Where the Synodal Way will take the Catholics of Germany

The Catholic Church in Germany is on the verge of secession from the RCC. Photo: UOJ

At the "Synodal Way" Forum in Germany, Catholic hierarchs and laity made a number of odious decisions fraught with serious implications for the entire Catholic Church.

On September 30 - October 2, 2021, a meeting of Catholic hierarchs and laity was held in Germany within the framework of the "Synodale Weg" movement, at which a number of odious decisions were adopted, fraught with serious implications for the entire Catholic Church. The main ones are the abolition of the priesthood and the possibility for sodomites to get married.

What is the "Synodale Weg"?

In 2019, a movement called the Synodal Way emerged in the Catholic Church in Germany. This "way" was originally designed for a two-year term, but then, due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was extended until 2022 at least. Its content was supposed to be subject to a broad public discussion and the development of proposals on the following issues:

  • ecclesiastic authority;
  • sexual morality;
  • ministry and lifestyle of priests;
  • the role of women in the Church.

The founders of the movement declared that the goal of this "way" was to restore confidence in the Catholic Church, which was seriously undermined by scandals related to sexual abuse, including pedophilia by the Catholic clergy. However, it is not difficult to see that, for example, the issue of women's priesthood is very far from restoring trust, while the liberalization of sexual morality promotes sexual abuse rather than prevents it.

During the first conference of the "Synodal Way", which took place in early 2020 in Frankfurt, it was indicated that the goals of the movement are much more comprehensive than it was originally stated; this is a radical reform of Catholic Church doctrine and life. “The Synodal Way is an invitation to change perspective and learn. <...> There can be no beginning of the path, there can be no new beginning, no new evangelization without a change of vector," said the then Chairman of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Germany, Cardinal Reinhard Marx. In turn, the head of the Central Committee of German Catholics, Thomas Sternberg, said that the "Synodal Way" is "the beginning of a new way of church life", the presence of women in social, economic and political life should prompt genuine reforms in the Church.

The following decisions are proposed on the above issues of the "Synodal Way":

  • to make the power in the church more democratic and less centralized;
  • recognize gay marriage and change ecclesiastic teaching on LGBT issues;
  • abolish compulsory celibacy for the clergy;
  • introduce the female priesthood.

At the very beginning of the "way", Cardinal Cologne Rainer Maria Wielki, who has a reputation as a conservative, generally approved of this movement but warned that it could lead to a split within Catholicism. "The worst outcome would occur if the ‘Synodal Way’ led to a split <...> with the global (Catholic – Ed.) Church." <…> The emergence of something like the German National Church would be the most dreadful thing,” the cardinal said at the time.

How the current meeting proceeded

The meeting within the framework of the "Synodal Way" movement was quite remarkable. More than a year ago, conventional liberals struck a blow at conventional conservatives in the Catholic Church in Germany. The Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelky, and his two vicars, Bishops Dominik Schwaderlapp and Ansgar Puff, were accused of concealing the facts of sexual abuse of the clergy and actually patronizing the perpetrators. The Vatican was forced to send a commission to the diocese of Cologne, consisting of the Archbishop of Stockholm, Cardinal Anders Arborelius and the Bishop of Rotterdam, Johannes van den Hendé. They were in charge of the proceedings in Cologne from June 7 to 14, 2020 and the results of their activities were reported to Pope Francis. It took the Pope more than a year to make a decision on September 24, 2021, just before the meeting of the "Synodal Way" in Frankfurt: all three Cologne bishops were acquitted. At the same time, with regard to Cardinal Woelky, it was said that “it does not appear that he acted against the law when considering cases of sexual violence,” but it was emphasized that “within the general framework of resolving the issue, notably at the level of communication, Cardinal Woelky also made great errors. This significantly contributed to the crisis of confidence in the archdiocese."

As a result, Cardinal Woelky retained his post, but went on "sabbatical" until March 1, 2022. Regarding the auxiliary bishops of Cologne, Dominik Schwaderlapp and Ansgar Puff, the Vatican communiqué said that they had committed "managerial flaws" but had no intention to “hide abuse or ignore victims”. Bishop Puff returned to his duties, while Bishop Schwaderlapp was sent on a business trip for a year to Kenya, after which he is supposed to return to Cologne.

Most of the participants in the Synodal Way meeting resented such a decision. Even before the meeting began to discuss the agenda, the leadership decided to give time so that those present could vent their discontent with the Vatican's resolution regarding the Cologne bishops. Co-chairman of the meeting Thomas Sternberg said bluntly: "It is important that anger be expressed and responsibility taken." "We cannot just continue our agenda – we need a discussion,” said the co-chairman of the assembly, President of the Conference of German Bishops, Bishop Georg Bötzing of Limburg. He said he understood everyone who was "desperate and overwhelmed" by the Vatican's decision.

Further speeches in general can be characterized as persecution of the conservative point of view and those bishops who adhere to it. For example, congregation delegate Gudrun Lux stated she had come to the meeting feeling much rage and little hope: “What has this church come to if it is the same here as it is in the outside world: big guys can do whatever they want, little ones are hanged, and big ones are released." The "big guys" must be understood as the Cologne conservative bishops, in whose actions the inspectors from the more liberal Sweden and the Netherlands, sent by the Vatican, did not find anything reprehensible. Ulrike Heecken Heismann, a spokeswoman for the 400,000-member German Catholic Women, also spoke of the anger and mistrust that recent events in the Catholic Church have sparked among many Catholic women.

It is also interesting how the organizers decided to seat those present. Seating in the hall was not determined by rank or status, but alphabetically, so bishops, cardinals, and delegates from youth or secular organizations sat intermingled. Congregation co-chair Thomas Sternberg explained it this way: "We are here to help our church get rid of toxic structures." Very democratic, but fundamentally contrary to the church tradition of reverence for the priesthood, and even more so for the bishopric, which originates in the ancient Church. Nevertheless, the laity, who were given the floor, slammed the present clergy, accused the bishops of ignoring the faithful and of being predominantly engaged in their own affairs.

In general, despite the well-known liberalism of Pope Francis, the Vatican turned out to be too conservative for the Catholic Church in Germany. On the eve of the event, the Pope sent a letter to German Catholics, in which he allowed himself a cautious criticism of the "Synodal Way": "With pain I notice the growing erosion and deterioration of faith with all the ensuing consequences not only on the spiritual, but also at the social and cultural levels," he wrote and exhorted to engage in evangelism instead of false church reforms. Responding to this cautious criticism by the Vatican of the Synodal Way process, Bishop Georg Betzing said: “Holy Father, we do not process texts, but we write dreams <...> about how we want to change the Church in Germany: a Church being joint, gender equal and keeping abreast with with people.” This phrase addressed to Pope Francis sounds pretty ultimatum. On top of that, Thomas Sternberg basically called the criticism of the Vatican as "riots from Rome."

By and large, the current assembly was rather chaotic: opposite positions were expressed, amendments were rejected, questions were put to re-voting, and so on. It ended unexpectedly. After a positive vote on the recognition of gay union and the "abolition" of the priesthood, further meetings had to be closed due to the lack of a quorum. At the same time, 4 documents out of 16 planned were not considered. Speaking at the closing press conference, Georg Bötzing said he viewed the sudden ending as "an edifying moment", which he hoped would raise participants' awareness that the "Synodal Way" was entering an "important phase".

The outcome of the "Synodal Way" meeting

Let's dwell on two of the most controversial results: “the abolition of the priesthood” and the blessing of gay marriage.

The "abolition" of the priesthood is put in quotation marks for a reason, since it is not yet clear whether the participants in the German "Synodal Way" will demand the abolition of the priesthood as such, or whether the matter will be limited to expanding the participation of the laity in worship and other sacred activities. But the question is actually posed in this way – does the Catholic Church basically need the sacred priesthood? 95 participants voted in favor of instructing the responsible group to investigate this issue precisely in this formulation, 94 voted against, with 9 abstentions. Thus, the working group of the Synodal Forum “Priestly Existence Today” was tasked with “discussing” this issue. What conclusion they will come to is still unknown, but the likelihood that the priesthood will be proposed to be abolished (without quotation marks) is quite high.

The question is actually posed in this way: does the Catholic Church basically need the sacred priesthood?

There is logic here, but it is simple and primitive. As long as the clergy allows sexual abuse of their position and the episcopate covers it all up or is possibly involved in it, then the abolition of the clergy will radically solve this problem. It is much like treating a headache with a guillotine, but that’s the logic behind it.

Helmut Hoping, professor of dogmatics at the University of Freiburg im Breisgau, said in an interview with CNA Deutsch: "The position of the priest in the Eucharist is being questioned, the liturgy promotes sexual violence."

As for the blessing of gay marriages, a relevant proposal was included in the text of the Synodal Forum “Live in successful relationships – live love in sexuality and partnership,” which was adopted by an overwhelming majority – 168 votes out of 214 participants, which is very significant. Moreover, it was proposed not only to bless such unions, but to let them have the same "sacrament" as for heterosexual couples. Forum member Mara Klein, a member of the Catholic student community, said, "It would be appropriate for the family if we took this step and made a call to completely decriminalize the sexuality of non-heterosexual couples and allow it as a sacrament."

At the same time, the chairman of this forum, Bishop Helmut der von Aachen, said that in the future we would like to proceed “from human” and no longer allow natural law to influence the assessment of sexuality, as the Church had done for 2000 years.

What's next?

All the above decisions of the Synodal Way meeting, which, albeit they are just calls for discussion and not final decisions, are so revolutionary that even for the liberal Francis and the current composition of the papal curia, they are too much. Therefore, if German Catholics do not harness their ardor, the "Synodal Way" will lead to an unequivocal split in the Catholic Church. However, many factors indicate that they will not tone it down. For example, after the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a document in March 2021 that categorically rejected the possibility of blessing same-sex marriage, German-speaking theologians and clergy protested and called for a nationwide protest on May 10. On this day, "blessing ceremonies" were held for same-sex couples in about 80 cities. Many of these ceremonies were attended by priests in liturgical vestments and passages from the Gospel were read. The youth church of Würzburg staged a performance of "anger and sorrow" after receiving a document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. There, a stylized “wailing wall” was installed in the altar and everyone who wished was asked to write down “everything that annoyed you” and put it there.

If German Catholics do not tone down, then the "Synodal Way" will lead to an unequivocal split in the Catholic Church.

In June 2021, a group of Catholics from the Diocese of Essen sent an official request (Dubium) to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in which they asked to answer the question if the Catholic Church in Germany already in schism with the rest of the Catholic Church or not. The Dubium inquiry form assumes that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith must answer unequivocally, yes or no. True though, in this case, the Congregation has no obligation to answer. One of the signatories to the request, Andre Wichmann from Bochum, said in an interview with CNA Deutsch: "From my point of view, the split has already occurred." It should also be noted that both in Germany itself and beyond its borders there are many opponents of the "Synodal Way" and those reforms that this "way" proposes. For example, Klara Steinbrecher, spokeswoman for the conservative women's organization of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany, Maria 1.0, created to counter the liberal Maria 2.0, described the Synodal Way meeting as follows: “What we saw here in Frankfurt was nothing more than a frontal assault on the church, caused by theological ignorance and an explicitly embarrassing curtsey before the secular audience."

What the reaction of the Vatican to the meeting of the "Synodal Way" on September 30 - October 2, 2021 in Germany will be like is still unknown. The main Vatican News website ignored this meeting in its English version on the whole, suggesting that the Roman curia is in a state of confusion over this issue. In any case, everything will become clear only in 2023, when the "Synodal Way" completes its work and submits the duly articulated and formalized requirements for the reform of the Catholic Church to the Vatican for consideration.

However, one cannot fail to notice a certain synchronicity in the emergence of the threat of schism among both Catholics and the Orthodox Church. In 2018, the anti-canonical intervention of Patriarch Bartholomew in ecclesiastic affairs in Ukraine threatened the unity of Orthodoxy. And immediately in 2019 in Germany, one of the most financially significant parts of the Catholic Church, the "Synodal Way" process was launched, which threatens to split Catholicism. Although the ground for all these events had been prepared for many decades, these threats showed their faces at the same time. Moreover, in both cases, Catholic and Orthodox, the dilemma looks the same – whether to maintain unity at the cost of the modified doctrine and moral compromises or to remain faithful to dogmas and tradition and allow schism.

Anyway, the following scenario looks most probable at the moment: in Orthodoxy, the majority of Local Churches will remain faithful to the dogmas and canons of the Church, and a much smaller part will fall into schism. The Vatican is likely to choose a compromise format. Anyway, this is only an assumption and remains to be seen in the near future.

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