Everything may be on the table—questions of sexuality and the sex abuse crisis, the ordination of women and even celibacy. It is the first time that bishops and laypeople in Germany will have a face-to-face conversation, and it is one that might change the church as it looks today. Even Pope Francis has felt the need to have a say in the discussion, issuing a pre-emptive letter that appears to suggest some boundaries for the upcoming dialogue.
But to be clear, the journey German Catholics are about to undertake is not a synod. A synod has to be approved by the Vatican and has to follow strict rules established by the Curia.
German Catholics are embarking on what is being called a “synodal journey,” but it promises to be a potentially rocky one, focusing on subjects the church usually avoids: Why are women not allowed to be ordained as deacons or priests? Is mandatory celibacy the best way for a priest to live in the 21st century? How should the German church respond to the abuse crisis? According to the agenda laid out by the German Bishops’ Conference, all of these topics and more will be part of the journey.
The style of the synodal journey—that is, as a conversation between German bishops and laypeople, setting them on equal footing—is unprecedented, according to leaders among German laypeople. They will be represented by the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), the highest organization of laypeople in the country. Everything that will be decided will be done so in a democratic and transparent fashion, with both sides having their say, according to Thomas Sternberg, president of the ZdK and head of the lay-delegation.
How did the German church come to decide on this radical approach?
German Catholics are embarking on what is being called a “synodal journey,” focusing on subjects the church usually avoids.
Turning on the television news in Germany lately does not leave viewers with a particularly good impression of the Catholic Church. Revelations of new scandals are broadcast almost daily. Last autumn a study uncovered more than 3,000 cases of sexual abuse in Germany over recent decades. The “Maria 2.0” movement has been mobilizing Catholic women all over Germany to skip Mass in a “strike” against sexism in the church and the exclusion of women from the priesthood.
On the heels of the almost constant negative news, there has been an alarming increase in the number of people leaving the church, according to the annual report from the bishops’ conference. In Germany a “church tax” from citizens registered as Catholics is collected by the government and used to support the church and its efforts. Many “leavers” say that tax burden is part of the reason they have separated from the church, a bureaucratic process in Germany, just like divorce or the registration of a new birth. Even more say they simply do not trust the church anymore. In 2018 more than 200,000 Germans officially ended their affiliation with the Catholic Church, the second highest number since World War II.
The unrelenting bad news and the rush out of the door have forced German bishops to address the church’s problems transparently and democratically.
“In a way democracy has always been part of the church. The cardinals even elect the pope,” said Mr. Sternberg. He is among the representatives who will be in dialogue with the bishops. A former politician, he is used to decision-making in a democratic way, a practice he wishes for the church as well. He is hopeful about the upcoming synodal journey the bishops are about to take. “We can talk to each other, discuss,” he said. “It’s only the strength of the argument that should count.”
The process is supposed to begin on the first Sunday of Advent. But there are already several work groups coming together over the summer to build a framework for the discussions. They are expected to complete their work in September.
One group focuses on power in the church—how it is used or abused. Another group will discuss the role of celibacy in priestly life, asking if it is still appropriate in the 21st century. Another group will talk about sexuality and the Catholic Church. Surveys show that Catholics in Germany do not pay attention to the church’s views, for example, regarding premarital sex or homosexuality.
A document published by the bishops and the lay committee openly asks if the church should change its view on these matters. “We have lost the ability to talk to people about this. The church does not understand what sexuality means to the individual,” said Cardinal Reinhard Marx, head of the German Bishops’ Conference in March, when he announced the synodal journey. “We did not acknowledge what theology or human sciences have to say about this.”
One of the most important concerns is the question of women in the church. Catholic women all over Germany joined the Maria 2.0 strike, refusing to attend Mass or to do any volunteer work in their parishes for a week in May.
Pope Francis encouraged dialogue, but he also advised Germans to follow the Gospel first and foremost and not to break with the rest of the Catholic world.
The bishops attempted to respond. Ordaining women as deacons or priests is out of the question, most of them admit, but they argued that this barrier does not mean women should not be able to take up positions of power in the church. Several German dioceses are establishing new positions of general and financial management that are explicitly open to women and laypeople. The bishops’ conference has committed to a hiring quota that reserves 33 percent of leadership positions for women over the coming years.
Women’s ordination might be one of the biggest points of conflict in the upcoming synodal process. The committee of laypeople openly promotes women’s ordination. “We have been demanding female deacons for a long time,” Mr. Sternberg said. Ordaining women as priests would have to be addressed in an official Roman council, he said, but ordaining female deacons in Germany could be accomplished today, without any dogmatic or theological barriers.
For the Germans, the demand for women deacons is nothing new. In 1971 Germany opened an actual synod to implement the ideas of Vatican II. Even back then the bishops were discussing women deacons and the “viri probati,” married men of strong faith and virtue who could be ordained as priests. Recommendations from that synod were sent to the Vatican, but they did not lead to any changes, as Mr. Sternberg recalls.
Women’s ordination might be one of the biggest points of conflict in the upcoming synodal process.
The Vatican is following Germany’s informal synod closely. At the end of June, Pope Francis sent a letter to the German church. Not addressing the bishops but “all people of God in Germany,” he explained his views on the upcoming process.
Mr. Sternberg called the pope’s intervention “a sensation.” A letter like this had not been sent by any Holy Father since World War II, he said. “Pope Francis tells us to carry on in the spirit of Vatican II,” he said, and this is what he thinks German Catholics are about to do.
The contents of the pope’s letter are a matter of interpretation, though. Pope Francis encouraged dialogue, but he also advised Germans to follow the Gospel first and foremost and not to break with the rest of the Catholic world.
That possibility is exactly what some Catholics in Germany fear when they hear that celibacy or women’s ordination will be put up for debate. “The church should follow Jesus, not the zeitgeist,” warned Cologne’s Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, right after the pope’s letter was published.
The Rev. Michael Fuchs, vicar general of the diocese of Regensburg, demands a whole new approach for the synodal journey. The pope’s letter suggests that the German church not keep “carrying on as planned” with the synoidal journey, he said. He believes the German church should find a different kind of process, one closer to the Gospel.
So what will actually come out of this?
Anything bishops and laypeople decide during this synodal journey does not have to be approved by Rome, but it must follow Catholic teaching, the pope advised in his letter. As he pointed out, the results of the synodal journey will not be canonically binding.
When it comes to implementing the results, it will be up to every single diocese and every single bishop, said Mr. Sternberg. That outcome does follow on Pope Francis’ wish for a “synodal church” that does not rely on the Vatican for every single decision.
But whatever comes of it, one thing is clear. With everything happening these past few months in Germany—striking women, the loss of trust due to the abuse scandal and even the letter from the pope—Catholics everywhere in Germany will follow this particular journey with a watchful eye. For some Catholics the journey seems to be the last chance to win back the trust the church has lost; for others it suggests the possible separation of the church as Jesus established it and a surrender to modern times.