German bishops’ general secretary: The church should not fear the ‘synodal way’

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, Germany, and Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising distribute Communion during Cardinal Woelki's installation Mass at the cathedral in Cologne on Sept. 20, 2014. (CNS photo/Jorg Loeffke, KNA) Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, Germany, and Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising distribute Communion during Cardinal Woelki's installation Mass at the cathedral in Cologne on Sept. 20, 2014. (CNS photo/Jorg Loeffke, KNA) 

In an exclusive interview with America, the general secretary of the German Bishops’ Conference, Hans Langendörfer, S.J., shared his views via email about the German church’s “synodal way,” which is scheduled to begin on the first day of Advent, and addressed controversies surrounding it.

“We are emphasizing through the synodal way the community and bonds of all believers—not the difference between clergy and laity. All of us are baptized and confirmed. All of us stand in the same mission to witness the Gospel,” Father Langendörfer said. “We therefore want to be a listening church that courageously and freely grapples with the issues that are unavoidable if the church wants to reach people further and not dismiss itself from reality.”

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The synodal way was developed as a joint effort between the German Bishops’ Conference and the Central Committee for German Catholics, a lay leadership collective known as the ZdK, in response to a public outcry following the leak in September 2018 of a confidential document that detailed nearly 3,700 cases of alleged sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy over a period of 68 years. The 350-page document, known in Germany as the M.H.G. Study, was the result of an independent research project commissioned by the German Bishops’ Conference seeking to define the extent of the abuse crisis in Germany. The conference was severely criticized for withholding the results of the study from the public.

“Last year, a study of ours was published with a title that could by no means be taken lightly: ‘Sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests, deacons and male members of orders in the domain of the German Bishops’ Conference.’ Once again, trust in the church was deeply shaken,” Father Langendörfer told America.

Father Langendörfer: “We are emphasizing through the synodal way the community and bonds of all believers—not the difference between clergy and laity. All of us stand in the same mission to witness the Gospel.”

Over half the victims described in the report were 13 or younger at the time of the alleged abuse, which implicated an estimated 1,670 Catholic priests and included abuse cases reported from 1946 up to 2014.

“Within the study, the theory was expressed that influential factors which fostered the abuse were created by the church itself and, in this sense, are systematic,” Father Langendörfer said. “They concern primarily the exercise of power within the church and the deficit of opportunities for everyone to participate. Concisely put: clericalism.”

The release of the M.H.G. report prompted a wave of police investigations and criminal complaints from prosecutors against Germany’s 27 dioceses, in addition to a response from Germany’s federal government that required the German church to implement a standardized file management system and to cooperate with an independent review on institutional cover-ups.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German Bishops’ Conference, formally apologized to the public on behalf of the church, and during his New Year’s sermon for 2019 promised to take concrete steps toward reform, saying that the church needed to commit to new thinking in terms of change and renewal.

In 2018, 216,078 German Catholics officially left the church in by formally deregistering their Catholic faith with local governments—representing a 29 percent increase over 2017 departures and the second highest annual number of formal church withdrawals since the end of World War II. Hoping to stem the exodus, members of the German laity represented by the ZdK have demanded a more active role in church management.

Germany’s synodal way is a sui generis process. It does not intend to infringe on Canon Law, according to Father Langendörfer, but to sponsor an opportunity for German Catholics to debate issues of concern to the local church

Father Langendörfer believes members of the German Catholic laity have reached a point where they will not accept being denied the right to question the decisions of church leaders any longer.

“Believers are demanding the right to debate freely in this manner, without church teachings hastily bringing down a ban on thinking,” Father Langendörfer said.

Another theory advanced by the report, according to Father Langendörfer, is that “the attitude of the church toward sexuality could have negative repercussions.” The impact of the report, he said, has raised in many minds questions about “the obligatory vow of celibacy” and “the restricted opportunities for the participation of women within the services and ministries of the church.”

“These themes are ones that our bishops want to address,” Father Langendörfer said, “and specifically together with representatives of the laity.”

“The great majority of the bishops regard this as an unshirkable demand of their duty as shepherds,” said Father Langendörfer. “They want to correspond to the call as Christ has called them to do as bishops.” It was agreed, he said, that a two-year “synodal way” of discussion of these themes would be the best way to proceed.

Germany’s synodal way is a sui generis process. It does not intend to infringe on Canon Law, according to Father Langendörfer, but to sponsor an opportunity for German Catholics to debate issues of concern to the local church that are at the same time potentially applicable to the universal church. He reiterated Cardinal Marx’s comment that “certainly there will be no lone German path,” emphasizing that German bishops do not intend to make any decisions without Rome. Instead, the results of the discussions in the form of votes and input “that could be helpful for the universal church” would be communicated to Rome and then it would be up to church leaders how to respond.

In a letter in June to the German bishops, Pope Francis urged them to proceed wisely in their efforts toward synodality by ensuring that the dialogue remained a spiritual journey, guided by prayer and centered around the Holy Spirit, while acknowledging the need for open debates. “We are all aware that we are living not only in an age of change but also of epochal change that raises new and old questions which call for a justified and necessary debate,” wrote Pope Francis.

Father Langendörfer said the bishops are following the Holy Father’s guidance. “We understand the synodal way to be an intrinsically spiritual process. Naturally it will be accompanied by the celebration of the Eucharist and collective prayer,” he said.

Two spiritual directors will help lead the process—one representing the clergy and one the laity. One is Bernd Hagenkord, S.J., who led the German-speaking department of Radio Vatican (called Vatican News since 2017) for 10 years. Father Hagenkord returned to Germany in August and has undertaken leadership of a Jesuit community in Munich.

Despite bleak assessments from press in other nations about the church in Germany, Father Langendörfer believes that German Catholics in fact enjoy a “robust spiritual life.”

The other spiritual director is a laywoman—Maria Boxberg, a board member of the Gemeinschaft Christlichen Lebens, Germany’s national branch of the Christian Life Community, a lay organization dedicated to following Ignatian spirituality.

Father Langendörfer directly responded to controversies surrounding the synodal way, including the assembly’s purported ability to make “binding” decisions and its emphasis on the role of women in the church. These points have drawn criticism from some U.S. Catholic news organizations in recent months.

The binding decisions made by the synodal way will not be about establishing teachings, but about determining the overall results of the conference and establishing common opinions, according to Father Langendörfer. For example, participants can express their opinions about the distribution of power within the church hierarchy or about other topics, and then agree about the overall results of their discussions. He explained “binding decisions” as detailed by the synodal way statutes “are to be understood in this case as the binding, definite result of an opinion-shaping process.”

After participants agree on shared opinions, Father Langendörfer said, “it will be determined which suggestions, concepts and positions the debate has led to and what the participants want for the future.” Father Langendörfer said the consensus positions that emerge from the synodal way will have no binding power in canon law.

“It is up to [church authorities] to determine whether and how they will draw consequences from the results,” he said, expressing his hope that the results will be helpful to the Catholic Church at large.

With regard to the hot-button issue of women’s ordination, Father Langendörfer said the synodal way process will not end in a change in the German church about ordaining women—despite the general support among laypeople in Germany for such an outcome—but could result in recommendations for the universal church to consider. He expressed some puzzlement at the strong reaction from some quarters in the church to even the suggestion about hosting a discussion of the issue.

“As in every human community, there are discussions within the bishops’ conference—including controversial discussions and differences of opinion. Thanks be to God for this!”

“I cannot understand the anxieties,” Father Langendörfer said. “The church is unthinkable without women. That is something the Virgin Mary has already taught us. And I will also repeat it again here: There will be no lone German path—certainly not on the question of ordaining women. However, discussions about this topic are not forbidden.”

Father Langendörfer said the German Church has always placed importance on the role of women in the church and continues to do so. An estimated 23 percent of leadership positions in German ordinariates (such as administrative managers and department leaders) are held by women, he said. That is “a good number, which continues to improve,” according to Father Langendörfer.

“We are thankful for the charisma and competencies that women bring with them and introduce, for example as department managers in the ordinariates,” Father Langendörfer said, adding that the German Church is open to women getting more involved in parish leadership in roles that do not involve sacramental duties accorded to priests by canon law.

Above all, Father Langendörfer believes Catholics should have a more open attitude when it comes to women, urging “less anxiety and more courage and trust in these questions regarding women.”

Strong disagreements regarding the synodal way have emerged among the German bishops over the past year but Father Langendörfer denied that they represented disunity within the bishops’ conference.

“As in every human community, there are discussions within the bishops’ conference—including controversial discussions and differences of opinion. Thanks be to God for this!” Father Langendörfer said.

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, archbishop of Cologne, one of the most outspoken critics of the synodal way, has raised the issue of a potential schism. And divergences became evident during the bishops’ recent plenary assembly in Fulda.

“The past plenary assembly in Fulda has demonstrated how intensive and with what good community spirit we have tackled theological questions,” Father Langendörfer said. “All bishops are participating in the synodal way.”

Cardinal Woelki delivered a sermon focusing on the persecution of truth-seeking St. Nicholas of Flüe by his colleagues, while Bishop Stefan Hesse’s subsequent homily likened the synodal way to the travels of Jesus while comparing reluctant journeyers to Herod Antipas. Father Langendörfer said he views the differences in thinking as positive and stimulating debates.

Despite bleak assessments from press in other nations about the church in Germany, Father Langendörfer believes that German Catholics in fact enjoy a “robust spiritual life.”

“Over 23 million people in our nation belong to the Catholic Church. We are a noteworthy majority in society and want to do our part to raise questions in search of God, to provide opportunities for those seeking religion and to take a position on important societal and political issues,” he said. “Above all, we want to perpetuate and strengthen religious living in a Christian sense.”

A number of German Catholic lay associations have been enthusiastically gearing up to take part in the synodal way. These include the Association of German Catholic Youth (Bund der Deutschen Katholischen Jugend), an organization representing 17 German Catholic youth groups with an estimated 660,000 children, youth and young adult members; and the Association of German Catholic Women (Katholischer Deutscher Frauenbund, or K.D.F.B.), an independent laywomen’s group with an estimated 180,000 members.

The format of the synodal way has already been organized. Four forums, and their leaders and participants, have been announced on the German Bishops’ Conference website. Each forum will be led by a Catholic bishop and a corresponding lay leader.

The first forum is titled “Power, Participation, and Separation of Powers” and will be led by Claudia Lücking-Michel, ZdK’s vice president, and Bishop Karl-Heinz Wiesemann of Speyer. The second forum is called “Sexual Morality” and will be chaired by Birgit Mock, K.D.F.B.’s vice president, and Bishop Georg Batzing of Limburg.

The third forum is titled “Priestly Way of Life” and will be led by Bishop Felix Genn of Münster and Stephan Buttgereit, managing director for the Catholic Association for Social Services in Germany. The fourth forum is called “Women in the Ministries and Offices of the Church” and will be chaired by Dr. Dorothea Sattler of the University of Münster and Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Osnabrück.

The synodal way discussions will begin this year on the first day of Advent, following an assembly of the ZdK on Nov. 22 in Bonn. Plenary assemblies are scheduled to take place in St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral in Frankfurt from Jan. 30 to Feb. 1, 2020, and from Sept. 3 to Sept. 5, 2021.

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