Will Germany’s ‘synodal journey’ change the Catholic world?

Demonstrators stand outside the German bishops' spring meeting in Lingen on March 11, 2019. The sexual abuse scandal and demands for reform have changed the German church, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich said March 14. (CNS photo/Harald Oppitz, KNA)Demonstrators stand outside the German bishops' spring meeting in Lingen on March 11, 2019. The sexual abuse scandal and demands for reform have changed the German church, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich said March 14. (CNS photo/Harald Oppitz, KNA)

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.

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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.

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John Barbieri
2 months 1 week ago

Sounds like the German bishops realize the trouble the church is in. The bishops here in the USA still don't seem to understand the trouble the church is in.

J Cosgrove
2 months 1 week ago

Will they answer the question, why anyone should be a Catholic? No one here ever provides an answer.

Nora Bolcon
2 months 1 week ago

Anyone who believes this church can continue with women having different or separate roles and sacraments is in a coma.

Sexism is sexual abuse and that is why women have always been ignored and voiceless in our church so ordination of women priests and bishops needs to happen immediately or we will continue to decay as that is an appropriate reaction to our choice to hate women.

Women are not putting up with it anymore! Diaconate is a lark and should be done away with as it is nothing more than a needless ministry used to make white, rich, western men feel more important than all women and all laity. These ministries should be given to trained laity everywhere in the world now and we should train lay women and men in all deacon ministries as it is lawful in the church for them to do all these ministries. Deacons merely get in the way of lay participation and we should not support this ever!

John Mack
2 months 1 week ago

In the Catholic church obedience trumps moral reasoning and ethical analysis. In Germany there will be a lot of talk, not much will change, the pope will visit in the hope that celebrity trumps disaffection, anyone liberal or semi-liberal will leave the church in time, places where the church is important to communal life will stay catholic but not listen to the clergy, many churches will close, and a few beloved Catholic institution will continue to gain support from ex-Catholics.

Jason & Amy Rogers
2 months 1 week ago

God bless the Germans and this effort to fan the fire of Vatican 2. May the Holy Spirit be present among them, and may the desire for reform sweep through the church.

Nora Bolcon
2 months 1 week ago

Amen to that!

Maria Patalano
2 months ago

Amen!!!! Jason and Amy,,,May Jesus bless these,,Brave,,courages,,German Catholics and their Bishops!!! It's about time to reform the catholic church!! If we keep leaving it in the vatican's hands..nothing will ever change!!!!!

Gino Dalpiaz
2 months 1 week ago

J’ACCUSE!

To my fellow priests in Germany I respectfully address the following examination of conscience:

How often do you attend a Holy Hour to pray before the Eucharistic Lord? When was the last time you went to confession? Do you still recite the Liturgy of the Hours every day, as you’re supposed to? Do you celebrate Mass every day, if possible? [“Do this in memory of Me.”] Do you make your annual retreat? In other words, do you pray?

“Without Me you can do nothing — With Me you can do all things.”

Michael Caggiano
2 months 1 week ago

I'm very confused when people talk about "implementing Vatican II" in contexts like this. Can you explain, using the documents of Vatican II, what you mean? Or, will you just appeal to a vapid "spirit" of the council that is divorced from the words the Church actually spoke during the Council?

Crystal Watson
2 months 1 week ago

Perhaps they mean that although a conservative pope stepped on the liberal spirit of V2, we should respect and go forward with what the majority of the bishops at V2 intended .... that contraception is ok, that priests don't have to be celibate, that the world can be the teacher of the church, etc.

Michael Caggiano
2 months 1 week ago

So, a vapid sense of what "the bishops at V2 intended". Right. And you, or anyone else, can discern that with laser precision.

Why isn't that the vision of the Church presented in the documents? At all? Or by ANY of the Popes since the close of the council?

Right, because none of that was intended by the Council.

Michael Caggiano
2 months 1 week ago

So, a vapid sense of what "the bishops at V2 intended". Right. And you, or anyone else, can discern that with laser precision.

Why isn't that the vision of the Church presented in the documents? At all? Or by ANY of the Popes since the close of the council?

Right, because none of that was intended by the Council.

Crystal Watson
2 months 1 week ago

Read about what actually happened at V2 - the final documents don't tell the whole story. I recommend "What Happened at Vatican II" by John O'Malley SJ ... https://www.amazon.com/What-Happened-at-Vatican-II/dp/0674047494/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1565311408&sr=1-1

Michael Caggiano
2 months 1 week ago

I don't care what individual prelates, or even a large block of them, hoped and wanted the Council to do. I care about what the Church actually said through the Council. No one tried to perpetuate the "spirit" of Nicea, Chalcedon, or Ephesus. They enacted what the Church actually said was to be done in the Councils themselves.

Crystal Watson
2 months 1 week ago

The church is more than the opinions of the guy in charge. That's one of the things decided on and "in the documents" of V2.

Michael Caggiano
2 months 1 week ago

Sure. not quite sure how that's relevant. The Documents of V2 were infact voted upon by all those present, and certainly were not unilateral papal statements.

Nick Heckman
2 months 1 week ago

The pope who closed Vatican II was the same one who upheld the ban on contraception so you’re going to have restructure your argument.

Crystal Watson
2 months ago

Conservative Paul took over when John died and squashed the liberal spirit of V2 that John had inspired.

Crystal Watson
2 months 1 week ago

I think what the German bishops are doing is a good thing. I wish I could say I believe they will actually be able to change things, given the foot-dragging of Francis. Maybe they will start another reformation, and we can leave this dying homophobic, misogynistic, child-molesting, sex-obsessed church behind for something closer to the V2 vision.

Andrew Strada
2 months 1 week ago

Or, maybe when they are done, they will have reduced average church attendance from 10% to 5%.

Michael Caggiano
2 months 1 week ago

I don't get why with an attitude like that you just don't become an Episcopalian.

Crystal Watson
2 months 1 week ago

I would rather see the Catholic church change for the better.

Michael Caggiano
2 months 1 week ago

That doesn't make sense. Either the Church is the Bride of Christ and her Traditions are right and truth, or it doesn't matter which "ecclesial community" you join because the concept of the Church on Earth is nebulous and inconsequential.

Michael Caggiano
2 months 1 week ago

That doesn't make sense. Either the Church is the Bride of Christ and her Traditions are right and truth, or it doesn't matter which "ecclesial community" you join because the concept of the Church on Earth is nebulous and inconsequential.

Crystal Watson
2 months 1 week ago

The church has changed a lot over the centuries. Did the fact that it once supported slavery and now doesn't, or that it once prohibited usury but now runs it's own bank, or that popes used to be married but now are celibate, etc., escape you?

Michael Caggiano
2 months 1 week ago

We'll start with the low-hanging fruit of popes being married. Crappy popes who do not practices the faith are a non-issue. It was never acceptable for popes to be married, and still isn't now.

The formal stance on usury hasn't changed, whether or not men in the Church follow that teaching is inconsequential. Show me one official doctrinal statement changing the Church's position on usury. Protip: You can't.

Re: Slavery. This is worth a read, since this topic cannot be glossed over in a few sentences: https://www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/did-the-church-ever-support-slavery

Crystal Watson
2 months 1 week ago

And in the early church there were NO priests and then later there were priests but they were married and now they are celibate, once the mass was celebrated in Latin but now it's celebrated in local languages, the church once supported capital punishment and the popes actually had people executed but now the church is against capital punishment, the church used to preach Limbo's existence but B16 had it dropped from existence. The church has changed and your semantical pretzelizing can't change the truth of that.

Nad Sav
2 months ago

Crystal, in the early church, there were priest (The first priest mentioned in the Bible, in the old testament, is Melchizedek, who was a priest of the Most High, and who officiated for Abraham).

Crystal Watson
2 months ago

Jewish priests, not Christian.

Maria Patalano
2 months ago

Michael!!! The Roman Catholic Church is only full of ''man made rules!!!!'' Thanks to these'' brave Germans''..it's time our catholic church reforms back to its' ''original norm.'' AMEN!!!!! GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!! GERMANY!!!!!!!!!!

Mike Macrie
2 months 1 week ago

I find it funny that half the comments here find the Pope Conservative and the other half find him too Liberal. What is he ?, just maybe he is what he should be in his time - attending his Flock.

Andrew Strada
2 months ago

Or maybe he is totally random and his response to a particular stimulus depends on what he had for breakfast that day.

Tim O'Leary
2 months ago

This non-synod is being controlled by non-believers (a sensus infidelium) and Pope Francis knows it. Seems like they want to adopt at least 2 Anglican attributes 1) democratic determination on doctrine and 2) demographic decline. I think the second will beat out the first.

There is no doctrinal guarantee for the German Church (as the reformation demonstrated), just the Catholic Church.

Maria Patalano
2 months ago

I think it's just awesome what these ''brave,,courageous,,'' German catholics along with thier bishops are doing!! It's about time!!! My prayers are out for them!!! It's time to reform the catholic church back to its' ''original roots''. I'm so happy Pope Francis is supporting Germany!!! If we leave everything in the vaticans hands..nothing will ever change!!! It's up to us the people of the church to team up together to bring in these great new changes in our church. Goooooooo!!! Germany!!!! We are all supporting you on this great ''synodal journey'' you have formed. I loved this article and shared it on my fb wall. Thank you and blessings to you all!!!!!!!

Tim O'Leary
2 months ago

Hilarious, Maria.

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of Pope Francis.]

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