Influential German Jesuit Behind Synodal Path Finally Steps Down
Although his retirement was announced last year, Father Hans Langendörfer delayed his departure due to the COVID-19 crisis.
BONN, Germany — After announcing his resignation last February, one of the most influential figures in the German Church has finally stepped down as head of the secretariat of the German bishops’ conference.
Jesuit Father Hans Langendörfer, 69, served nearly 25 years in the pivotal role and in particular “gave impetus” to the controversial Synodal Path that began last January, according to Katholisch.de, a news portal he helped oversee.
Father Langendörfer served four bishops’ conference presidents as general secretary and was widely recognized as the most influential player behind most of the German hierarchy’s major decisions — a sort of éminence grise to his critics, working in the shadows.
A former research assistant to the late German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the Jesuit was known as an intelligent tactician, noted for his political skills and someone who exerted considerable control over the Church’s media apparatus.
In tribute to Father Langendörfer, Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German bishops’ conference, called him “trustworthy, committed, politically ambitious, and always visionary.” He also praised him for “building bridges,” for “dialogue” both nationally and internationally, and said his work would not be forgotten.
Whatever the controversial decision emanating from the DBK, Germany’s episcopal conference, usually Father Langendörfer was in some way behind it.
Shortly before the start of the Synodal Path last year, a two-year reform program of German bishops and laity that questions some of the Church’s established teaching on faith and morals, he made headlines when he told a German newspaper it was “unacceptable” that all issues related to the synod be decided in Rome and taken without the participation of the local Churches.
He also said “no ban” would exist “on speaking about women’s ordination” during the synodal process — despite Pope St. John Paul II definitively ruling out the possibility in 1994 with his document Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.
Bishop Bätzing, who recently drew criticism from German Cardinals Walter Brandmüller and Gerhard Müller for suggesting that after the Synodal Path the Church in Germany could gradually shift its positions on women’s ordination and homosexuality, was elected shortly after Father Langendörfer’s remarks.
Ludwig Ring-Eifel, writing in KNA on Jan. 7, noted that since 2010 Father Langendörfer “has been concerned with the question of whether there are connections between Catholic sexual morality and priestly celibacy on the one hand and sexual abuse on the other.” Ring-Eifel added that “for a long time he has longed for a new sexual morality in the Church that can be communicated in the reality of people's lives,” so when a major study into clerical sex abuse in Germany made similar suggestions in 2018, it resonated with Father Langendörfer.
“Since then he has been looking for a Church forum to fundamentally re-discuss the topics of sexual morality, the priestly way of life, and the distribution of power in the Church,” Ring-Eifel wrote, adding that the Synodal Path “arose from this” and that Father Langendörfer is one of its “spiritual fathers.”
Father Langendörfer has also been behind various other recent controversies, including 2018 guidelines to allow Holy Communion for Protestant spouses in some cases, and 2015 changes to the Church in Germany’s labor law that, for the first time, allowed Church institutions to employ divorced-and-civilly-“remarried” Catholics and those living in same-sex unions.
He also reputedly had significant influence over the 2019 Amazon synod, which, thanks in large part to his efforts, was heavily backed by the German Church, with the broader aim of introducing women deacons and married clergy into the Church in Germany.
As well as general secretary, Father Langendörfer also served as head of the Association of German Dioceses which in 2011 reportedly owned Verlagsgruppe Weltbild GmbH — the largest German bookseller after Amazon — which also published pornography and had business investments in the pornography industry. Father Langendörfer, who was also a board member of the Weltbild group, survived the scandal after association staff expressed their “full confidence” in him.
On day-to-day matters, the German Jesuit worked closely with bishops’ conference spokesman, Matthias Kopp, who served as Father Langendörfer’s apprentice. The two of them have run media in the Church in Germany in a “very subtle and political way, hidden behind the scenes,” a source close to the Church in Germany told the Register last year.
But he has also been praised for transforming the bishops’ secretariat into a kind of “think tank” to engage with today’s challenges and staffed by more than 120 people.
Although his retirement was announced last year, Father Langendörfer delayed his departure due to the COVID-19 crisis. He indicated at the time of his announcement that a layman or laywoman could be his successor as general secretary, which, if it transpired, would be the first time in the conference’s history that a layperson would hold the position, Katholisch.de reported last year.
Last August, the vacancy was advertised in the German daily Die Zeit but the successful candidate won’t be elected until the bishops’ upcoming spring plenary assembly.