Women theologians do rigorous research with openness to people’s needs


Katharina Westerhorstmann is a German theologian who broke the glass ceiling when she was appointed as the first female theology professor at the Catholic University Eichstätt – Ingolstadt in the 400 years of its existence. She tells us why we need women theologians and how music is her way of dismantling prejudices agains refugees.

Female theology professors are still rare in Germany

Prof. Dr. Katharina Westerhorstmann has endured years of demanding academic work to reach the position of a professor in the German higher education system. “The conditions are still very difficult for women,” she points out, “and very hard to combine with starting a family and having children.”

According to Westerhorstmann, Catholic faculties at German universities have between 5 – 30% of women professors, with more women present in lower academic ranks but very few reaching permanent professorships. “If you consider that a Catholic faculty may have 14 or 15 professorship chairs, that makes it one or two women per faculty, if any at all,” she demonstrates the practical implication of there statistics.

In the past, 50% of professors at theological faculties in Germany were required to be ordained priests, which automatically put women at a disadvantage. “A lot has been done in the past two decades but most women studying theology do not think about academic careers,” believes Westerhorstmann and adds that most women focus more on pastoral ministry as a goal of their theology studies.

Westerhorstmann appreciates that Pope Francis has signalled the need for more women theologians and appointed four more women to the International Theological Commission in 2014. “Women theologians combine strong rational ideas with the perspective of the heart,” she believes, “they open theology to see people’s needs and conduct rigorous research with empathy.”

However, Westerhorstmann thinks that more needs to happen on the local level for real impact to be created. More young women have to see women professors teaching and mentoring them to believe that this career path is open for them. “Women need mentors – both female and male faculty members who would encourage them to choose the academic path,” proposes Westerhorstmann. Mentoring can also offer concrete practical support and networks for women.

At the same time, Westerhorstmann reminds us that the willingness of theological faculties to appoint women also has to be addressed. In this area, outside pressure from the government and university leadership of the secular public universities that usually house Catholic faculties in Germany has led to more openings for women.

Music opens people to new encounters

Westerhorstmann herself combines her academic career in theology with a personal spiritual practice and passion for music. In December, she will publish her second CD. She shared with us a song called “Come and rest” which was inspired by her encounter with Syrian women who came to her home parish last year as the ongoing war in Syria forced them from their homes. Themselves musicians, the women have collaborated with Westerhorstmann on the music video and translated her text to Arabic and Aramaic. Westerhorstmann feels that music touches people in a different way than rational debates and hopes that the music video will open people to find new perspectives in Germany’s often polarized debate on the so-called refugee crisis that led to hundreds of thousands of Syrians and others from conflict-ridden regions to flee to Europe.

Westerhorstmann also believes that music in general can play a crucial role in bringing new life to Christians in Western Europe. She has experienced that new lay movements offer fresh possibilities for encounter with God. She herself participates actively and shares her music in the Night Fever movement in Germany.
Started ahead of the World Youth Day in 2005, Night Fever offers a “very open service where people can may gain a direct experience or insight into what faith means,” explains Westerhorstmann and continues: “it is not about rules but about relationships. It provides a way to encounter God in daily life as a friend.”

An impressive testimony of women at the Vatican

Westerhosrtmann was in the audience of the Voices of Faith event in 2015. “It was a great opportunity to meet wonderful people and get to know this movement of women who are trying to make a difference, especially for those who are in need,” remembers Westerhorstmann, “I was impressed by this testimony.”

Mark your calendars now for the Voices of Faith 2017 annual event on March 8th. This year’s topic is “Stirring the Waters – Making the Impossible Possible” and presents an impressive group of women peacemakers from around the world.