This is part two of a two part 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. Part one can be found here.

ROME – In 2019, the German Catholic Church envisioned a “Synodal Path” to try to address the institutional clerical sexual abuse scandal. Bishops, laity, priests, religious and experts were all summoned to find solutions and set forth a reform path that has expanded its scope to question Catholic Church teaching on areas of sexuality.


Now some are warning that what was envisioned as an effort to restore the confidence lost by the abuse scandals and to promote internal church debate could lead many Germans into schism.

Jesuit Father Bernd Hagenkord, a longtime worker at Vatican Radio who currently serves as a spiritual director of the Synodal Path, recently said he believes Pope Francis is concerned that some fractions of the German church might split from Rome.

“I do believe that the pope is clearly concerned that the Catholic Church could also break apart on some conflict issues because some parties are making some issues too strong,” Hagenkord told the Catholic website in February.

The examples he listed included sexual morality – including homosexuality, with many in Germany lobbying in favor of same-sex couples receiving a sacramental wedding – and the ordination of women.

The pope is, according to Hangenkord, worried about the unity of the Universal Church.

Things are not helped by the statement of German Cardinal Reinhard Marx in 2015, when he warned the German Church is “not a branch from the Church in Rome.”

He said at the time that the German bishops conference planned to help the Church “go down new paths” and “pursue its own pastoral care program” regardless of the outcome of the Synod of Bishops on the family that was going to be held in Rome that year.

“We cannot wait for a synod to tell us how we have to shape pastoral care for marriage and family here,” said Marx. “We are not a branch of Rome. Each bishops’ conference is responsible for pastoral care in its cultural context and must preach the Gospel in its own original way.”

In 2019, Marx, a member of the council of cardinals that advises Pope Francis on the reform of the Vatican curia, said that the “binding synodal process” they were embarking on would tackle what he claimed are the three key issues arising from the clerical abuse crisis: Priestly celibacy, the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, and a reduction of clerical power.

Three months later, Pope Francis wrote a warning the German Church that it does not walk alone but with Rome and the Universal Church, and the transformation and revitalization of the Church cannot be a “reaction to external data or demands

Francis also warned the German bishops to respect the universal communion of the Church: “Every time the ecclesial community has tried to resolve its problems alone, trusting and focusing exclusively on its forces or its methods, its intelligence, its will or prestige, it ended up increasing and perpetuating the evils it tried to solve.”

Father Wolfgang Picken, a parish priest and dean in Bonn, argued that there are considerations that are in no way theologically problematic. They concern episcopal law and would represent necessary further development. For example, it makes sense to establish independent ombudsman offices to hear any reported abuse of power, or to further develop the participation of the baptized and confirmed.

He told Crux that increased participation of women in leadership positions that do not require ordination should be encouraged. There is also a need to adapt priestly formation to the requirements of today’s pastoral ministry. All this could be initiated by a Synodal Path and implemented by the bishops.

“Nevertheless, it must be explicitly stated that the Synodal Path cannot make any binding decisions in terms of canon law; those are up to the local bishops,” said Picken, who is an elected member of the synod assembly. “However, it is not unlikely – and perhaps Cardinal Marx means this – that such great public pressure and a corresponding claim to binding force of the decisions of the Synodal Path will be built up that the bishops will have no choice but to execute them.”

Father Volker Sehy, a member of the assembly, told Crux that he doesn’t want to say that he’s afraid of schism, yet acknowledged that he thinks some bishops might resign when proposals such as the ordination of women into the priesthood are nixed by the Vatican.

“I don’t want to speculate on this,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t happen. I’m also a pastor, I understand where they are coming from a bit. My question is that some of the bishops inside the synod path feel supported and a bit loved. I know some of them personally. I think that the most liberal bishops enjoy the support, the fact that there’s no division with some sections of the laity. I hope that they don’t make a decision against the Holy Father, but I know where I will stand: With Peter, and most bishops will.”

The priest said he believes a key problem in the German church is the fact that there’s too much bureaucracy and not enough spirituality.

“We need to pray more, and have discussions, but they need to be spiritual. I also have hope for the German church because I see two tendencies: The first is the danger of schism, but also very small signs of spiritual renewal,” Sehy said.

Father Nikodemus Schnabel, from the German Benedictine Monastery Dormitio in Jerusalem, said he is not truly afraid of schism, though he sees many in his country adopting an “I’m Catholic but” attitude.

He claimed that it’s often forbidden to argue that these “forward looking” ideas haven’t worked in other churches, despite this fact being an unavoidable elephant in the room: “We have the Protestant church, and it’s more catastrophic.”

Yet, he said progressive Catholics don’t leave the Church because it’s really the only game in town.

“If you’re seeking power and influence, the last standing institution that is interesting for the people, it’s the Catholic Church,” Schnabel said. “Less than one percent of Protestants go to church in Germany. Being a Catholic is more attractive. What they dream about already exists, but they don’t want to join a sinking ship; they would rather try to change the course of a ship that is doing quite well in comparison.”

As an exercise, he’s asked Protestants in Berlin for their analysis as to why they’re sinking, and more often than not, the answer has been that the Protestant Church in Germany “is too national.”

There are neo-Pentecostal churches that cater to people coming from the United States, Africa and Latin America, “but they have nothing to do with the Lutheran German Church.”

“If you’re looking for the most German place in Germany, go to a Lutheran Church,” he said. “And for them, that is their problem. They get no fresh blood and input.”

Schnabel is not afraid of schism because there already is an Old German Catholic Church, with 70,000 members throughout the world, and it’s a dying denomination.

“Those who want changes, would be very happy there, because they have Catholic liturgy, but also gay marriage, no celibacy, women are ordained, with the Catholic taste, but without the pope,” he said.

“Nothing is stopping them from going,” he insisted. “But the people prefer to stay in the Catholic Church, maybe they enjoy the game, of being able to say ‘if I could change it I would, but Rome is bad’.”

His frustration is with the fact that those proposing impossible changes seem to enjoy running against the wall, and in the meantime, things that can and need to be changed, aren’t.

In the name of evangelization

In February, a two-day online general assembly of the Synodal Path, in line with the COVID-19 restrictions still affecting most of Germany, was held. The first day was almost entirely focused on sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.

Three speakers from the Advisory Council of the German Bishops on abuse – Johanna Beck, Kai Christian Moritz and Johannes Norpoth – addressed the participants issuing a plea for action to be taken.

“Sexualized violence and spiritual abuse against children, adolescents and adults represents an incomprehensible perversion of the Gospel,” they said. “To do everything possible to end this perversion (even if one may have to leave one’s theological comfort zone for it) is evangelization.”

The assembly finished with the presentation of “Forum I: Power and separation of powers in the Church — Common participation and sharing in the mission,” the “fundamental text” of one of the four forums, which was forwarded to Rome and is available online in English.

Proposals listed in this text include making the election of bishops and pastors more democratic, allowing lay committees to overrule decisions made by bishops: “An examination of the order of power in the Church would be necessary in any case for reasons of successful inculturation into a democratic society based on the rule of law,” the text said.

The document also calls priestly celibacy into question, and “clarifications are needed to open access for women to the ordained ministry in the Church.”

Although there has been some vocal opposition to these proposals in the German hierarchy, including from Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, it is a minority.

Limburg Bishop Georg Bätzing, the president of the German Bishops’ Conference, recently said that arguments against the ordination of women “are becoming less and less convincing.”

Speaking with German magazine Herder Korrespondenz, Bätzing, said that even though it is important to “honestly state the church’s arguments as to why the sacramental ministry can only be given to men,” there are also “well-developed arguments in theology in favor of opening up the sacramental ministry to women as well.”

He suggested that change could come gradually by ordaining women as deacons before ordaining them as priests and bishops.

Bätzing also voiced support to discussing the Church’s position on homosexual relationships.

“We need solutions that are not only effective in private, but also have public visibility – yet make it clear that no marriage is being solemnized,” he said. The idea of a special blessing for gay couples as well as divorced and civilly remarried Catholics has long been floated by several German bishops.

After the Vatican’s doctrinal office recently released a document calling the blessing of gay couples “illicit,” he said he was “not happy” with the document, noting that the points made by the Vatican would be discussed in the Synodal Path, as it aimed to “discuss the theme of succeeding relationships in a comprehensive way which also takes account of the necessity and limits of church doctrinal development.”

The need for change vs the need for unity

German Dr. Katharina Westerhorstmann, Professor of Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville and an elected member of the assembly is not shy in acknowledging that many things need to change within the Catholic Church, including the role of women. But she said she is not interested in priestly ordination because as a theologian she cannot find a justification for it.

However, she does want to see women in positions of power, even perhaps as papal diplomats, since the role of the ambassadors of the Holy See has much more to do with diplomacy than the sacraments.

She also said lay people need to be more involved in the process of selection of bishops.

“We need to strengthen the role of women in the Church, and not only of those women who lead dissident groups, yet women with great skills, expertise, and spiritual gifts” she said. “And we need to fight the misogynist language in the Church, that often starts already in the seminary, when young men are convinced that they are superior to women. And this is terrible, because then they arrive in parishes and treat women as if they were children.”

She said the insistence on proposing things that simply won’t fly in Rome not only sets expectations to unachievable heights, but also stops realistic proposals from being considered.

“Since we have the synodal attention, it would be great to propose realistic changes that we can in fact, make,” Westerhorstmann said. “If not, we’d only be adding frustrations, or risking a schism.”

Among the suggestions she makes in raising the canonical age for a woman to to enter a marriage from 14 to 16. She also believes that sexual abuse of minors shouldn’t be dealt with as a violation of celibacy in Church law, but as an act of violence.

She added there is an effort to convince participants of the assembly that there is no alternative to the changes being proposed by the Synodal path.

“There is much to be done, that is truly necessary, including in the way we address clerical abuse,” she said. “But these things won’t be done, because we’re reaching too far in proposing things that are not possible or justifiable, that do not lead us to better follow Jesus and serve the world.”

The last chance for the German Church?

Sehy acknowledged that some people say this is the last chance of the Church in Germany, but he’s critical of those who think this way.

“This shows a lack of faith. Why the last chance? God is still there. And I’m sure that God will use this Synodal path to renew the church in Germany. Because renewal is needed,” the priest said.

Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau, a member of the General Assembly and of the Forum on Sexual Morality, told Crux that the only reason he’s in the Church is Jesus Christ.

“I believe that He is among us and lives in us in His spirit,” he said.

“And I believe that the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, above all, guarantee that I live in union with Him. I also believe that Scripture becomes the living word of God in the Church – and that service to the poor is a great witness of the Church. That’s why I’m there,” Oster continued.

“An authentic life from the presence of Jesus, from prayer, from the sacraments, from the word of God and in love service to man will always be the path of evangelization,” he said. “Every Christian needs repentance over and over again. Structural changes alone have no power to lead people to Christ,” he said.

Oster said he is convinced that the media and political powers promoting demands for quick solutions such as changing the Church’s moral teachings or ordaining women would be divisive.

Instead, he would prioritize “a passionate search for Christ in prayer and in selfless love for others.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma