it and does not have to forbid herself to want it just because she is a woman. 

Now one can say: It is not so bad after all, that is the tradition, there is so much that women can do, even without ordained ministries. That is true, but in this way the censer is swung over real existing power relations, so that one no longer sees what is decisive. 

If somebody says to me, “You may only sit here and not there, you may only move within this radius and not beyond it,” and that alone because I am not a man, then he exercises power. In this case a discriminating power. No matter how nicely he smiles. No matter how much he raves about women. Pope Franics is particularly good at it, his positive examples are always women, preferably dead ones. However, equality does not mean praising women to the skies. It means doing justice to them on earth. Dignity consists in being allowed to imagine oneself in different possibilities. To assert equality and assign women fixed places – that is a contradiction itself. 

This usher behavior is not individual, it is structural. A debate about women who want something is always a debate about men who have something. The ushers do not even admit that they are ushers. They are are tools of the Lord. John Paul II, for example, did not even decide in 1994 that women should not become priests. It was decided. Words of power are not shouted in the Catholic Church. Words of power are staged in a gesture of powerlessness.  

“Women’s uprising” means that women rise from the place assigned to them. That they do not take it at all. That they think of themselves in other ways than those intended for them.


  1. The Female Power Vacuum 

When my book [“Weiberaufstand”, eng. “Women’s uprising”] was published in 2017, I thought: The word “Weib” [woman] will cause the most opposition, because [in German] it is a derogatory term for “woman”, a swear word. But things turned out differently. It was the subtitle that provoked more criticism than the word “Weib”. “Why Women Need More Power in the Catholic Church”.  Power – that is a emotive word for all church political factions. 

In the Catholic Church there is no power, everything is service, I read in reviews, also in magazines of the liberal spectrum. “She just wants power herself,” wrote recently. (The debate rarely goes beyond this childish level of “No, you are stupid!”). Especially women react allergic to power. A few years ago, the Catholic German women’s community kfd struggled for a long time with whether it should choose the motto “Women.Power.Church”. They then had to endure that bishops looked angry and admonished to decency: “So please, ladies! Power is really not the issue!  Not for us and certainly not for you! 

Many Catholics want nothing to do with something as dirty as having power. Some think they are superior, emphasizing their feminine spirituality, feminine charisms. Whatever that might be. They support, perhaps without meaning to, the argumentation of Joseph Ratzinger. Already in 2004, when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he warned women against striving for power. He himself – a simple worker in the vineyard of the Lord – was a giant of humility. 

I graduated in political science. Power, I have learned, is neither good nor bad. First of all, it is simply there and must be organized and controlled. In any case, in democracies power is controlled. A system of checks and balances prevents all power from being in one hand. 

It is dangerous – in a social relationship, in an institution – not to talk about power. If I deny power, I cannot distinguish good use from abuse. If everything is service, there can be no abuse of power. The sociologist Max Weber already wrote 100 years ago: Just because something is called service does not mean that there is no domination. Theology was long speechless on the subject of power, and the few who were not speechless were silenced within the church. I call that brutality of humility. That is how victims are produced. 

“Women’s uprising” means therefore: Awareness raising. Making it clear: The Catholic Church is a ruling system. “Women’s uprising” means becoming sensitive to the suffering that this ruling brings with it. To be vigilant for the many situations in which power is exercised, openly, but above all camouflaged. One recognizes such situations by recognizing imperatives such as: That is your role! Bear your fate! Take an example from Mary! God wants it that way! 

Power is a complex phenomenon; it is not based solely on command and obedience, on force and punishment. Especially religious exercise of power lives from a dose of voluntariness. I should not even notice that I am doing something because another, a cleric, has demanded it of me. I should get the impression: I am doing it for myself or, even better: for God. 

I am always amazed at how difficult it is for adult women to discard their submission. Female professors often act like communion children as soon as a high cleric enters the room. Many female Catholics have internalized humility in such a way that they consider abnormal behavior to be normal, which they would no longer accept elsewhere. In fact, however, they make themselves the dominated sex. “Women’s uprising” means: awakening the spirit of contradiction. This is not taught in Catholic education, and certainly not in the church. Jesus was allowed to contradict authorities, Mary was not.

The discussion among women in the Catholic Church reminds in many ways of the discussion about women’s voting rights in the 19th century. There the positions among women were by no means uniform. There were those who said: politics is not for women, they do not need the right to vote, neither actively nor passively. There were those who said: “I would like to vote, but women should not put themselves up for election. Such a parliament, that is no place for them. And there were those – for example the writer Hedwig Dohm, who angrily declared: “We simply want what for men is given for granted – regardless of whether you want to go into politics yourself or not.

And this is a central thought: I can decide for myself that I do not want to be involved in power games. But when I say that power is not for women, then I also deny access to all others on the basis of gender alone. And that is precisely the situation in the Church. 

Women are eagerly participating in blocking access for others. There is hardly any solidarity, partly because small differences are made great, and great injustice small. The motto is: “It’s not so bad, I don’t want to become a priest, I’m not discriminated against. Women also like to tell others how to behave, so rather charming and diplomatic, not angry and sharp-tongued. Powerful men can sit back and relax. Women take care of each other themselves. 

But in this way they reinforce an asymmetry: if nothing changes, opportunities are blocked. But if something changes, what is lost? Women have told me that they don’t get a sense of solemnity when a woman stands at the altar. These women will continue to find priests for their sense of solemnity even in a gender-equitable church, they don’t really lose anything, but they are the ones who complain the loudest. 

Speaking of the sense of solemnity: women have many humiliating experiences in the church. Some try to escape this rule by carving out a niche for themselves, their little Catholic home. The praise of the niche is part of Catholic conditioning. That is understandable, but here a false alternative is being presented: either freedom on a small scale or freedom struggle on a big stage. Both are necessary. Niche residents and militants should not be incited against each other. Many women who withdraw into a shelter after humiliating experiences have the impression that they are an isolated case. But talking about the individual case is also part of the exercise of power: the objective fact of discrimination is quickly declared to be a subjective feeling. There is supposedly something wrong with the woman, there is nothing wrong with the system. SHE is just too sensitive.

If people of a different skin colour were treated so ignorantly and arrogantly, then this would be racism. If you treat the other person like that because she is a woman, then what are you: Catholic! 

“Women’s uprising” therefore means: calling discrimination discrimination. 


  1. Is Knowledge Power? 

In Germany there is a saying: knowledge is power. 

Women’s uprising also means: qualified opposition. The more church history and theological knowledge you acquire, the more you notice how the Magisterium takes you for a fool. 

I will take as an example the currently valid justifications for excluding women from the priesthood. Jesus was a man, the Apostles were men and the Apostles were apparently the first priests. These arguments first appeared in the 1970s – and even then they were considered at least controversial, if not refuted. So they do not have a long tradition, but were invented under the pressure of the second women’s movement. 

Why did new arguments have to be invented? Because what the church had claimed for centuries became embarrassing for her. For almost 2000 years the main argument was by no means that Jesus was a man. The main reason for the non-equality of women was that they were considered inferior, not as godlike as the man. They are the seducers, the impure ones, the suspects. Thomas Aquinas, the church doctor, could only explain the conception of a girl by the fact that unfavourable winds must have been blowing at the time of the sexual act. 

We are not talking here about the fact that women were a little disadvantaged than men, we are talking about a long history of discrimination, devaluation, contempt for the feminine. So it is of no use to dig up a powerful abbess from church history. The normal woman who was not a religious was considered to be a defective being. 

If the church does not change the outcome, if no pope or prefect brings the phrase “men and women have equal rights” to his lips, if the gentlemen always add a but – same dignity, but not the same nature – then they continue this history of contempt. Then a pope like John Paul II can still rave about the genius of woman, discrimination remains. 

However, I do not have the illusion that in the Catholic Church the better arguments and sound knowledge count. It is simply said: Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and not Congregation for Plausibility. Debates are decided by the word of power, see Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, not persuasion. The powerful are not sovereign enough to correct themselves. 

The more evidence theologians provide that the Gospel demands gender equality, the more intellectually scarce the doctrinal argumentation becomes. There is no conclusive proof why the sacramental mentality is linked to the male sex. Why, of the many characteristics Jesus had, his masculinity should have been so formative that it is the most important criterion cannot be conclusively justified. 

In interviews with all the clerics I meet, I ask them why gender should be more important than lifestyle for discipleship in ministry when Luke’s Gospel states very clearly: “Whoever wants to be my disciple should renounce all possessions”. To my knowledge Jesus, who renounced all possessions, did not become a role model. 

Whoever enters into this debate – which should not have existed since 1994 – soon realises: it is a world of madness. And of ideology. The quote is from a bishop who has in the meantime passed away: “It is more likely that pigs learn to fly than that women are consecrated”. At least as conspicuous as such a saying is the fact that there was no contradiction. A demonstratively Roman Catholic blogger pointed out to me right after the publication of the “Women’s Uprising”: women can have children, men can become priests. At first I did not see any connection. But now I know: men compensate their jealousy of childbirth with their ordination, women develop jealousy of ordination. 

There is nothing to suggest that in future the controversy will be decided by intellectual persuasion. That knowledge is power. Nevertheless it is important not to give up arguing and analysing. If you run your head against the wall in the Church, the problem is not the head, but the wall.


  1. The Power of Humour 

On the one hand, I take this institution seriously, observing and describing it as precisely as possible. I read the respective documents (to take “respective” literally would be ironic, because many of them are really violent, especially those which speak of the destiny of women).

On the other hand, these thoughts of power would deprive me of sleep if I did not keep a sense of the real satirical aspects of this institution. 

This clergy is often screamingly unjust and screamingly weird. For example, a few years ago Cardinal Burke declared that the Church suffers from feminisation. Men would be frightened off by the multitude of women. In psychology, this is called the act of leapfrogging, reacting to a state that has not yet occurred. The feminisation complaint becomes odd, if you know photos in which Burke looks like a bride. He likes to wear robes with fine lace. Optically, one could say, he contributes a lot to feminisation. 

Another example: Last year a new auxiliary bishop was consecrated in Freiburg, and outside the women of Maria 2.0. demonstrated. After the service, the new bishop gave the women a red ball of wool as a gift – so that the thread of the conversation would not break off. So women are treated like children who are tossed a ball of wool when they get to know each other. When I don’t know whether to laugh or cry about it, I decide to laugh and to go public. In the grotesque, the tense, tangled up thing is more evident than in a serious treatise.

How tangled the threads are, you can tell already from the phrases used to describe the subject. It is not called: ending discrimination or equality. No, it is called the women’s question – and if you ask back: what is this women’s question formulated as a question, then you will get interesting answers from clerics, for example: How can we reduce the feeling of injustice? Or: How can we motivate women to persist? But they never hear the question, which should be the essential one: Do fundamental rights also apply in the Catholic Church? 

Women are dealt with, they are approached, the role of women and the position of women are discussed. When I hear “position of women”, I think of Oswalt Kolle’s educational films from the late 60s, which were very successful in Germany at the time. They were called “Your Wife, the Unknown Being” and promised couples salvation from the misery of the missionary position. A silly association – and a fitting one at the same time. Women are still great unknowns for large parts of the clergy. The higher the rank, the stranger the woman is to them. In the German Bishops’ Conference nobody is a feminist; one must first “learn”, “listen” and “think”. One has not known the other beings for so long. 

Women have existed as long as men. Women have existed longer than bishops. So what do men still have to learn, what do they have to explore in ever new commissions? What do they still not know about the nature of women even after thousands of years? 

There is a method to wean women off the fear of spiders. You put the spider in a jar, screw the lid closed and let the women look at the spider. Then the lid is unscrewed and the spider crawls out. It is considered a therapeutic success if a woman can touch the spider or even let it run over her arm. 

The situation for women in the Catholic Church is that of the spider in the jar. Clerics sit around it, staring at it. But you must not open the lid, it could be dangerous. Who has a problem there? The spider or the men around it? 

“Women’s uprising” also means: mocking, being ironic, even sarcastic. But never cynical. The system is already cynical. 

“Women’s uprising” means: If I can’t change anything, then at least get angry. Mockery disturbs the enjoyment of power.  


  1. The Vision 

I hear very often: What you do in your journalistic work is the occupation of a luxury woman living in a democracy, in a society where equality has not been achieved, but where women are much better off than in many other parts of the world. That is true, but it is precisely this – precisely this global dimension – that makes the discourse of power so important. When it is said: this advancement of women is dividing the global Church. What does that actually mean? It means that women elsewhere should please accept the way things are. These societies are not yet ready. If it were a television programme, one would have to say: “This patriarchy was presented to you with the kind support of the Catholic churches”. If you draw a sharp dividing line along the question: who is and who is not committed to equal rights? Then the global player Catholic Church stands on the side of the patriarchs of this planet. 

Anyone who wants to oppress women can appeal to this institution. This Church cannot be a credible authority in the fight against violence against women. 

This Church has sinned and continues to sin against women. It ignores talents, despises knowledge and forbids herself visions. It has sinned against women and continues to sin. Discrimination is its hard but hollow brand core. It is hopefully not the core of Christianity. Who needs this hard, hollow Church? Boys who want to stay among themselves; insecure ones who cling to a God-given order; fearful ones who fear the impure woman. 

Millions of people in this world could do with something else: a power that shakes such orders.  That would be the revolution. In Cologne and the world.

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