ROME – In a recent interview, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, the new president of the German bishops’ conference, signaled openness to both married priests and women’s ordination and appeared to criticize a lengthy essay by Pope Benedict XVI last year on the root causes of the clerical sexual abuse crisis.

Speaking to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Bätzing responded to a question about why debate over women’s priestly ordination seems to have disappeared so quickly.

“It is not a question of fear,” he said, noting that throughout the Catholic Church’s recent history, “different popes have explained and underlined that women’s access to the priesthood cannot be decided by the Church, and Pope Francis is no exception.”

“In the Catholic Church the magisterium of the episcopal college cum Petro et sub Petro is the decisive instance,” Bätzing said. “But that does not mean that we cannot continue to talk about the issue of the ordination of women, because it is a question presented by the Church itself!”

Bätzing, 59, said the Church’s reasons for refusing women’s ordination “are no longer accepted” by large portions of the Catholic faithful.

As a result, Bätzing said he’s happy that the conclusions of a two-year “synodal path” in Germany eventually will be sent to Rome, including their resolutions on women and the role of ministers.

“I believe that what is expressed synodally must also be clarified and a synodal answer be found, not simply the answer of a Roman dicastery! I am confident in this,” he said, adding, “This is the novelty which, with Pope Francis, has gained strength.”

Bätzing was elected president of the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference in March, taking the place of long-time heavyweight Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who has been a key player in the Francis papacy.

Marx, who took over leadership of the German bishops in 2014, announced In February that he would not be seeking reelection, instead leaving the door open to younger candidates. His successor, Bätzing, is now tasked with leading the German Church through the conclusion of its much-discussed “synodal path.”

Called for in part to restore trust following a September 2018 church-commissioned report detailing thousands of cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests spanning 60 years, the “synodal path” is a joint-initiative of the powerful Central Committee of German Catholics, the country’s largest and most influential lay organization, and the bishops’ conference.

Launched in November 2019, the two-year discussion will touch on topics such as the Catholic Church’s clergy sexual abuse crisis, as well as the role of women in the church, the priesthood and sexual morality.

Marx is known for adopting a generally progressive approach to hot-button issues, pushing for a more progressive interpretation of Francis’s 2016 exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, advocating for intercommunion in mixed marriages when one spouse is Catholic and one is not, and calling for greater openness to LGBT relationships.

He has also stirred the waters on the issue of clerical celibacy, which he said could have an impact on the Catholic Church’s clerical sexual abuse crisis. In his homily for New Year’s Eve Mass in 2018, Marx ruffled feathers by saying that 2019 would be a year of “unrest and opposition” in the German Church with pressure for forward movement on multiple fronts, and that, “new thinking is required.”

Marx’s decision not to seek reelection as head of the German bishops came as a surprise to many, leaving some to question whether he had perhaps been politely asked to take a back seat due to the controversy he consistently stirred up.

However, if Bätzing’s latest interview is any indication, his tenure may not be any less provocative.

Speaking of the need for reform in the Catholic Church in Germany, Bätzing said the bishops launched their “synodal path” because “we want to question ourselves and look for what God has to tell us at this time, and how we can make our Church close to people and to the service of life.”

“Many topics are also urgent in other countries. So, we will bring our reflections to Rome, he said, but was careful to assure that Germany would not go rogue, insisting that, “there will not be a special German process, since we understand ourselves as part of the universal Church just as we are a particular church for Rome. The one presupposes the other and vice versa.”

Speaking of the debate surrounding the ordination of viri pobati, or tested married men, during the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, Bätzing insisted that it was never a question “of abolishing celibacy,” which he called an “excessive simplification.”

“Pope Francis has clearly affirmed that he will remain faithful to celibacy. And there are many good reasons for this,” he said, noting that Francis’s post-synodal exhortation based on the conclusions of the gathering, Querida Amazonia, had insisted that “the service of priests to the people must be more important than their form of life.”

Bätzing voiced agreement, calling celibacy a life “completely centered on God,” but said that at the same time, “it does not seem to me that it would be harmful for the Church if there were also married priests.”

While insisting that it would be, “a great loss for the Church if there were only married priests and not those who choose celibacy for themselves,” he suggested that the decision be left up to priests to choose for themselves, saying that if this approach were adopted, “it would have to be understood what development it would have.”

Questioned about a lengthy essay penned by retired Pope Benedict XVI following a February 2019 Vatican summit on child protection, in which Benedict largely faulted the moral crisis of 1968 for the sexual abuse crisis, Bätzing appeared to criticize the retired German pope, saying the fact that Benedict in his essay did not speak about victims “was a serious mistake.”

He also appeared to imply that Benedict’s broader analysis was off the mark, saying that when a report on clerical sexual abuse in Germany conducted by the universities of Mannheim, Heidelberg, and Gießen was published in 2018, “there was an alarming level of sexual abuse in the ecclesial context long before the cultural change of 1968.”

“The prospect in that moment could not count on the knowledge we have today. This does not justify anything, but it must be taken into account,” he said, but pointed to popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis as having clearly taught that “we must above all heal the victims, all of our attention must be turned toward them.”

“All popes when they have met victims of sexual abuse have shown it very clearly,” he said.

Bätzing also spoke of the problem of clericalism in the Church, insisting that in Germany, “for decades there has been a good relationship between priests and laypeople.”

“The synodal path was decided on by bishops and representatives of the laity, so there is a good collaboration” he said, noting that the discussion “is not free from controversial debates, but it is always marked by great esteem.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen