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Bishops and women priest campaigners sign letter supporting Pope Francis

Wolfgang Thierse, a signatory of the letter, as German Bundestag Vice-President in 2013 (Getty)

More than 150 Catholics, including bishops, priests and academics, have launched a statement in support of Pope Francis.

The Pro Pope Francis open letter, available in English and German, follows the “filial correction” of Pope Francis, which claimed that the Pope had helped to spread heresies.

The signatories, including eight bishops, address the Pope, saying: “Your pastoral initiatives and their theological justification are currently under vehement attacks by a group in the church. With this open letter, we want to express our gratitude for your courageous and theologically sound papal leadership.”

They congratulate the Pope on “reshaping the pastoral culture of the Roman Catholic Church”, adding: “We share your dream.”

The bishops include two from Austria, Paul Iby, Bishop Emeritus of Eisenstadt, and Helmut Krätzl, an auxiliary bishop in Vienna archdiocese.

Other distinguished figures on the list are László Sólyom, the former president of Hungary; Wolfgang Thierse, former president of the Bundestag; Fr Tomáš Halík, a past winner of the Templeton Prize; and Charles Taylor, the Canadian philosopher.

Taylor, author of A Secular Age, has previously criticised the “rigid moralism” of “the Vatican’s present position” on matters including birth control.

One signatory, Martha Heizer, was excommunicated by Pope Francis in 2014 for co-hosting private “Masses” in her home at which no priests were present.

Another, the philosopher Gerard Hughes SJ, has written in a piece on abortion: “The embryo is a potential person, but that is very different – and morally different – from being a person … I don’t think we can draw any sharp lines.”

The other UK-based signatory, Prof Thomas O’Loughlin, signed a statement from the Wijngaards Institute declaring that “Responsible contraception should be allowed” and that after divorce, “Expecting these persons to live celibate lives betrays a severe and suspicious view of human sexuality.” He is an academic patron of the Institute, whose website records that “Our clash with traditional views came to a head in 1994 when the Vatican declared that the exclusion of women from the ordained ministries was definitive and should no longer be discussed.”

Other signatories have written on the subject of women’s ordination. Fr Carl-Peter Klusmann has said that if a woman were to be consecrated as priests, Rome would have to give reasons why this was invalid – and that “Today’s theology does not offer such reasons.” Christian Weisner has helped to lead an international campaign for women’s ordination. Bishop Fritz Lobinger, a retired South African bishop, has suggested ordaining “elders”, adding “Because the majority of proven local leaders are women, it is unavoidable that the question of their inclusion among ordained elders will arise, though present church law does not permit it”.

Some signatories are members of the group We Are Church, which advocates sweeping changes to the Church, including “democratic structures” and the admission of women to the priesthood.

An organiser of the petition, Fr Paul Zulehner, said that as Pope Francis faced criticism, and bishops and others seemed reluctant to defend him publicly, they wanted to “give a voice to the silent supportive majority”.

Asked whether the signatories hoped that Pope Francis could help open the way to women’s ordination, Fr Zulehner said: “The letter deliberately does not address controversial issues. The question of women’s ordination does not play an explicit role in our action.”