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Remembering the Cologne Declaration

Ten years ago this month a group of eminent European theologians fired a shot across the bow of the Barque of Peter. Their Cologne Declaration was a wake-up call for the church, one we still need to hear a decade later.

The declaration was issued on Jan. 6, 1989 -- the Feast of Epiphany. In commemorating the three magi who paid homage to the infant Jesus, the festival celebrates the original opening of Christianity to the world.

It was thus an appropriate day for the Cologne Declaration. Signed by 163 theologians from Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands, it argued that certain church policies were frustrating the task of carrying the gospel to the world. Those policies included:

  • John Paul’s appointment of bishops “without respecting the suggestions of the local churches and neglecting their established rights,” which runs counter to the Catholic tradition that the selection of bishops “is not some private choice of the pope’s”;
  • The Vatican’s refusal to grant official license to theologians with whom it disagrees, part of its general campaign to silence dissent, representing “a dangerous intrusion into the freedom of research and teaching”;
  • The pope’s “overstepping and enforcing in an inadmissible way” his proper doctrinal competence, insisting that every pronouncement of the magisterium be treated as ipso facto infallible. The declaration called special attention to the ban on birth control.

Complaining that the collegiality called for by Vatican II was “being smothered by a new Roman centralism,” the declaration predicted: “If the pope undertakes things that are not part of his role, then he cannot demand obedience in the name of Catholicism. He must expect dissent.”

Some of the finest names in Catholic theology signed on, including Fr. Eduard Schillebeeckx, Fr. Johann Baptist Metz, Fr. Hans Küng, Fr. Norbert Greinacher and Fr. Ottmar Fuchs. Others signed later, most prominently Fr. Bernard Häring. Eventually 130 theologians from France, 23 from Spain, 52 from Belgium and 63 from Italy (including some from Rome itself) signed the statement.

Despite Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s dismissal of the declaration as a “local matter,” it clearly touched a nerve in the global church. Many Catholics were inspired in the 1980s by the example of Latin America, where the church seemed to have found its voice on behalf of the poor; yet that voice, in Latin America and elsewhere, was being stifled by Roman appointments of conservative bishops and harassment of theologians. The conclusion seemed obvious: If the church was going to be an effective partner in the effort to build a more just world, internal reform was a sine qua non.

It would be nice to report that 10 years later the Cologne Declaration seems dated. Instead -- in the words of a joint statement from theologians at the University of Tübingen, Germany, and the German branch of the We Are Church movement, issued on Dec. 30, 1998 -- the declaration “has not lost its urgency, but on the contrary has become more relevant in light of increasing control from Rome. In many respects the fears and warnings formulated 10 years ago are still valid, often even more so.”

The Dec. 30 statement goes on: “The church has the increasingly important mission of being an advocate for human rights and a morality that respects human beings. Its credibility will be measured based on this mission. Thus it is important that the church be restructured in the sense of an open Catholicism.” Building on the principles outlined in the Cologne Declaration, the statement calls on laity, priests and bishops to help fashion this “open Catholicism” from the ground up.

These are, of course, very familiar ideas. In the 10 years since the Cologne Declaration, calls for reform have been issued time and again, always to meet with resistance in Rome and timidity elsewhere.

To be fair, John Paul is not acting simply out of inertia. He has a vision: Only a united church, focused on its core doctrines, can withstand the challenges that today confront it. The pope sees Western liberalism -- in its exaggerated individualism, its tendency to confuse economic and moral worth, its apparent surrender on the idea of truth -- as a grave threat to Christianity. Preserving the clarity of the church’s proclamation is critical. To the pope, Catholics calling for change in doctrines or structures seem to have sold out to the Zeitgeist.

What John Paul fails to grasp, what the Cologne Declaration makes clear, is that the call for reform persists not simply because too many Catholics want to make the church into a social club. Many faithful Catholics are convinced the church’s proclamation will make sense to humanity only if it is reflected in the quest for justice -- and that present structures inside the church make that quest more difficult.

It’s fitting that this call went out 10 years ago from Cologne, whose cathedral boasts the Shrine of the Three Kings, the magi of Luke’s infancy gospel. The shrine is a reminder that the gospel is meant for the whole world and that any structure or policy of the church must be subject to that core mission.

On the 10th anniversary of the Cologne Declaration, we are called back again to this idea: If the church must change in order to carry Christ to the world, then let change come. For 10 years now this plea has fallen on deaf ears in Rome, but faith compels us to believe that it will not always be this way.

National Catholic Reporter, January 15, 1999