More scapegoating and sterotyping of traditionalists by a synodalist

The new pastoral theologian from Münster on church politics, the shift to the right and "kitchen-table theology

Theologian Christian Bauer: Spiritualisation of power must be ended

Christian Bauer in the gym - for him an "other place of theology", as he calls a series of Youtube videos. He has been Professor of Pastoral Theology in Münster since 2023.

Christian Bauer confronts current church topics not only in the lecture hall, but also in social media and in videos on Youtube. "Clericalism and Synodality" is the topic of the inaugural lecture the new Münster Professor of Pastoral Theology is giving this evening. In an interview with Kirche-und-Leben, he talks about Pope Francis' skewed image of the church, radicalised right-wing Catholicism, studying theology despite "contaminated church grounds" and the appeal of a "kitchen table theology".

Professor Bauer, you have chosen a topic for your inaugural lecture that revolves around clericalism and synodality. Some people, including Pope Francis, say that synodality is the order of the day - but it should not be confused with democracy. Rightly so?

The former Bishop of Erfurt Hugo Aufderbeck (1909-1981) once said very aptly: "The church is not a democracy because only one is the master. And it is not a monarchy because all are sisters and brothers." This statement refers to a double aspect of church, for which there are different terms in the history of words. Our German word "Kirche", for example, comes from the Greek "kyriaké" and means "the one that belongs to the Lord". It also means: no one is allowed to sit on the Lord's chair. The other word root is the also Greek "ekklesia" - as for example in the French "église". This originally meant the assembly of the free citizens of a city. Paul was the first to use this political term to explain what the church is: the democratically constituted citizens' assembly of God, which then also includes women, slaves and strangers. In a church that has always known democratic elements in its history, we still have potential for development in both areas!

Scepticism about democracy also appears when Pope Francis repeatedly emphasises that Synodality is a spiritual event, just as he understands the Church above all as a spiritual community. A proven way to face the discussion about power, abuse of power, structural reforms?

It is important to understand Synodality spiritually, because it touches on the question of the basic attitude of our church. This brings us to a spiritual problem. With Pope Francis, I perceive a certain skew in the image of the Church, which theology nerds would probably call a monophysite ecclesiology (laughs). In other words, Francis emphasises the spiritual element in the Church and underestimates the political. The Second Vatican Council tried to balance both dimensions - and I think we should also try to do that in synodal ways. I think this is incredibly exciting because it opens up a new field of research for theology, namely church politics. This is also a spiritual challenge, because I have to be able to relate to myself and my own position. However, the willingness to do this is hardly present on the side of the church right.

Cathcon:  Francis emphasises the spiritual.... what planet is he on?  And yet more of the anticlerical rhetoric of atheistic socialism coming from Francis and his synodalists.

What do you mean in concrete terms?

There is a tribalisation, especially among right-wing Catholics, which is becoming more and more radical. Meanwhile, things are being said about Pope Francis that more reform Catholic-oriented people would never have said under the restorative-oriented predecessor Pontificates. This asymmetrical "tribalisation" and its overlaps with the extreme social right should be examined more closely in all theological disciplines.

Lay people advise, clerics decide because they have office and authority. Not least the Synodal Path has problematised this. What alternatives do you see?

About the person

Christian Bauer was born in Würzburg in 1973. He studied theology in Würzburg, Tübingen and Pune (India). After stations in Tübingen and Bonn, he became professor of pastoral theology and homiletics at the Faculty of Catholic Theology at the University of Innsbruck in 2012. In 2018, he received their "Lehreplus Award" for excellent teaching. Since 2019 he has been chairman of the Working Group for Pastoral Theology. In 2023, as a member of the editorial team of the theological feature portal "", he was the recipient of the "Herbert Haag Prize for Freedom in the Church". In the same year, he was appointed professor of pastoral theology and homiletics at the Faculty of Catholic Theology in Münster. | mn

It begins with the admission that there is power in authority. There is a beautiful anecdote that an old priest from Münster told me from his student days with Joseph Ratzinger. When a student asked him what power was like in the Church, he replied: "There is no power in the Church, only authority. One has to stop this spiritualisation of power, make oneself honest. The journalist Christiane Florin speaks of ecclesiastical "power shame". This must be abandoned in order to make the P-word discussable. For what is not accepted cannot be redeemed. Or to put it profanely: Repressed things return through the back door.

The sociologist of religion Detlef Pollack recently predicted the end of the Catholic Church if the power imbalance between clergy and laity were to be annulled through reforms, because it is part of the essence of the Catholic Church. How capable do you think the Church is of reform?

The Church is very capable of reform. I propose a theological relaxation exercise: Let's look at history! What we consider Catholic today is largely an invention of the 19th century. Catholic was already quite different and can also be quite different again. This also applies to the power imbalance between clergy and laity. Before the tipping point from the second to the third century, this distinction did not exist. Today we have to unlearn this distinction and think of church in a completely different way again.

More than half a million people have left the Catholic Church in 2022, its human and financial resources are melting away, social relevance is dwindling. - What makes you want to train young theologians with enthusiasm?

I am a theologian with enthusiasm. After all, it is not only about the church, i.e. ecclesiology, but about theology - i.e. God as the infinite mystery of all human life. Being on this track with young people fascinates and motivates me. I just did an exciting module course on "explorative theology", where we searched for traces of God in the theological place of action Münster: Profiling God in your own city.

Where did you find him?

The students went to the market, for example, and discovered quite amazing things there and thought creatively about them. Designing theology from non-church life worlds is something that young people need more and more in times when the church is increasingly unattractive as an employer - many of them (and not the worst!) are no longer willing to make the church compromises that my generation still felt compelled to make. What is needed today are exciting professional alternatives that take place not only on contaminated church grounds, but in the midst of society. I believe that making theology productive in this area is a trend-setting step.

You always like to talk about "theology in different places" - for example, in the fitness centre, in the town hall or for a beer with interesting people, and you are active in social media and on YouTube. Professor, has the lecture hall had its day?

Certainly not! But the lecture hall must not be the only place where theology is produced. We have to get out of the bubble, into real life and do a different kind of theology from there. I have learned this myself: it is not enough to just go to other places and do the same boot there. It is not only necessary to live a different kind of theology, but also a different kind of theology!

What are you thinking about?

It is about bringing God into a searching, groping language in the midst of life. Just as Pope Francis says: theology is not only created at a desk. I learned the term "kitchen table theology" from students in Münster: theology has its first place where the existential questions come on the table - what do we live from and for what? That is where all theology begins. And also its future.

In Cologne, a theological college of the Archdiocese is being strongly discussed. Why shouldn't the Church train its own young people instead of leaving this to faculties at state universities?

Because, according to the Council, the church is not only the church for itself, but the church in the world of today. That is why theology cannot only be developed behind church walls, but must go out into the open discourse of the university. Only in its diversity of perspectives can young people learn what they will need later in pastoral work: to become capable of conversation in a perspective-plural, multi-secular and multi-religious present. The question in pastoral ministry is: Do we speak the present? This can be learned better in the open discourse of a university than in the closed system of a church university.

One tip each, please: How can parishes, pastoral workers and vicariates general benefit from your work?

I would like to add to the question: How can I benefit from congregations, pastoral workers and Vicariates General? My work is not a one-way street! Contact with these actors is extremely important to me, because both can learn something. I am not the smart professor who tells everyone how to do it. That's why I'm currently exploring the diocese - for example, I've already been talking to people from "Maria 2.0" and also from the Emmanuel community to get the scent. 

As a native of Würzburg, you have lived mainly in the south in recent years - in Tübingen and most recently in Innsbruck. Now you are starting in the semi-high north in Münster. What attracted you?

I perceive Münster less as north and more as west. That's also nice because we have friends in the Netherlands and I've been a Borussia Dortmund fan for years (laughs). And, of course, it really inspires me to work at one of the world's most important theological faculties. Not least the future Campus of Religions shows: Münster is a place where theology will still have power decades from now, while elsewhere the lights may be turned out. This promise of the future motivated me greatly to accept the call to the "halfway north".



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