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Catholic Church: Germany's controversial Synodal Path

March 13, 2023

A small revolution? No, but the German Synodal Path has paved the way for reform of Catholic Church practices regarding same-sex couples and lay preaching.

Women protesting with pink crosses outside the assembly's venue in Frankfurt on March 9, 2023
Catholic women in Germany have been lobbying hard for more rightsImage: Arne Dedert/dpa/picture alliance

"The Holy Spirit expresses itself, above all, in the wisdom of an assembly," said the president of the German Bishops' Conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing, at the end of the plenary assembly of the Synodal Path in Frankfurt Cathedral on Saturday.

Three years ago, at the end of January 2020, a service in the same building marked the beginning of the first assembly of the Synodal Path: a long conversation between Christian laity and bishops to make the Catholic Church, which had been heavily shaken by a series of abuse scandals, more credible and fit for the future.

Head of the German Bishops' Conference, Bishop Georg Baetzing (r) and President of the Central Committee of German Catholics Irme Stetter-Karp at the fifth Synodal Assembly of German Catholics in Frankfurt
The fifth Synodal Assembly of German Catholics yielded some progress on reform measuresImage: Heiko Becker/REUTERS

Synodality and synods have been high on the agenda in the Catholic Church since Pope Francis took office 10 years ago. Meaning "assembly," these words' etymology goes back to the Greek for "common path." The term "together" is also important to the pope. Looking at challenges together; arguing, praying, and finding a path together. But also staying together.

In 2019, Germany's approximately 65 Catholic bishops unanimously decided to embark on this Synodal Path. But their unanimity vanished even before the first stage of the journey began because a smaller bloc of church superiors opposed opening up and introducing reforms. 

Nevertheless, a reform process eventually got underway. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, there were five plenary assemblies and regional conferences, thousands of hours of discussions, and countless kilograms of discussion papers.

Lessons learned from sexual abuse scandals

Right from the start, the core idea was to work through the reasons for abuse and sexual violence in the church to prevent them occurring in future. In other words, the bishops also wanted to come to terms with the pitfalls of clerical power and abuse of power.

But then many other issues came up: Achieving gender justice in the church; making it possible for women to be ordained for church offices; practicing respect instead of exclusion with regard to sexual minorities; allowing the participation of congregations in church decisions. It was said again and again that this was a modernization process to bring the Catholic Church into the present.

Catholic Church and reform

IAt the beginning, observers feared that the Synodal Path might fail. Occasionally, individual, mostly conservative, representatives withdrew. Sometimes, there were warning signals from Rome. And some clerics in other European countries perceived the determined action of the German Catholics as a threat or a challenge — and tried to keep their distance.

Reactionary circles and well-known bishops abroad labeled the German Synodal Path as unique: The Catholic Church in Germany, the land of the Reformation, was accused of apostasy. 

That changed. At the last plenary assembly of the Synodal Path, there were official representatives from Australia, the Philippines, Tanzania, Peru,  Belgium, Finland, Sweden and Italy.

Global dimension of the crisis

It is increasingly clear that the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church have a worldwide dimension. Victims have spoken out on every continent. And this has plunged the church into crisis in many regions.

In Germany, the Synodal Path has passed a total 15 resolutions, some of which have very concrete effects. Employees whose lifestyles do not conform to church guidelines can no longer be dismissed, for example, if they enter into a same-sex civil partnership or remarry after a divorce.

The Catholic Church also wants to recognize gender diversity. The training of clergy is to be reformed. And soon, in many places, women will be allowed to preach. The fact that there will now also be blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples has been celebrated as a success — although some courageous clergymen have already been practicing this for a while.

But the Synodal Path has not reached an agreement on revising celibacy regulations for priests or allowing female deacons.

This time, the meeting took pains to avoid a scandal like that which had erupted at the fourth plenary assembly in Frankfurt when a text reformulating the Catholic sexual doctrine according to modern knowledge was put to a vote. It acquired the necessary two-thirds majority of the 220 delegates, but not that of the participating bishops. So it failed.

This time, bishops insisted, up to the very last minute before the final session, on more cautious formulations and opposed concrete demands. At the same time, the frustration of the other delegates was greater. The plenary assembly appeared tense, even aggressive, for hours on end.

The Catholic Church in Crisis

The pope's critical gaze

Pope Francis and the Vatican have been repeatedly criticalof the consultative process of the Catholic Church in Germany and its controversial measures.

On occasion, the Vatican has been seen to have been instrumentalized by archconservative German bishops. But it is not new that the Vatican is wary of the Catholic Church in Germany, as it is financially strong and tends to be considered theologically liberal. After all, 500 years ago it was Martin Luther, a reformer from central Germany, who caused the Roman Church to split, giving rise to the Protestant Church.

During the meeting in Frankfurt,  Bishop of Antwerp Johan Bonny described how the Catholic bishops of Belgium had confronted the Vatican. In the Belgian Catholic Church, church blessings for same-sex couples have been possible since last year — although a good year earlier the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith expressly forbade such blessings.

But, Bonny explained, a few months ago, during a visit by the Belgian bishops to the Vatican, they were not confronted by the pope: "This is their decision," Francis said. And he stressed how important it was to him that the bishops were united. Bonny's remarks showed how much the Catholic Church is on the move. And they also show how unpredictable the Vatican is.

Bishop Georg Bätzing (l), and German bishops speaking to Pope Francis (r) in front of  about the Synodal Way in the Vatican.
Bishop Georg Bätzing (l) presented Germany's Synodal Path to Pope Francis (r) in the Vatican.Image: Deutsche Bischofskonferenz/dpa/picture alliance

World meeting in Rome

In light of the abuse scandals and the issue of modernization, the Vatican has urged each of the national bishops' conferences around the world to discuss ideas for reform. 

In recent weeks, international church meetings have been held to pool the results. And the first of two worldwide synods is scheduled for October in Rome. Perhaps the Roman Catholic Church has never been such a collection of different perspectives and expectations that also favor different theologies. It is clear that Francis is pushing for an open church in times of global injustice, one that is closer to the plight of people.

In Frankfurt, the sheer relief could be felt at the end of the Synodal Path. "We are now switching the format of synodality to be permanent," said Bishop Bätzing. And the president of the Central Committee of German Catholics, Irme Stetter-Karp, who had jointly chaired the Synodal Path with Bätzing, said: "Whoever takes the abuse scandal seriously must clearly work on structural changes."

Structural changes are not revolutionary, but they are tough work.

This article was originally written in German.

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Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C