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Catholic Church synod: How explosive are calls for reform?

October 3, 2023

The Catholic Church is in crisis worldwide. A major meeting of bishops in Rome will feature unusually open dialogue. Will that lead to further splits within the church?

St Peter's Basilica at sunset
St. Peter's Basilica is at the center of the Vatican Image: Daniel Kalker/picture alliance

Perhaps this small scene in Rome is symbolic of what is currently happening in the Catholic Church. A smiling Nathalie Becquart rides a bike that is too small for her toward St Peter's Square and the Vatican. The French 54-year-old was named by Pope Francis in early 2021 as undersecretary to the Synod of Bishops and she is the first woman with voting rights at the male-dominated meetings. Becquart is perhaps the most well-known woman in the Vatican.

She warmly greets everyone she meets in these few days before this next phase of the world synod, which begins on October 4. The workshop in Rome, during which about 450 delegates will discuss reforms and new ways of working together in the Catholic Church, will run through October 29. It is scheduled to continue in October 2024.

Nathalie Becquart
Nathalie Becquart is lobbying for more female participation in the Catholic ChurchImage: Alessandra Tarantino/AP Photo/picture alliance

Difficult topics are up for discussion: The exclusion of women from every ordained ministry of the Catholic Church, the vow of celibacy, how the church engages with homosexuals and same-sex couples, increasing its focus on people on the margins of society and the causes of sexual abuse in the church.

A different style in the Vatican

Will the Catholic Church move toward modernization? This is strongly debated within the church. At its core, it is about turning away from the absolute power that the First Vatican Council (active from 1869 to 1870) granted to the Pope.

In March 2013, the cardinals of the papal conclave chose Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope. Since then, under the name Pope Francis, he has acted very differently from his predecessor, often in highly symbolic ways. He restructured the Roman Curia, the Vatican's bureaucracy, which includes all authorities and institutions set up to help the Pope conduct his duties.

Now, at almost 87 years old, he called for a synod focusing on how believers work together and the future of the church. It demonstrates a different style of discussion and decision-making. For the first time, laypersons are taking part and have the right to cast votes — although in a far smaller number than bishops.

Bishops in an auditorium listening to the Pope reading from a script
Until now, bishops have largely kept to themselves at synods in the Vatican - like here in 2018 during the "youth synod"Image: DW/C. Strack

Synods are not a parliament

Many topics up for discussion in this globally focused synod correspond with the reforms discussed during Germany's "Synodal Path", a series of meetings and conferences between 2019 and 2023. The reform-oriented chairman of the Catholic German Bishops Conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing, wants the World Synods to grant the national bishops' conferences greater freedom.

His counterpart in Augsburg, Bishop Bertram Meier, compared the coming weeks to a school chemistry class. This could "lead to totally new resolutions, but also to explosions." Both Bätzing and Meier are attending the meeting in Rome, two of the five German bishops going.

So far, even under Pope Francis, there have not been many noticeable changes in church teachings and guidelines. Prominent theologians such as church historian Hubert Wolf do not expect much from this synod. In an interview with the Catholic News Agency, he spoke of "another debating club without legal powers."

A view of the audience and the podium at the fifth Synodal Assembly of German Catholics in March 2023, with Bishop Georg Baetzing (r) and the President of the Central Committee of German Catholics Irme Stetter-Karp on the podium
The "Synodale Weg" (in English, Synodal Path) meetings run by the Catholic Church in Germany triggered a major debateImage: Heiko Becker/REUTERS

Celibacy vow

The reform-oriented German church is not alone in its calls for change. Similar statements have come from many European countries, Latin America and parts of Asia. In Africa, the church tends to be more conservative, while in the US it seems almost split, with many conservatives acting openly against the Pope.

But in recent weeks some bishops from countries as varied as Australia, Belgium and the Dominican Republic have been pleading for an end to obligatory celibacy. Twenty or 30 years ago, a spiritual leader would have expected a strong rebuke from Rome for this. In 2019, a three-week synod on the state of the church in the Amazon region recommended to the Pope with a two-thirds majority to ordain married deacons as priests (and in doing so disregard the celibacy obligation for priests) in order to enable more services to be held in the vast region.

Another important topic is the involvement of women. A seventh of all votes will come from women. The question of more participation from them in the church has been raised worldwide, Nathalie Becquart has recently said in interviews.

The Catholic Church in Crisis

Sexual abuse within the Catholic Church

Former or active Catholics who were sexually abused as adolescents by men in the church have also come to Rome. They come from 26 countries on five continents, including New Zealand, Mexico, Canada, Congo, Slovenia and Spain. As a reminder: The impetus for the consultation processes and national synods was the mass-scale abuse of minors by people in the church.

The stories of abuse told by the victims and survivors are terrible. They continue to insist that the Vatican is still not doing enough. They demand that Catholic authorities grant them access to the files that have recorded details of perpetrators and their crimes.

The repeated call by Pope Francis for "zero tolerance" when it comes to the investigation of these crimes is known worldwide. That sounds like a strong quote for the media. But there are increasing signs that the Vatican — perhaps even the Pope himself is acting inconsistently.

The survivors of abuse are outraged that Pope Francis has called the Argentinian Archbishop Victor Fernandez to Rome as the new prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican department which deals with disciplinary matters among other things, and elevated him to the rank of cardinal. Fernandez has, according to representatives of abused people, covered up sexual violence by priests and protected perpetrators of abuse.

The spokesperson for the victims had one final appeal: Before the opening of the synod, Pope Francis should introduce a "binding and universal zero tolerance mandate in the church."

It would be a huge shock if he did this.

This article was originally written in German.

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