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Colleen DulleJune 24, 2021

Some Catholics in the United States are deeply concerned about the German church’s “synodal way.” A quick YouTube search returns titles like, “What is going on in Germany!?!?!” “English Bishop WARNS Vatican ‘Stop German Bishops, We’re Heading to Schism!’” and “Vatican in Crisis Management Mode Over Catholic Bishops in Germany.”

Is any of this true? Not really. For this week’s special episode of America’s “Inside the Vatican” podcast, I spoke with four German Catholics who understand the synodal way well: A bishop involved in the synod’s forum on power, a theologian involved in the forum on women’s roles, one of the synodal way’s spiritual guides, and a critic of the process. The four have different ideas about what the German church needs, but all of them believe that the synodal way is a good-faith effort to ensure the future of the Catholic Church in Germany—and none of them believe there is any risk of schism.

Listen to our special deep-dive episode of “Inside the Vatican” below, and keep reading for answers to some of the most common questions about the German synodal path.

What is a “synodal way,” anyway?

In brief, the “synodal way” or “synodal path” (German: “Synodaler Weg”) is a group of 230 people gathered to discuss what they see as some of the most pressing issues facing the Catholic Church in Germany. The group includes every German bishop, plus representatives from religious orders, lay movements, dioceses and parishes, universities, consultants from other churches and experts in the fields being discussed.

The group is focused on four study areas: power and the separation of powers in the church; relationships and sexuality; priestly ministry, including conversations about celibacy; and women in ministries and offices in the church.

The entire group of 230 has only met twice: once in person and once over Zoom because of the Covid-19 pandemic. But there are “forums” of about 40 people focused on each of the study areas that work between the large group sessions.

The synodal path is structured loosely to allow room for participants to evaluate what is and isn’t working and make changes as they go. It is not clear yet when or how the process will end. It was originally intended to last about two years, from 2019 to 2021, but the pandemic delayed the process. The group hopes to meet again in the fall and to vote on resolutions by spring 2022, so that their recommendations can be Germany’s contribution to the worldwide synodal process initiated by Pope Francis that will conclude in 2023.

How is this different from a regular synod?

The German synodal path is intentionally not structured like other synods. In an ordinary synod, bishops gather to discuss a topic of interest to the church in their region, discuss possible solutions, sometimes with input from laypeople, and then vote on a series of proposals. The German synodal path was organized by the German bishops in collaboration with the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), the largest of several groups in Germany that represent lay Catholics.

“Legally, it is not binding; morally, it is,” said synodal way participant Dr. Juliane Eckstein.

The bishops and lay representatives wanted laypeople to be able to vote on decisions in the synodal process, so they eschewed the usual synodal structure in favor of one in which both lay people and bishops could vote and be represented in equal numbers. Because church law does not allow laypeople to impose a decision on a bishop, the synod’s decisions will be, at most, recommendations. Each bishop will have to decide on his own whether and how to implement the group’s decisions in his own diocese.

Of course, there will be pressure on the bishops from the lay faithful to enact the changes after such a long consultative process. As Dr. Juliane Eckstein, a researcher at the Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology in Frankfurt, Germany, and a participant in the forum on women’s roles in the church, said pithily: “Legally, it is not binding; morally, it is.”

What proposals are the synodal path participants voting on?

The synodal path has made headlines because of its open discussions about topics that have been considered taboo in the church, like women’s ordination, which Pope John Paul II declared not open to discussion in 1994, and priestly celibacy. Pope Francis has encouraged participants in the synods he has convened not to consider any topic as taboo but to speak openly and frankly, which the German synodal path is doing.

The group will vote on proposals on three levels:

  1. Local proposals that each bishop can implement in his own diocese. Judging from the forum reports, these recommendations will likely include streamlining parish and diocesan administration; employing laypeople in their areas of expertise, like finance, so that priests and bishops can focus more on pastoral needs; and ensuring that laypeople are involved in decision-making.
  2. Changes to canon law. The German church recognizes that it cannot change teachings that affect the whole church, so the synodal way plans to recommend that Pope Francis make some changes. According to Dr. Eckstein, one change to canon law the group may recommend is loosening some of the legal ties between ordination and administration, like those that give a priest final say over a parish’s finances.
  3. An ecumenical council. Some changes the German synodal way is likely to propose, like women’s ordination, would require consultation with the whole church. So, according to Dr. Eckstein, the synodal path plans to propose an ecumenical council—the first since Vatican II.

The recommendations for changes to canon law and for a council will be sent to Rome for the pope to consider and will also be included in Germany’s contribution to the global synod in 2023, where they will be considered on a continental level, along with contributions from other European countries, and then on the global level at the Vatican.

Why is this happening?

Germany has seen a massive disaffiliation of Catholics since the scandal of sexual abuse by clergy broke out there in 2010. Last year, 402,000 Catholics left the church, the largest single-year exodus in history.

In order to understand the causes of the abuse crisis, the German bishops commissioned a study in 2018. That study revealed thousands of abuse cases and made clear to the bishops that abuse was enabled not just by individuals but by the church’s power structures and the culture of secrecy around sexuality. So, within a year, they resolved to convene the synodal way, focusing on four areas pertaining to power and sexuality.

“Sexual abuse has only one origin, [and it is] in the wrong use of power in our church,” said Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, Germany.

“Sexual abuse has only one origin, [and it is] in the wrong use of power in our church,” Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck, one of the leaders of the synodal path’s forum on power, told me on the “Inside the Vatican” podcast. “Some of the bishops, some of the priests, didn’t do their office in the right way, without at the same time being stopped by the hierarchy and other people, other faithful. And so this is not only a question of empowerment and the question of power of bishops and priests, but also...the empowerment of the laypeople.”

What are critics saying?

The two main concerns about the synodal way are that it is flouting church teaching and that its structure is ineffective.

It is true that the synodal path is discussing changes to doctrine; however, every expert I spoke with—even one outspoken critic—reiterated that the German church has no intention of breaking from Rome or attempting to change doctrine without Rome’s approval, even if none of their proposals are accepted.

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Some have pointed to the recent movement in Germany to bless same-sex couples in defiance of the Vatican as a sign that the German church is willing to break from Rome, but the German bishops’ conference opposed the blessings. The movement revealed the tension that sometimes exists between bishops and the progressive grassroots in Germany, but the synodal path is generally a place where those groups, among others, are seeking common ground.

The other criticism is of the structure: Dr. Thomas Schueller, the director of the Institute of Canon Law at the University of Münster, explained that he is concerned that the synodal path could be ineffective because its structure is not binding for the bishops and that its looser structure could lead to the path’s decisions being disregarded in Rome. Dr. Schueller said he would have preferred a Rome-approved synodal structure like the one employed at the Synod of Würzburg in the 1970s, in which both bishops and laypeople could vote.

“The talk of the schism in some Catholic circles in the USA is a vicious and unfounded defamation,” said Dr. Thomas Schueller, a canon lawyer and critic of the synodal path.

Even as a critic of the process, Dr. Schueller believes, like every expert interviewed for this piece, that the cries of schism from some in the United States have gotten out of hand. “The talk of the schism in some Catholic circles in the USA is a vicious and unfounded defamation,” Dr. Schueller wrote in an email interview. Acknowledging that “we quarrel as a brother and sister” about issues like sexuality, he said; “every local church has to see what problems it has to solve. There may be a legitimate polyphonic variety of Catholic answers here. Nobody in Germany questions our creed or the papal-episcopal constitution of our church.”

What does Pope Francis think about all this?

Like Dr. Schueller, the Vatican was not happy with the synodal path’s decision not to follow a traditional synod structure, which would have allowed much more oversight by Rome of the process and topics of conversation.

When the study areas focused on authority and sexuality were announced in the summer of 2019, Pope Francis wrote a letter to the church in Germany warning against the German church’s temptation to independence. Because of the German church’s immense wealth—the Diocese of Cologne’s net worth is greater than the Vatican’s—and its intellectual contributions from the time of the Reformation through Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the pope wrote, there is a temptation “to get out of its problems alone, relying solely on its own strengths, methods and intelligence,” which can end end up “multiplying and nurturing the evils it wanted to overcome.”

The pope urged the synod to make evangelization its primary goal. In response, two German bishops drafted a proposal for a synodal path focused on evangelization, with study groups on subjects like youth ministry, but the proposal was voted down. The sense from the majority of the group was that sorting out the tough questions at the root of the abuse crisis was the only way to regain the church’s credibility so that it could evangelize effectively.

“We always hear about evangelization, we should evangelize.... This is true, but we feel like hypocrites doing this if what we are spreading is an abusive system,” Dr. Eckstein, a member of the forum on women, said. “Abusive not only in terms of sexual relations [but] also abusive in respect to power and how power is controlled and how power is abused in so many ways. We just can’t be evangelical if we don’t start with ourselves.”

Shortly after the pope’s letter, the Vatican followed up with some guidelines, saying that the synod could not make binding decisions for the church. A representative from ZdK responded that the Vatican’s concerns had already been addressed in a newer version of the planning documents, and that, indeed, the process is not binding.

How has Pope Francis responded to the developments of the process since his letter? He has not made any official comments, although many people took a comment he made in November 2020 as a reference to the synodal path. He said:

At times, I feel a great sadness when I see a community that, with good will, takes a wrong path because it thinks it is making the church through gatherings, as if it were a political party: the majority, the minority, what this one thinks of this or that or the other.... “This is like a synod, a synodal path that we must take.” I ask myself: “Where is the Holy Spirit there? Where is prayer? Where is communitarian love? Where is the Eucharist?” Without these four coordinates, the church becomes a human society, a political party.

America’s Vatican correspondent, Gerard O’Connell, and Bernd Hagenkord, S.J., a longtime Vatican News editor who was elected by ZdK to be a spiritual advisor to the synodal path, do not believe the pope’s comments were intended as a criticism of the German synodal path.

Mr. O’Connell said on “Inside the Vatican”: “I always take as my starting point here that the pope, having considered and understood what the Germans were trying to do, wrote a letter saying: ‘Here, I give you some advice, but go ahead. It’s good to discuss. Here’s some advice.’ And he laid down some markers. And of course, if they totally ignored the markers, that’s another question. But I do not see this.”

The untold story

Ultimately, the image that emerged in my conversations with Father Hagenkord, Dr. Eckstein, Dr. Schueller, Bishop Overbeck and Mr. O’Connell paint a very different picture from the one that appears in some media outlets in the United States. Rather than a church that is convinced of its own strength and independence and determined to push forward in defiance of church teaching and at the peril of church unity, a closer look at the German synodal path finds a church that sees its deep woundedness and that is willing to work together despite differences of opinion in order to address the root problems of the abuse crisis so that it can become credible and attractive and draw in new believers once again.

Father Hagenkord emphasized that the process, although not immune to political jockeying, is ultimately a work of spiritual discernment.

“Yes, there are people with an agenda,” he said. “And you find them talking to microphones a lot. But the majority of the participants don’t have an agenda as such, other than moving forward, finding solutions together...and listening to the Spirit so that there will be a church, there will be the Lord’s church tomorrow as well.”

Listen to past deep dive episodes of "Inside the Vatican":

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