International Movement
We Are Church / European Network



Declaration of the International Movement "We Are Church" and  the European Network "Church on the Move"  on the occasion of the October 1999 Bishops Synod for Europe in Rome


1.1 "The voices of anticipating something new about to come are growing ever louder in the streets of Europe." These words by Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, Archbishop of Prague, hold us captive. The winds of change are sweeping through cathedrals and factories, schools and palaces. On their wings they carry the call for unity and peace, for freedom and self-determination, for responsibility, solidarity, and tolerance.  

1.2 Ever since the dawn of its history, Europe has been a continent of harsh contrasts, source of bloody atrocities and liberating developments. Christians as well as non-Christians took part in both.  Today, as always but even more so, Europe is characterized by great intellectual and spiritual diversity, and committed Christians are reduced to minority status. 

1.3 The Catholic Church responds to this challenge by lamenting the "evil world" and claiming the exclusive right to an unrealistic doctrinal certainty. In times of spectacular change the church plays the part of a rock -- a rock which it is not, which it cannot be, and which it ought not to be.  The church itself is also in need of a new evangelization.


2.1  Ever since Christians have lived  in Europe they too have paid homage to brute force.  Time and again they waged war against one another as military leaders and as simple combatants too often rationalizing aggression by appealing to supposedly "sacred" commands from the "Lord of History". Expeditions to convert and colonize, crusades and "holy wars" laid waste lands and souls. Millions of women and men died in torture chambers and as victims of auto-da fe's  "in the name of Truth".  Even the attempt at enforced joyous liberation of the 1789 Declaration of Human Rights originally foundered in oceans of blood.

2.2 Yet on that very same continent where church and state so often joined in unholy alliances in the pursuit of power theological attempts at taming war continued to gain ground. In ancient Athens the first experiment at solving social conflicts through law was successful. Catholic political thinkers of the sixteenth century, Calvinist theologians, and nonconformist teachers of natural law plowed the ground in which international law and democracy could flourish. 


3.1 Since its inception, the Judeo-Christian understanding of reality has been rooted in the conviction that every person is created in God's image (Gen.1, 27) and endowed with the same dignity as every other human being. With deep shame, however,  we must confess that  it took many centuries before we even began to become conscious of the implications of this awareness.  With fire and sword Catholic Christians persecuted women and men of other denominations as well as those of their own faith.

3.2   European conquerors subjugated the Americas and robbed the native populations of dignity and land. When the Declaration of Universal Human Rights was first proclaimed, almost without exception, top members of the Catholic hierarchy distinguished themselves by their absence. For too long most of them had  even stubbornly done battle against the idea of equal rights for all human beings. At least today the Catholic Church has to be at the vanguard of  the efforts to realize human rights in all social spheres, including, of course, in the church itself!

3.3 Among the essential treasures of human rights is the right of women to full equality in society and church. For those baptized in the name of Jesus, "there is no difference between Jews and gentiles, between slaves and free men, between men and women" (Gal. 3, 28). No scripture passage declares baptized women unworthy of the church´s ordained ministry. There can be no such a doctrine in the teachings of the church.

3.4 Eminent women have made European history as rulers; countless anonymous wives and mothers have done so as heroines of everday-life or as victims of a patriarchal power systems. Women were among the great prophets of our church, such as Hildegard of Bingen, Caterina of Siena, and Teresa of Avila.  Like Antigone, Joan of Arc, her Christian sister,  went to death for her sacred cause.  The ecumenical councils of the early church were called not by popes but by emperors.  In 787 the Council of Nicaea II, the seventh ecumenical council, was even called by a woman, the bloodthirsty Empress Irene. The next ecumenical council must be called in an ecumenically irreproachable manner and involve full participation not only by men but also by women. The cause of woman is the cause of humankind.

3.5 Current Canon Law still contains decrees that are in direct contradiction to human rights. As members of the laity, women are being disciminated against a second time among the (canon 230).  There is no division of powers: bishops simultaneously hold legislative, executive, and judiciary power (canon 391). Parents who allow their children to be baptized or brought up as non-Catholics and people who refuse blind obedience to their bishop or pope are threatened with penalties (canon 1366).  Sexual continence, while it is described as "special divine charism," is made a "permanent" duty for all members of the clergy.


4.1  God created the world and "looked  at everything he had made, and he found it very good" (Gen.1, 31). Today, many Catholic Christians, ordained and unordained,  look at the world as if it were the domain of evil. Without a sincere and joyous affirmation of creation and history nobody will believe that we want to make ours a better, more just world. This, however,  is precisely our mission.

4.2 We misunderstood the command to "cultivate and care for" the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2, 15), as divine authorization for exploitation. Once again we see the Europe of extreme contrasts: On this continent there developed the modern constitutional state which provides the political and economic foundation for a life of at least modest  prosperity for all social groups and classes. However, it is also on this continent that human greed, especially in recent years, has wantonly destroyed the very conditions of survival in an unprecedented way, and has allowed the excesses of unbridled economic expansion  to rob many people of meaningful work and hope. Both of these destructive patterns must cease.


5.1  The world cannot be changed without politics. Politics is not possible without power. Christians must become examples to others of the appropriate use of power -- with sensitivity and care to keep from violating the dignity of others.  The principle of shared power (subsidiarity) first advocated by Catholic social teaching and recently also made an essential part of the legal system of the European Union meets this challenge.  As early as 1946, Pius XII announced to the assembled college of cardinals that it must also be applied to "the life of the church."

5.2 Separation of powers within the Catholic Church by belatedly giving greater weight to local churches would strengthen parishes and dioceses and consequently the church as a whole. It would facilitate localized experimentation (e.g. concerning viri probati, women´s ordination, parish administration by lay people) before reforms are introduced worldwide. It would also encourage creative, aesthetic, and prophetic forms of liturgy to touch the hearts of the people.  To appoint a bishop against the will of part of the people of the diocese or to humiliate a regional episcopal conferences with Vatican directives -- as was the case recently concerning pregnancy counselling in Germany  -- are serious violations of the Principle of Subsidiarity.

5.3 The pilgrim church has developed its administrative structures over the course of history.  On its journey through the various periods it dresses in the worldly fashion of  the time. For centuries it has worn the external insignia of secular power in the form of official robes, titles, and documents. Many of these signs have been discarded.  But the church still bedecks itself in some of the others although it knows that Jesus said of secular rulers: "But it shall not be so among you" (Mk. 10, 43). Jesus shared meals with simple sinners, not with rulers and earthly lords.


6.1  According to  the concluding document of the June 1997 Second Ecumenical Assembly of Graz,  "We have presented to the world the disgraceful spectacle of a divided Christendom."  The audience has long called for a speedy end to such a scandalous play. There are signs of hope on this path of no return: the forthcoming signing of a "Common Declaration of Catholics and Lutherans on the Doctrine of Justification",  the progress achieved in the wide-ranging conversations of Catholic and Anglican theologians and the revival of the dialogue with Orthodox bishops and patriarchs.

6.2 Nevertheless, we should not ignore the signs of a general stagnation of ecumenical efforts.  This tendency is all the more lamentable because today's laborious  attempts at reconciliation could have been avoided if the church had paid more attention to reform proposals made in previous centuries by individuals whom it condemned and frequently eliminated as "apostates" and "heretics". This lesson from history demands that the Catholic Church be at the vanguard of future ecumenical efforts. At best, anxiety concerning the "purity of  doctrine" (even though the bible warns against anxiety on fifty-seven occasions)  is a symptom of diffidence, at worst it indicates the arrogance of power and privilege. 

6.3  The great majority of European Christians agree in their yearning to share the common meal of the Eucharist. If the Vatican insists on further clarification of the ordination and ministry issues as prerequisite for intercommunion then it is up to the Catholic Church, with courage and a sense of perspective, to launch new initiatives. In his encyclical "Ut unum sint" Pope John Paul II has encouraged "fraternal, patient dialogue" concerning the exercise of the Petrine ministry. This invitation must not be fortgotten. 

6.4 The Christian Church as a whole [Oekumene] is especially in need of signs of reassurance.  One of those symbolic gestures  might be for Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians to agree on celebrating Easter on the same date.  This issue has been a bone of contention ever since Patristic times.   A settlement is long overdue.


7.1 Europe needs the reconciliation of Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians each of whose unique and distinctive historic formation must be made to bear fruit for the entire shared Christian heritage.  In addition, Europe in in need of interreligious dialogue with other faith traditions and important ideologies. The dialogue of the three Abrahamic religions -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam -- requires special attention and sensitivity.

7.2 As European Christians we have to atone for hundreds of years of guilt vis-a-vis our Jewish brothers and sisters, a shameful history that culminated in the apocalypse of the Shoah. Unless we regain the trust of the Jews who decisively pollinated European culture over many centuries, the river of our own life of faith will remain polluted from its very source.

7.3 The common root of Abraham also links us to the followers of Islam who helped shape Europe`s medieval culture as well, and have today become an integral part of the population in most European countries.  Dialogue with Muslims is another obligation of the heart for Christians, no matter how different our starting points  and how inevitable the potential setbacks. To have the faith of Abraham means that trusting God's promise we jointly set out on a journey, with no assurance of the path or the goal.


8.1 In faith and hope we know the ultimate end of all ends. God is the Alpha and Omega of our existence,  beginning and consummation, inspiration and meaning. This God is a God of life who calls all human beings to a "life in fullness" and empowers us to exercise responsibility as mature adults ("Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" 2 Cor. 3,17). Again and again he makes it possible for us to start anew; he never abandons us in times of need; he does not damn us or even look down on us  because our reality is a seamless fusion of body and soul. 

8.2 According to scripture, God is a friend of human beings,  wise and patient, generous and fair.  He is not impressed with tithes of mint, dill and cumin, but calls for  "justice and mercy and fidelity" (Mt. 23,23). He would rather embrace the poor than the arrogant in their pomp and splendour. Frequently he is nearer to those who appear distant from him than to self-righteous "practicing" Christians who do their practicing in church pews rather than in their daily lives.
8.3 We realize that all our God-talk involves speaking in incomplete images and stammering in a language hampered by our human limitations. These limitations force us to be moderate in expression and modest in our claim to theological authority.  Neither God nor "the" truth" can be trapped in the net of definitions.  "It remains for Christian faith gradually to grasp its [of revelation] full significance over the course of the centuries" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 66). The image of the Emmaus disciples which sets the stage for  the Instrumentum laboris of the  Synod for Europe is the appropriate starting point for the way we should speak of God, Jesus, and the church.  In addition, it is essential for us to keep in mind that it is necessary for Jesus, the Christ, to open our eyes again and again, and that all of us, including the highest dignitaries of the church, always remain seekers who are tempted again and again by exhaustion, discouragement, and ambivalence.

8.4 It is inappropriate to urge exclusive preoccupation with God-talk in order to divert attention from  from pursuing supposedly secondary topics, such as shared decision-making in the church, new access to the ordained ministry, reconsideration  of celibacy, and joyful affirmation of the various manifestations of human sexuality. "We must practice these things without neglecting the others" to keep from one day in a daze swallowing a camel while we are busy straining out gnats (Mt 23,24).

8.5  We ask the bishops gathered for the Synod in Rome, in union with the entire people of God, to rediscover this Europe of contrasts and in that Europe to rediscover our church of contrasts: the light and the shadows, the enormous potential both for grand accomplishments and for atrocities, a potential that makes us simultaneously shudder and hope.  Imperfection and suffering will accompany humans to their final days. God abandons not a single one of his children in the kind of suffering that cannot be avoided.  But concerning other kinds of suffering that can be relieved he has charged us, not in order to glorify pain but to eradicate it.

8.6 Errors of the magisterium do not cast us into doubt and disappointment: "All human beings have to pay tribute to error and the spirit of their times" (Karl Rahner). However, such errors must be courageously acknowledged and openly confessed.  In the Instrumentum laboris (44) the Catholic Church deplores a "certain weakening of the Sacrament of Penance". Is it possible that this "weakeningt" is caused in part by the total inability of  the magisterium of the church to confess error?  Our church must accomplish as an institution what it demands of its members: confession of sin, repentance, change for the better. 



1.4 Is Catholic Church  in tune with the rapid change of the modern world, including changes in the self-understanding of Christians and their ways of life?  What position should the church take as it proclaims the gospel:  apodictic, absolutist, certain of itself or more modest and humble?  Should the emphasis be on the immutability of doctrine or making visible those elements that depend on historic conditions and are open to change?

2.4  What can the church do to help establish Europe as a continent of peace, so that no future wars will divide Europe and Europe will never again threaten others? How should serious conflicts among ethnic groups and nations be addressed and solved in the future?  Can Europe become a model for other regions of the world?

3.6  What can the church today contribute to the further development and safeguarding of human rights (e.g.  signing by the Holy See of the European Human Rights Convention)? Are there possibilities to atone for past omissions and derelictions?  How can the church authentiaclly demonstrate that it takes seriously the full equality of women in terms of value and rights?  Should canons that violate human rights be stricken from the Code of Canon Law?

4.6  What responsibilities does the church and its members have concerning politics and culture, economics and science? How can Christians fulfil their duty to watch over creation? What can Christians do, what must they do, in order to be free to collaborate in the ongoing work of creation?

5.4  How and where is it necessary for the Catholic Church to apply the principle of subsidiarity to itself?  Only concerning administrative decisions  (episcopal appoinments,  applications for laicization) or also when it comes to the proclamation of doctrines of faith (e.g. consulting bishops and the faithful, sensus fidelium)  has not only the obligation to preach but to live by the principle of subsidiarity not only concerning administrative decisions  (episcopal appoinments,  applications for laicization, and so forth.) but also when it comes to the proclamation of doctrines of faith, for  "the whole body of believers...cannot err in matters of faith" (Lumen gentium 12, World Catechism 92).

6.5   Which new approaches concerning ecumenical dialogue should the Catholic Church initiate (intercommunion after or before clarification of theological disputes,  shared eucharistic celebration of the Pope  with leaders of other Christian denominations)?  How can the church eadership rid itself of the appearance of unbiblical anxiety.

7.4  How can Christians regain the trust of the Jews after all those long centuries of cruel disappointments? How should we as Christians meet the Muslims who live in our midst today? How to attempt dialogue? What to do when dialogue is rejected?  What should the church do in order to counteract the current general hostility toward foreigners and other "others"?

8.7  How can church make visible and credible the central message of the loving, forgiving God who accompanies all human beings on their pilgrimage through creation and history.  How should Christians speak of the meaning of  life and suffering, of sin and repentance, of death and resurrection?  What kind of language should the church use in order to be heard and comprehended in the present age?  What should the church's confessions of guilt look like? How should they not look like?  What are our concrete expectations from this synod?

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Translated from the German by Ingrid Shafer

Original draft of this document

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Webpage Editor: Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
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Posted 2 October 1999
Last revised 2 October 1999
Electronic text Copyright © 1999 Ingrid H. Shafer