This is part one of a series looking into Germany’s Synodal Path, a process launched by the bishops’ conference in 2019 in an attempt to respond to the clerical sexual abuse crisis.
ROME – Two years ago, the German Church embarked on its most ambitious effort yet to fight clerical sexual abuse and to stop the hemorrhaging of faithful that followed. As the program took shape, it seemed to adopt a much more sweeping agenda touching on virtually every aspect of Catholic life.
As what’s come to be called the German “Synodal Path” begins forwarding its mid-term conclusions to Rome, many lay activists and bishops are describing the process as an historic and inspiring moment, a potential springtime of sweeping reform and renewal in Catholic life.
The need for a comprehensive initiative that would help address the clerical sexual abuse crisis in Germany, that has seen hundreds of new allegations in recent years, is not called into question, even by the path’s most critical members.
Many of those taking part in the process believe it will bring reform and help restore credibility in the Catholic Church, particularly seeing that according to a poll by German Catholic news agency KNA, the over 200,000 people who left the Church between 2018 and 2019 did so motivated primarily by the abuse scandals. In addition, a recent survey showed almost 30 percent of the German Catholics are now considering leaving the Church.
However, some believe that the Synodal Path is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. In reality, they charge, the purpose of the Synodal Path is not to bring the sexual abuse crisis to a close, but to use the actual crisis to justify profound changes in the Church, concerning Catholic teaching, identity, and tradition.
Why, when, who, what
The Synodal Path was called for by the German bishops’ conference at the end of their general assembly in 2019, in an attempt to address a 2018 report known as the Mannheim, Heidelberg, and Gießen study, or MHG. Researchers analyzed the response to clergy sexual abuse cases in 27 dioceses in the country from 1946 to 2014, and found that more than 4 percent of clergy allegedly committed sexual abuse and counted 3,677 minors as victims. Victims who had experienced abuse by a member of a religious orders weren’t covered in the report.
The MHG report pointed to systemic issues underlying the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, namely excessive power by clergy, the Church’s strict views on sexual morality, and poor priestly formation.
The path was set to last for two years, but some things were put on hold in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Smaller assemblies have met over the past 12 months, and though it’s not quite full steam ahead, work is proceeding. An online assembly with all members was held the first week of February.
It’s worth noting that a “Synod” and a “Synodal Path” are not the same, as acknowledged by the preparatory document for Germany’s process: “The ‘Synodal Path’ is not a (canonically) defined format, but one of its own kind (sui generis).”
“Why not a Synod?” asks the document: “A Synod is a format clearly defined by canon law, in which everything is regulated from the setting of topics to the constitution of the participants and their competences. A Synod requires the approval of the Holy See, which can often only be given after a longer-term procedure. This slows down the necessary speed in dealing with the issues at hand.”
Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich and Freising and former president of the German bishops’ conference, as well as a key ally of Pope Francis, has argued that the results of the path are binding, regardless of it not being an actual synod.
Interpretations as to what he means by “binding” vary depending on where one stands regarding the many changes proposed by the process. There are things that can be adopted by the German Church while there are others that can only be changed by the pope, and even then, some argue, despite being the “supreme pontiff,” the spiritual leader of 1.3 billion Catholics cannot just change things on a whim.
There are 230 participants of the Synodal Path including members of the German Bishops’ conference, members of the Central Committee of German Catholics and “representatives of spiritual services and church offices, young people and other personalities.”
There are four forums in the Synodal Path, and though all of them will make decisions at all three levels, all can individually make suggestions to the pope that require a change in Church teaching.
Though they’ve had different names since the path was first announced back in Sept. 2019, at the end of a general assembly of the German bishops, these forums are now called: “Power and Separation of Powers in the Church – Joint Participation and Involvement in the Mission”; “Life in succeeding relationships – Living Love in Sexuality and Partnership”; “Priestly Existence Today”; and “Women in Ministries and Offices in the Church” in the future.
Between 2018 and 2019, Father Nikodemus Schnabel of the Benedictine Monastery Dormitio in Jerusalem was in Berlin working for the German foreign office as a liaison of sorts on matters pertaining protocol and religion. He doubled as a parish priest, saying Mass and hearing confessions in several local churches.
A polyglot, he told Crux that during his time in Berlin he saw the reality of the Church in the German capital, and that experience seeded concerns about the process being used.
“It was completely normal for me to look towards the faithful and see people of all colors in the pews,” Schnabel said. “It was clear that this was not a German Church, but a universal, Catholic Church, that was based in Berlin.”
The bishops are who they are, and so are the members of the Central Committee, but the path had the opportunity to choose ten personalities, he said, “and they chose very ‘German’ Germans.”
A Catholic is not so by birth, but by baptism, Schnabel said, and the synodal path does not represent this reality: “How could it be that a Synodal Path that has a self-understanding of being progressive and looking towards the future, totally ignores the reality of migration in Germany?”
“To be very brutal, it seems to me like a white savior thing,” he said. “Wake up to the reality of the German Church! If you really want to be forward-thinking, then you must face the reality of a post-migrant Church.”
“Look at how many priests from Africa and India are working in Germany?” he said. “How many Indian nuns, who are members of German orders, are today running our Catholic hospitals? Without these, the German Church today would collapse.”
Schnabel believes this oversight is partially because if migrants from Brazil, Lebanon, Poland, Iraq or all parts of Africa actually had a voice, the establishment in the German Church would have to confront the fact that what they consider priorities are not for those who today fill the pews.
The “holy white breath” of German Catholicism may want to save the church, Schnabel said, but he insisted that ignoring the fact that the Church is not made up mostly of blond, blue-eye people will not stop the hemorrhaging of faithful.
Participants in the Synodal Path are called to vote on the final documents, and regardless of their position, will be expected to defend and promote them.
That requirement alarms German Dr. Katharina Westerhorstmann, Professor of Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, who has published research on child abuse prevention and was appointed by the German bishops to the Synodal Path.
“The documentation from the Synod Forum I stipulates that if a majority votes in favor of something, then every member of the assembly is called to defend it, even if they voted against it, or if that something contradicts Church teaching,” she said.
“I do wonder if this means one would have to defend it from say, the Vatican,” Westerhorstmann said. “Also, if the Vatican will reject a call for concrete change, would all Synod members then be obliged to defend the Vatican’s decision too?”
The Roman angle
There are three levels of decisions in the synodal path: Local, national and universal. On that final front, the assembly plans to present its conclusions to the pope requesting changes to the Catechism.
The Forum on Sexual Morality (Succeeding Relationships), for example, will present dozens of requests for changes on Church teaching.
Westerhorstmann also objected that even though the process was motivated by addressing the abuse crisis, victims and survivors were only invited to take part well into the second year.
The Central Committee of German Catholics is a lay group that has taken public stances against a range of Church teachings, including on women’s ordination and sexual morality, and they only agreed to be involved if the assembly could make binding policies for the German Church.
Schnabel too said he’s troubled that abuse survivors haven’t been more central.
“What is it about? Facing the problem of abuse of power? Because if this is so, then dialogue with survivors has to be the first and last point of the path” he said.
“But now you hear that it’s about celibacy, ordination of women, blessing gay couples,” he said. “And you can talk about it, but you have the feeling that these are not new issues, they are old issues. And the feeling is that now we have a new reason to talk about these old issues.”
Father Volker Sehy, a parish priest in the Diocese of Speyer elected by diocesan priests as a member of the general assembly, told Crux that he believes “there was no other alternative for the German bishops but to start this path together with the laity, because of the study on the abuse crisis.”
Dialogue is needed, he said, but it would have been best to do so under a “valid juridical form,” meaning either as a synod or a council, because there is no such thing as a synodal path. This decision, he said, has made Rome and Catholics in other countries suspicious.
“It has a very special structure, with the bishops and representative of the laity, but it’s not representative of the Catholic church in Germany,” he said. Priests only became a part of the process, he said, after they complained they weren’t represented.
Sehy also expressed reservations over the fact that the Synodal Path aims to be democratic, when the Church is not a democracy: “We cannot vote over dogmas, we are not a democracy, there is tradition and the magisterium of the Church.” The other side of this coin, he argued, is Pope Francis’s emphasis over more synodality in the Church, and this means dialogue and more prayer.
“Not every voice is truly heard, especially those who want to follow the rules of the Church, for instance, people who experience same sex attraction or who are divorced and remarried,” Sehy said.
Members of the Synodal Path largely agree on Pope Francis’s call in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia to “accompany, discern and integrate” people in what the Church would call an irregular situation, but appear to differ on what that means.
“There is absolutely no consensus,” Sehy said, on the criteria for what the pontiff describes as “discernment.”
“We talked about chastity in September, and one member didn’t know the difference between chastity and abstinence. And this is a problem. Some want to change Church teaching, when they don’t actually understand what the Church teaches,” he said.
Westerhorstmann is a member of the second forum that wants to change much of what the Catholic Church has traditionally taught on sexuality, from the ban on artificial contraception to same-sex relationships.
“If the Vatican says no to the changes proposed by the assembly, the German Church could very well go into schism,” she told Crux. “It has become very difficult for people within the forums who need a majority of votes to have something included that is part of the current teaching of the Church. A recent directive from the president’s board makes it impossible to include a position which doesn’t get the required majority. Such positions might not even make it to the draft presented to the Synodal assembly in which decisions are made.”
As the expert noted, abuse victims and survivors were not part of the original list of members taking part in the assembly, something she protested about when it was announced. Though their late inclusion is a positive change on the process thus far, others have happened that she finds to have been negative, including the fact that the Forum’s final report will not include the voice of those dissenting with the majority.
Since Pope Francis took office, whenever a Synod of Bishops is held in Rome, the final document presented to the pope – a document that is not binding, simply suggestions made to the pontiff after a month-long discussion – reflects how many votes in favor and against each suggestion received. This will not be the case in Germany.
Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau, a member of the General Assembly and of the Forum on sexual morality, told Crux that the Synodal Path is an “intense avenue of conversation, in which advocates of change on issues of power, the role of women, celibacy, and sexual morality are a clear majority.”
Discussion, he said, is always necessary, and the German Church has seen “more unrest” since the report on clerical abuse was published. However, he questions the necessity for the Synodal Path itself, and the “direction of changing the teaching on important points.”
Father Wolfgang Picken, dean of Catholic parishes in the diocese of Bonn (the former capital of West Germany), is an elected member of the Synodal assembly, as well as a member of the forum on power. He told Crux that talking about the causes of the abuse and the reasons for the profound crisis of the Christian faith in German society is important, in particular seeing the abuse scandal’s contribution to a loss of credibility and frustration among people leaving the church.
“Structures that encourage sexual abuse of children and young people must be eliminated, otherwise the church cannot have a future,” he said. “However, one must question whether the four themes (power and separation of powers, priestly ministry, the role of women, sexual morality) on which the participants’ exchange is fixed are really causally and genuinely related to abuse.”
“One can get the impression that the abuse scandal is being instrumentalized by many actors in order to take up the well-known inner-church controversial topics anew,” he said, in an argument that was repeated by most of those with whom Crux spoke.
Using the forum on power as an example, Picken said that, according to the majority opinion of the Synodal Path, Biblical findings, the magisterium and Tradition are not sufficient to justify certain reforms they want to implement. Hence, they decided to broaden the understanding of “revelation,” adding other aspects of life, such as the achievements of the modern state.
“In this light, they would thus become an expression of divine revelation,” the priest noted. “This, in turn, would allow a direct transfer of this contemporary concept of, for example, participation or equality into the church. Equally significant is the reinterpretation of ecclesiology.
“A church led by the magisterium has so far consistently resisted certain reform steps. Therefore, an ecclesiological approach is needed that replaces or, at least, relativizes the function of the magisterium,” Picken said.
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