20 January 2023, The Tablet

Clerical loss of power – Germany, synodality and the synodal way

by Sigrid Grabmeier and Christian Weisner

Transformation processes in the universal Catholic Church

Clerical loss of power – Germany, synodality and the synodal way

Bishops of Germany celebrated in the Papal Basilica of St. Paul outside the Walls during their Ad Limina in November in Rome. Cardinal Marx presided.
Daniel Ibáñez, CNA

The Roman Catholic Church is in the midst of the greatest church crisis since the Reformation, which is not triggered by the worldwide abuse scandals, but finds a focal point in them. From the point of view of the reform movement We are Church, the article attempts to compare the reform processes of the Synodal Way 2019-2023 of the Catholic Church in Germany and the worldwide Synod of Bishops 2021-2024 and to present the interdependencies with the ad limina visit of the German bishops to Rome in autumn 2022. 



Will uncoordinated processes of ecclesiastical decision-making and reform lead to the self-destruction of the previous Roman Catholic world system? Or can the current disputes between the Vatican and above all the Church in Germany pave the way for a new, more comprehensive ecclesiastical self-understanding? 

The magic of the new beginning after the election of a Jesuit (that had never happened before), an Argentinean cardinal (that was also new), who, moreover, did not come from the Vatican's diplomatic forge, has faded in the tenth year of Pope Francis' pontificate. It is true that the theological prohibitions on thought and speech of the two predecessor popes are a thing of the past. Despite his advanced age, Pope Francis has set many signs of hope in motion, both within and outside the Church (Weisner 2018). 

Francis is, for example, the first Pope to invite the leaders of social movements from all over the world to a meeting in the Vatican. And with his criticism of capitalism, Francis does not shy away from confronting the economically and politically powerful. But the Roman Catholic Church is still an absolutist, centralist and male-led clerical monarchy. This is exemplified by the disputes over the Synodal Way in Germany, the Pope's refusal to accept the resignation of the unhappy Cardinal Rainer Ma-ria Woelki of Cologne, the recent conflict-ridden ad-limina visit of the German bishops to Rome and the repeated exclusion of women.

The relationship between Rome and the Church in Germany has always been marked by conflicts and inconsistencies. And this is probably not only due to the difference between Mediterranean and Germanic ways of life and thinking. Luther's reformatory efforts, the secession of the Old Catholics after the aborted First Vatican Council (1870/71) or the decade-long conflict in the 1990s over Catholic participation in state pregnancy counselling are just a few examples of the estrangement between the world headquarters in Rome and a theologically and financially relatively strong local church. Added to this are the tendencies towards secularisation that have been evident in Western societies since the Second World War.

In the current church crisis, the biggest since the times of the Reformation, triggered by abuse and cover-up, the different approaches south and north of the Alps are very evident. Can this difference accelerate productive developments or will it deepen existing divisions? Will this reforming Pope continue Rome's centuries-long lack of understanding of the Church north of the Alps in a most unpleasant way?


Catalyst sexualised violence 

Since the mid-1990s, the exposure of sexualised violence against children, young people, seminarians and (religious) women by priests and religious has fundamentally shaken the credibility of the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world. What is far too trivially called “abuse” also exists worldwide in other areas of life (e.g. #metoo) and organisations (e.g. Unicef). But the loss of credibility of a church that insists so much on strict morality is even incomparably higher. Even if in the meantime the Roman Catholic Church is probably the organisation that – even if forced to do so – first and most thoroughly confronted this problem: The shock, the implosion, so to speak, of this world organisation continues. Pope John Paul II had almost completely ignored this problem. Only his successor Benedict XVI, who as prefect of the faith still placed everything under papal secrecy in 2003, took the first steps towards coming to terms with it. Francis, who as a cardinal and also as pope did not always act appropriately in this regard, has made this problem a top priority with an abuse summit in 2019.

In 1995, allegations of abuse against Cardinal Hans-Hermann Groër of Vienna led to his replacement. Incidentally, the accusations were the reason for the five reform demands of the Church People's Movement in Austria, from which the now worldwide Church People's Movement We are Church emerged. In 2002, the Boston Globe and its Spotlight team uncovered abuse canals in the USA; the compensation demanded drove entire dioceses into bankruptcy. Ireland, Belgium and Australia were the first countries where investigations, partly initiated by the bishops and partly independent, brought shocking results to light. For Germany, Klaus Mertes, then head of the Jesuit College in Berlin, went public, which can be seen as a turning point. Before that, the German bishops had tried to get a grip on the problem on their own with guidelines for dealing with suspected cases and a “dialogue process” controlled by them, which very quickly degenerated into a non-binding “discussion process”.

It was only after public pressure from victims' organisations such as the “Eckiger Tisch” (created from the Canisius-Kolleg), Catholic organisations and also from Wir sind Kirche that the German bishops felt compelled to commission a nationwide study on abuse. However, they fell out with the criminologist Christian Pfeiffer, who was initially commissioned, so that it was not until 2014 that the interdisciplinary research project “Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests, Diocons and Male Religious in the Area of the German Bishops' Conference” (MHG-Study 2018), named after the places Mannheim, Heidelberg and Giessen, coordinated by Prof. Harald Dreßing) could be commissioned. The results, published in September 2018, also caused great consternation among the bishops. The Catholic Church is in the midst of an existential crisis which was not triggered by the abuse scandal, but which has found a focal point in it.


Synodal Way in Germany

Synodal way instead of synod

It was only under the utmost pressure from the public that the German bishops came out in favour of a “binding synodal path” at the last minute at their Spring Plenary Assembly 2019 in Lingen. Unlike in 2011 with the “dialogue process” (German Bishops' Conference 2015), this time they asked the Central Committee of German Catholics, the official representation of the “laity”, to join as an equal partner.

The “Synodal Way” (from the ancient Greek sýnodos, “common way”) is designed as a three-year structured debate to come to terms with sexual abuse in the Church. Unlike a formal synod, the Synodal Way is not a body defined by church law. But there is a statute that defines the joint responsibility and the forms of work and stipulates that, as with normal synods, two-thirds majorities are required for decisions. However, and this is a concession to Rome, two-thirds of the bishops and auxiliary bishops must also agree.

Even in the run-up to the Synodal Way, canon lawyers pointed out that this discussion format can rightly be described as a “nullum”, since all decisions, insofar as they lie within the competence of the German bishops at all, must be put into effect by each individual bishop for their bishoprics anyway. On the other hand, it is precisely such a discussion format that makes it possible to deal with issues and proposed solutions outside the existing Catholic doctrine.

The joint responsibility of the bishops’ conference and the central committee is expressed above all in the co-chairing of the presidium and the four synodal forums. The seating order in the plenary assemblies, which is in alphabetical order across all groups, also makes it clear that status and rank do not (should not) play a role within this assembly. The collaboration of numerous theologians is very enriching.

The Synodal Way is oriented towards the risk factors for sexualised violence and its cover-up named in the MHG study. The content work is done in four synodal forums: 1. “Power and division of authority in the church – joint participation and sharing in the mission”, 2. “Priestly existence today”, 3. “Women in ministries and offices in the church” and 4. “Living in successful relationships – living love in sexuality and partnership”. Incidentally, the topic of “Women” was added only after pressure from the Catholic women's associations and the new initiative “Mary 2.0”.

In 1995, these reform topics, which in principle correspond exactly to the points of the Church People's Petition initiated in Austria at that time, were still taboo for many. But now they are being dealt with and publicly debated at a high theological level on the Synodal Way.


Bumpy stages

The Synodal Way was officially opened on 1 December 2019, and the first plenary meeting was held in Frankfurt at the end of January 2020. Here it was a matter of first rehearsing the unfamiliar format of cooperation, the rules of procedure and the composition of the synodal forums. The fact that some bishops found it an imposition to have to sit in the normal pews with all the other synod members at the opening service in Frankfurt Cathedral (”this endangers the hierarchical structure of the Church”) is an example of the new ground that was being broken here.

The Covid crisis made it necessary to suspend the second synodal assembly planned for autumn 2020. Instead, in keeping with Covid, five regional conferences were held on 4 September 2020. The second synodal assembly then took place on 4 and 5 February 2021 as an online conference and was very much under the impression of the debate about coming to terms with abuse in the Archdiocese of Cologne. Finally, representatives of those affected by sexualised violence had their say, which was the impetus for the Synodal Way.

The third plenary assembly from 3 to 5 February 2022 in Frankfurt took place during the ecclesiastical uproar triggered by the publication of the second Munich Abuse Report on 20 January 2022 and, above all, the #OutInChurch campaign a few days earlier.

At the Katholikentag in Stuttgart at the end of May 2022, the reform topics were much more present than at previous Katholikentags. Expectations grew. At the fourth plenary assembly from 8 to 10 September 2022, the basic text of the sexuality paper received 82 per cent of the total votes of the synod in the non-roll call vote, but unexpectedly fell short of the necessary two-thirds majority of bishops and auxiliary bishops. This almost led to the failure of the assembly and thus probably also of the entire Synodal Way. The partly simple argumentation and also the refusal of some bishops and suffragan bishops to participate at all in the substantive debate had a frightening effect. But the fact that 61 per cent of German bishops and auxiliary bishops have agreed to a text that marks a fundamental change in the Church's attitude to human sexuality would have been inconceivable just a few years ago. Although formally rejected, this text will certainly receive lasting attention nonetheless. However, the exercise of the bishops’ blocking minority made it clear to all in the assembly what was really at stake, and then led to the adoption of the basic paper “Women in Ministries and Offices” in a roll-call vote. Rejection of this paper, as was clear to all participants, would have led to the failure of the Synodal Way.

The bishops, who had announced a break in spring 2019 and asked the Central Committee of German Catholics for help with the Synodal Way, were and are under great pressure. Do they want to continue to present an image of polarisation and division? Or do they want to strive for solidarity and synodality with the people of the Church? The Franciscan Katharina Kluitmann rightly asked, “Why should we stay with the bishops if the bishops don't stay with us?”

The issues dealt with on the Synodal Way in the four synodal forums are not a “wishful catalogue” of reforms, but are about redressing grievances that fundamentally contradict the Christian message. As so-called successors of the apostles, the bishops stand in a special relationship of loyalty to Jesus and his message of a God who is kind to man. Through their actions or inactions, they bear an essential responsibility for the continuation of Christianity in our country and our culture. However, they have not only taken the oath of allegiance to the Pope, but also to the German Basic Law.

The fifth and last Synodal Assembly of the Synodal Way in Frankfurt from 9 to 11 March 2023 will take place – and this will certainly have an impact – after the continental assembly of the world-wide Synodal Process from 5 to 12 February 2023 in Prague and after the spring plenary assembly of the German Bishops' Conference from 27 February to 2 March 2023 in Dresden. As before, Catholic reform forces will critically accompany this last Synodal Assembly through open letters, actions and press conferences.


Particular irritant topics 

Irritant topic “power” 

It is gratifying, indeed necessary, that the question of power is now being addressed so openly and clearly. The Catholic Church needs a structure of participation which is matched by a culture of serious participation and a process of qualification. Transparency and power control need to be institutionalised. Participation in the appointment of bishops, gender justice, and accountability are key words in this context. The permanent establishment of a Synodal Council is envisaged, composed of equal numbers of the 27 bishops and 27 persons appointed by the Central Committee of German Catholics. However, much of the extensive draft is not new. As early as 1973, the “Würzburg Synod” drew up an ecclesiastical administrative order (KVGO) for the area of the Catholic Church in Germany, which the bishops could have put into effect long ago on their own authority.


Irritating topic of sexuality

The ban on artificial birth control in Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae vitae in 1968 and the “Königstein Declaration” issued by the German bishops on the subject led to a situation in which the majority of Catholics no longer accepted the Church's morals on marriage and sexuality. Already during the preparation for the worldwide Faith Synod 2014/2015, the topic of sexuality was worked on intensively in Germany by individuals, congregations, groups and associations, and the results were the basis for the consultations of the bishops. Even then, it became apparent what a gap there is between the reality of life today and the Church's teaching on sexual morality. The sexuality forum now tries to build a bridge between Christian norms on the one hand and insights from theology and human sciences on the other. Topics such as diversity, transsexuality or homosexuality are considered just as much as family planning or sacramental marriage. The aim is to counteract the loss of plausibility of church statements on human sexuality.


The provocative topic of women's ordination

In 1994, Pope John Paul II decreed, with a binding force that is still controversial today, that the Church “has no authority whatsoever to ordain women to the priesthood and that all the faithful of the Church must abide definitively by this decision”. But despite this verdict, the debate is more alive today than ever. The basic text “Women in Ministry” takes into account all the biblical, dogmatic, historical and anthropological arguments currently available as a basis for a discussion in the universal Church, which, by the way, has also been going on there for a long time. Now it is important to bring the issue of opening the ordination offices for women to the worldwide Synod and to keep the debate open in any case.


Criticism of the Synodal Way

Criticism from the Vatican

Although abuse scandals have shaken the churches – not only the Catholic Church – in many countries for almost 30 years, the Vatican and also Pope Francis find it difficult to acknowledge the need for fundamental reforms and also the Synodal Way in Germany. On several occasions, Francis and cardinals in the Vatican warned against a split from Rome.

The Pope's highly ambivalent letter “to the pilgrim people of God in Germany” of 29 June 2019 is quoted again and again, in which on the one hand he “encourages us to search for a frank response to the present situation at this turning point in time”. On the other hand, he also recalls his admonition during the German Ad-limina visit in 2015 and warns against the “attempts in the ecclesiastical sphere ... to believe that the solutions to the current situation can be found in the Church”. to believe that solutions to current and future problems can be achieved exclusively by reforming structures, organisations and administration”. This letter was very disappointing, since Francis, referring to Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council, is otherwise vehemently in favour of a synodal Church at all levels.

After a surprise visit to the Vatican on 24 June 2021, Bishop Georg Bätzing declared that Pope Francis had encouraged the Catholic Church in Germany to “continue on the synodal path we have embarked on”. But less than a week later, Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, the second man in the Vatican, branded the German Synodal Way as a solo journey during his visit to Berlin. He did so with quotes from the Pope, without even hinting at the abuse scandals. The reason for the visit was the celebration of 100 years of diplomatic relations between Germany and the Holy See, which had to be postponed because of Corona. However, the meeting with the heads of the church's aid agencies showed how much the Vatican depends on financial aid from Germany, despite all the theological scepticism.

In the summer of 2022, the Holy See made the surprising declaration of 21 July 2022: “The ‘Synodal Way’ in Germany does not have the authority to oblige bishops and the faithful to accept new forms of governance and new orientations of doctrine and morals”. The short statement, which was distributed without a sender, wanted to clarify something that had already been clear for a long time: the Synodal Way cannot in fact commit anyone to anything, since it is not provided for in the Church's legal order. It can only make proposals or invite people to commit themselves. The fact that the Holy See uses language that sounds authoritarian and patriarchal is nothing new. On the other hand, this declaration can also be interpreted as a message to the opponents of the Synodal Way: Stay calm, we in Rome will make sure that nothing gets out of hand. 

Pope Francis has recently repeated several times in connection with the Synodal Way the statement that we already have a good Protestant Church in Germany and do not need a second one. The German mentality and also the local theology are obviously still foreign to the Jesuit Bergoglio despite his research stay in Germany in 1986. It probably plays a role here that Francis, with his Latin American experiences, has a completely different, more practice-oriented understanding of theology and is foreign to the more scientifically oriented theology in the northern hemisphere. It is also possible, however, that this shows a resistance to the very closed understanding of theology built up by Joseph Ratzinger or also to the comparatively financially rich Church in Germany.


Criticism from the universal church

Arch-conservative theologians from the USA call on Pope Francis to “call the German bishops back to the faith”. Others warn of division and a German national church and speak of a theologically unlevel debate. The Synodal Way should not deviate one iota from existing doctrine. The US Cardinal of the Curia Raymond Leo Burke was sharply critical: nothing less than the catholicity of the Church was at stake.

The Protestant decline in Germany calls into question the logic of the Synodal Way, says US theologian Larry Chapp. The current crisis of the Church is not rooted in the fact that it holds “counter-cultural views” on various sensitive issues. Rather, it is “a much deeper crisis of faith”. It is a crisis of de facto atheism caused by the cultural air we breathe in the West. The main goal of the whole action is the preservation of Christianity as the civil religion of the secular state and the religiously largely indifferent society as a whole. For this reason, they offer themselves to the “modern world” – whatever that is supposed to be – as a socio-psychologically useful religious-social service organisation.

The criticism voiced at the beginning of 2022 by Polish and Scandinavian bishops, as well as a group of conservative bishops from other countries, represents in its entirety an easily transparent attempt to immunise traditional episcopal positions against any theological further development of Catholic teaching. Cardinal Kurt Koch, who is responsible for ecumenism in the Vatican, even stooped to a Nazi comparison (”German Christians”).


Fear of a German special path

The accusation that the Synodal Way is a German Sonderweg (special way) has long been running into the void. This is also shown by the interim results from the worldwide Synodal Process in preparation for the World Synod 2023, which are gradually being published. In many cases, the same points are raised as in the Synodal Way in Germany. International observers invited by the Synodal Way have repeatedly attested to the German Synodal Way as a model for the Church as a whole. Similar processes are currently being prepared in other countries.

Warnings that the German Synodal Way endangers the unity of the universal Church are therefore not very convincing. A real danger for the unity and future of the Church does not come from Germany, but from the forces in the Church that fundamentally refuse reforms. These circles have no answer to the spiritual and sexual violence that has led to a dramatic loss of credibility of the church and are not prepared to deal with the systemic causes.

Even within the international networking of the reform forces, it is evident how great the interest and expectations are all over the world. The Synodal Way is therefore not a German special path, but could actually become a service to the universal Church. For the scandals that made it necessary are coming to light in more and more local churches, indeed in the entire universal Church.


Worldwide Synodal Process 

Synods not only characterise the Orthodox Churches and those of the Reformation, but they also have a tradition in the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Paul VI established the Synod of Bishops as a permanent institution of bishops from all over the world in Rome shortly after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). But under Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, this institution led a shadowy existence. It was Pope Francis who revived this global consultative and decision-making body with the Synod on the Family 2014/2015, the Synod of Bishops on Youth 2018, the Synod on the Amazon 2019 and the World Synod on Synodality with the resonant title: “For a Synodal Church. Communion, Participation and Mission”. Following the preparatory process that began in October 2021, the assembly of the Synod of Bishops was initially planned for October 2022, but was postponed to October 2023 because of Corona, and was also extended with an additional assembly in Rome in October 2024.

The preparatory process announced by the responsible Cardinal Mario Grech, which is to involve all local churches with a total of almost 1.4 billion members, is a highly ambitious project, but one that has developed great momentum in a short time. While the German Synodal Way has the concrete goal of reducing risk factors of sexualised and spiritual violence, the worldwide synodal process has the more fundamental goal of developing an awareness of synodality.

The question arises: Did Rome also see the chances of a synodal path that was not defined by canon law? Or is this an attempt to slow down and limit the synodal way in Germany? 

There are very different interpretations of this – depending on the interests at stake: Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, President of the German Bishops' Conference since 2020, argued that these are two processes with the same goal. The Bishop of Regensburg, Rudolf Voderholzer, on the other hand, like Woelki a fundamental opponent of the Synodal Way in Germany, interpreted the world-wide Synodal Process as Rome's help in overcoming the consequences of the Corona pandemic for church life, i.e. only as a means of evangelisation.

The French religious Nathalie Becquart, who has been undersecretary of the Synod of Bishops since February 2021 and, by virtue of her office, the first woman with full voting rights in the Synod of Bishops, calls synodality walking a common path and being a pilgrim Church in which all the baptised work together. In this sense, synodality is a fundamental idea of the Church: a vision of the Church as a dynamic community.

It remains to be said: Although Pope Francis has introduced new forms of participation such as worldwide surveys for the preparation of synods, until now it is almost exclusively bishops who have to decide in the end. A distinction is made between “decision making” and “decision taking”. And in the end, the Pope still has the last word with a “post-synodal letter”.

Through consultations and the division into “diocesan phase”, “continental phase” and “global phase”, the current Synod is to become a process for the whole Church and lose some of its unique, exclusive and solely episcopal event character. The intention is to “create dialogue through circularity”.

It is remarkable that in the working document “Make the room of your tent wide”, i.e. the compilation of the Vatican from the worldwide feedback of the local churches, the reform topics are named in a similar way as in the Synodal Way in Germany. For example, the lack of equal rights for women in the Roman Catholic Church is recognised worldwide as a central problem with manifold negative consequences for the Church internally and externally.

A next important stage will be continental meetings in spring 2023 to exchange experiences and develop priorities for action for concrete church situations in preparation for the Synod Assemblies in Rome in October 2023 and October 2024.


German Ad-limina Visit 2022

According to the Catholic concept, an ad limina visit to Rome is a top-down event between the Pope and the heads of the Vatican authorities on the one hand and regional bishops' conferences on the other. As a rule, it takes place every five years. The visit of the German Bishops' Conference to Rome in mid-November 2022, which was postponed by two years because of Corona, was eagerly awaited. For there are not only different positions on the Synodal Way in Germany, but also on a number of other issues. In addition, the Woelki case has burdened the atmosphere for almost two years, since Pope Francis has not yet accepted Woelki's request for resignation and does not intend to do so “under pressure”.


Points of dissent before the visit

In the summer of 2020, it was the “Instruction on the Pastoral Conversion of Parishes” with which the Congregation for the Clergy quite surprisingly tried to put the brakes on pending pastoral reforms. Essentially, it consisted of prohibitions that stipulated what full-time and voluntary “lay people” were not allowed to do, for example, preach at the Eucharist. Above all, women were to be kept away from all offices of leadership and ordination. Some German bishops very quickly and clearly contradicted this instruction.

Two days before the Autumn Plenary Assembly of the German Bishops' Conference 2020 and three quarters of a year before the Third Ecumenical Church Congress planned for May 2021 in Germany, another unexpected and highly problematic no came from Rome. This time from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which rejected a joint vote by Protestant and Catholic theologians on mutual participation in the Lord's Supper and the Eucharist. The model proposed in the vote was nevertheless practised at the Ecumenical Kirchentag 2021 in Frankfurt. However, only to a very limited extent, since this Kirchentag had to take place mainly online due to the Corona situation. The German bishops were not entirely blameless in the ecumenical debacle. If they had been unanimous in their petition to Rome in the spring of 2018 and if seven bishops had not intervened with Pope Francis, Rome would probably not have been able to ignore it.

In spring 2021, the Vatican's ban on blessing homosexual couples caused a great stir. However, even this was not followed, but on the contrary caused deliberately organised blessing ceremonies under the motto “love wins” and the hanging of rainbow flags in churches and parish halls, which attracted worldwide attention.

Two days after their return from the Ad-limina 2022 visit to Rome, the Association of German Dioceses, as the joint legal body of the German Bishops' Conference, decided with the required majority on a new version of the Church's labour law. Church employees who, for example, have remarried after a divorce or live in a homosexual partnership no longer have to fear losing their jobs. Even some conservative bishops are prepared to implement this.

More and more, it is becoming apparent that these are smokescreens and smoke screens that are being set off by certain conservative groups and individuals. In the past, they have repeatedly tried to prevent reform topics from being discussed in the German Bishops' Conference and at other levels. Cardinal Woelki from Cologne, Cardinal Müller, formerly Bishop of Regensburg, and his successor Bishop Voderholzer stand out in particular, seconded by the newly founded anti-reform group Maria 1.0. Between them, some bishops of the universal Church and a handful of influential cardinals of the Roman Curia, a considerable network has developed that could also be dangerous for Pope Francis. And, as it happens, spurious fires and side-candles create confusion, cause delays and influence decisions.


Points of dissent in Rome

Finally, after three years, the German bishops were given the opportunity in November 2022 to inform the Vatican offices and also the Pope in detail about the Synodal Way in Germany. The visit of the German Bishops' Conference, postponed by two years because of Corona, had been eagerly awaited. But the talks must have been unusually undiplomatic and very controversial. The publication of the speeches by Cardinal Luis Ladaria, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Head of the Dicastery for the Bishops, were a clear signal that they also wanted to make clear publicly what was expected from Rome. Ouellet reminded the assembled bishops of the promise of obedience made at their ordination to remain in conformity with the Magisterium. The proposals of the Synodal Way “would not solve the so-called systemic causes of abuse”, Ouellet claimed and pleaded for a “moratorium” of the “Synodal Way”, which was also supported by individual German bishops.

Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, the number two in the Vatican, warned of “reforms of the Church, but not within the Church”. Bishop Georg Bätzing, the chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, on the other hand, rejected the accusation that the Synodal Way was associated with the danger of a protestantisation of the Catholic Church in Germany. “We want to be Catholic,” said Bätzing, “but we want to be Catholic in a different way.

In any case, the German bishops succeeded in preventing a moratorium on the Synodal Way in Germany. But Catholics in Germany as well as the bishops still have to wait for a clear word of appreciation for the German Synodal Way. It is irritating that some topics are supposed to be fundamentally non-negotiable. In the invitation to the worldwide synodal process, no such restrictions were mentioned.


Interdependencies of the reform processes

It was foreseeable that the synodal path would be a rocky one. The theological and psychological legacies that need to be cleared are too great. However, the parrhesia, the free speech at the talks in Rome, repeatedly demanded by Francis, can be seen as a success. At last, the misunderstandings and concerns of the Vatican, which were also fomented by some German bishops and cardinals, are openly on the table. This open and clarifying communication must now be continued on a regular basis.

After the Pope's highly ambivalent letter “to the pilgrim people of God in Germany” of 29 June 2019, it took far too long for Cardinal Mario Grech, the Vatican's commissioner for the World Synod extended to 2024, to declare on 19 May 2022 that the German Synodal Way did not worry him and that he did not share the fears of many critics. But the permanent exchange between the two synodal offices, which was announced some time ago, has still not happened.

If Pope Francis and Cardinal Mario Grech are serious about the worldwide synodal process, to which all local churches are to make a significant contribution, then the efforts of the Synodal Way in Germany must finally be taken seriously. For until a real coming to terms with sexualised and spiritual violence is tackled and structural and theological consequences are drawn from the epidemic of scandals, all efforts at evangelisation, no matter how well-intentioned, will come to nothing.

It will be decisive whether the communication barriers between the German Synodal Office and the Synodal Office for the preparation of the World Synod in Rome can be removed. This also requires a change of course at the level of the Papal Nunciature in Berlin as well as the involvement of the entire Presidium of the Synodal Way, i.e. also the members of the Central Committee of German Catholics.

It is true that the German Synodal Way cannot and does not want to give binding instructions to the universal Church. However, it can expect that its theological and human rights considerations and proposals will not be rejected with purely authoritarian arguments. The texts developed so far demonstrate the urgency of far-reaching reforms in church doctrine and structure. The Vatican should therefore not devalue them, but see them as an important service to the universal Church. The clarification of still open questions should take place in a fraternal spirit. It will be a litmus test for synodality and collegiality.

All essential documents of the Synodal Way in Germany must be made available in a timely manner, also in foreign languages, in order to counterbalance the targeted disruptive manoeuvres from Germany and abroad. For Germany, constructive and transparent proposals are needed on how the results of the Synodal Way can be integrated into the broader global process. For two final results that are not compatible would destroy the credibility of both processes.

The German bishops and auxiliary bishops, who announced a turning point in Lingen more than two years ago, must now finally position themselves, because their two-thirds majority for reform will ultimately be decisive. The more united they are – ideally together with the bishops' conferences of other countries – in Rome for the urgently needed reforms, the less the Vatican will be able to ignore this.

The Roman authorities are not the universal Church, but should remember their serving and co-ordinating task, as envisaged by the new Curia reform. For the synodal assemblies in October 2023 and October 2024 in Rome, a comprehensive participation of men and women with equal rights is needed if the principle of the synod is not to become a farce. 

The next important stage will be the continental meetings of the worldwide synodal process in spring 2023, for Europe in Prague in February 2023. Open-ended discourses are needed as an essential core element of any synodal effort to address the key questions that will be decisive for the church's future: This certainly includes the “women's question”.

As important as the Synodal Way in Germany and the worldwide synodal process since last year are: There is also a need for a broad movement at the church base that is committed to advancing the fundamental transformation processes in our church and also in society and to seeking new ways. The Church People's Conference “We are going ahead – for a synodal church of the future” at the end of September 2022 in Cologne brought about a broad alliance of reform forces. The open network model presented there by the Cologne philosopher of religion Hans-Joachim Höhn (Höhn 2022) showed sociological and theological classifications and encouragements that could be helpful for the further work of the reform forces in Germany and at the international level.


Tense transformation process

What is called the Roman Catholic universal Church has been far from being as monolithically one-dimensional in the past centuries and decades and in the various countries and cultures as the institution presents itself and would like to be seen. This also applies to the Vatican. But the papal claim to absoluteness of the 1st Vatican Council (1869/70), with which the Magisterium concentrated all doctrinal and jurisdictional power on the Pope at the dogmatic and legal level, still has an effect today.

But previous papal words of power, for example on the prohibition of artificial contraception (encyclical “Humanae vitae 1968) or on the exclusion of women's ordination (”Ordinatio sacerdotalis” 1994) have had the opposite effect in the long run. The ecclesiastical office is no longer in a position to demand obedience or to claim it quasi automatically. This may not yet be the case in all regions of the global church. But the feedback from the World Synod shows that there is an awakening everywhere.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which is regarded as a reform council, made some corrections to the teaching of that time. At a time when many Catholic countries were still suffering under dictatorships, it brought about internal church participation at various levels, an opening towards other religions, especially Judaism, and generally a new, more open positioning within the world community. However, nothing had changed in the absolute position of the Pope. Only the resignation of Pope Benedict in spring 2013 at the height of the abuse, financial and trust crisis (”Vatileaks”) and the election of Jorge Bergoglio from Argentina as “Bishop of Rome” marked a turning point in the Church's leadership. The Roman Catholic Church is now facing an enormous reform backlog and a decisive change of course. Following the line of Paul VI, Francis has opted for a synodal path and is trying to initiate processes. In “Evangelii Gaudium”, Francis explicitly names his four principles for the process: “Time is worth more than space”, “Unity weighs more than conflict”, “Reality is more important than the idea” and “The whole is superior to the part”. Francis, however, first and foremost sees the need for a change of mentality, especially among the bishops, and practices a dialogical and spiritual style of leadership.

After the restorative pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who tried to return the Roman Church to its pre-Vatican II status through moral and dogmatic rigorism, Pope Francis is attempting in many ways to continue the theological and pastoral opening of the Council.

The Council had placed emphasis on collegiality and granted the bishops an essential responsibility for church leadership. Now it is a question of the bishops all over the world – together with all the baptised – being prepared to once again fully assume the responsibility due to them for their local churches and for the universal Church. Subsidiarity must not only be demanded by society and the state, but must also be lived out in the Church itself. But this does not mean that the deep crisis of church leadership has been overcome. In order to secure the reform process set in motion by Pope Francis theologically and in terms of church policy, much stronger support is urgently needed from all cardinals and bishops, theologians and theologians throughout the world who are ready for reform.

The universal Roman Catholic Church is in the midst of a paradigm shift from a centralised and absolutist male clerical church to a Christian faith community that understands the rites of Baptism and Confirmation as decisive membership characteristics.

If this paradigm shift does not succeed, the break with tradition could be much more serious than in past decades. The fear of change may perhaps still make many bishops hesitant to give Francis the full support he needs. There may also be cardinals who recognised the need for a change of course when he was elected, but for whom the change of course now seems too strong and too fast. Some may also fear a Gorbachev effect, that the worldwide Roman Catholic Church will fare with decentralisation as the dissolving Soviet Union did.

The future of our Church depends essentially on whether it finds its way back to the original “Communio” (community), to the ecclesiastical 2G rule: baptised and confirmed. The division into “clergy” and “laity” fundamentally contradicts the idea of the “people of God”: all belong to the people and are thus “laity”; all are chosen by God and are thus “clergy”. And this is especially true in the “women's question”. That is why it is so important that not only the bishops have a voice at the assemblies of the World Synod 2023 and 2024.

Sigrid Grabmeier, born 1962, Master of Folklore, in the KirchenVolksBewegung since the beginning, first at parish and deanery level, since 2001 member of the national team. Main topics: Democratic and synodal structures in the church, theology and spirituality, networking. Contact: grabmeier@wir-sind-kirche.de

Christian Weisner, born 1951, former town planner, co-initiator of the KirchenVolksBegehrens 1995 and since then involved in the KirchenVolksBewe sind Kirche movement in Germany and at international level on a voluntary basis. Contact: weisner@wir-sind-kirche.de 



Literature and sources:

Deutsche Bischofskonferenz 2015: Abschlussbericht Überdiözesaner Gesprächsprozess „Im Heute glauben“ 2011 – 2015 (http://kthf.de/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/D1-Dialogprozess-Abschlussbericht.pdf)

Deutsche Bischofskonferenz/Zentralkomitee der deutschen Katholiken Webseite zum Synodalen Weg: https://www.synodalerweg.de

Halík, Tomá? 2022: Der Nachmittag des Christentums. Eine Zeitansage. Herder

Höhn, Hans-Joachim 2022: Netzwerk des Heiligen Geistes. Gemeinsam auf dem Weg zur Kirche von morgen. In: FJSB plus 2022/Heft4 (https://forschungsjournal.de/fjsb/wp-content/uploads/fjsb-plus_2022-4_hoehn.pdf)

Institut für Weltkirche und Mission 2022: Projekt „Synodaler Weg – Weltkirchliche Perspektiven“: Ergebnisse der ersten quantitativen Phase (https://www.dbk.de/presse/aktuelles/meldung/projekt-synodaler-weg-weltkirchliche-perspektiven-ergebnisse-der-ersten-quantitativen-phase)

Labudda, Michaela / Leitschuh, Marcus (Hg) 2021: Synodaler Weg – Letzte Chance?: Standpunkte zur Zukunft der katholischen Kirche, Bonifatius

Lüdecke, Norbert 2021: Die Täuschung. Haben Katholiken die Kirche, die sie verdienen? wbg-Theiss

MHG-Studie „Sexueller Missbrauch an Minderjährigen durch katholische Priester, Diakone und männliche Ordensangehörige im Bereich der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz“ 2018 https://www.dbk.de/themen/sexualisierte-gewalt-und-praevention/forschung-und-aufarbeitung/studien/mhg-studie

Plattform Wir sind Kirche Österreich/KirchenVolksBewegung Wir sind Kirche Deutschland Juli 2021: Weltweite Solidarität zum Synodalen Weg

Ronge, Frank (Hg) 2022: Weltkirche im Aufbruch. Synodale Wege. Herder

Striet, Magnus 2018: Ernstfall Freiheit: Arbeiten an der Schleifung der Bastionen. Herder

Vatikan. Webseite zur 16. Ordentlichen Vollversammlung der Bischofssynode in Rom https://www.vaticannews.va/de/events/synod2023.html

Weisner, Christian 1997: Vom KirchenVolksBegehren zur KirchenVolksBewegung. Wie läßt sich eine 2000jährige Weltorganisation verändern? In: Forschungsjournal Neue Soziale Bewegungen 10/1997, 3, 74-77

Weisner, Christian 2015: Epochenwechsel in der römisch-katholischen Kirche? In: Forschungsjournal Neue Soziale Bewegungen 28/2015, Heft1: Kirchen in Bewegung

Weisner, Christian 2018: Fünf Jahre Papst: „Franziskus hat sehr viel angestoßen“ (https://www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de/fuenf-jahre-papst-franziskus-hat-sehr-viel-angestossen-100.html)

Wiemeyer, Joachim (Hg) 2013: Dialogprozesse in der Katholischen Kirche. Begründungen – Voraussetzungen – Formen. Schöningh

Wir sind Kirche Webseite zum Ad-limina-Besuch 2022: https://www.wir-sind-kirche.de/adlimina2022

Wir sind Kirche Webseite zum „Gesprächsprozess“ der Bischofskonferenz 2010-2015: https://www.wir-sind-kirche.de/?id=600 Timeline Synodal Way in Germany

1995: Allegations of abuse against Cardinal Groër in Vienna

1995: ChurchPeoplePetition Austria, Germany, South Tyrol

January 2010: Disclosure at Canisius College Berlin

2011 to 2015: non-binding dialogue/conversation process “Believing in today”.

25 September 2018: publication of the MHG abuse study

10-13 March 2019: Bishops' Conference in Lingen decides on Synodal Way

29 June 2019: Pope Francis' letter “to the pilgrim people of God in Germany”

4 September 2019: Cardinal Quellet to DBK: Many topics are not the responsibility of a particular church

25 September 2019: Resolution on the Statutes by the Plenary Assembly of the DBK

18 October 2019: Main Committee of the ZdK approves the statutes

1 December 2019: official opening of Synodal Way

30 January-1 February 2020: first Synodal Assembly in Frankfurt

20 July 2020: “Instruction on the Pastoral Conversion of the Parishes

4 September 2020: five regional conferences because of Corona 

4/5 February 2021: Online format on the Synodal Way

15 March 2021: “Responsum ad dubium” No for blessing homosexual couples

Around 10 May 2021: Blessing services #lovewins

13-16 May 2021: Third Ecumenical Church Congress (mostly online)

29 June-1 July 2021: Cardinal Parolin in Berlin

30 September-1 October 2021: Second Synodal Assembly in Frankfurt

24 January 2022: #outinchurch goes public

3-5 February 2022: third Synodal Assembly in Frankfurt

25-29 May 2022: Katholikentag Stuttgart

21 July 2022: Declaration of the Holy See on the Synodal Way

8-10 September 2022: Fourth Synodal Assembly in Frankfurt

24-25 September 2022: KirchenVolksKonferen of the reform groups in Cologne

14-20 November 2022: Ad limina visit of the German bishops to the Pope in Rome

22 November 2022: Basic decision on the reorganisation of church labour law

9-11 March 2023: Fifth and last synodal assembly in Frankfurt


Timeline worldwide synodal process for the Synod of Bishops in Rome

24 April 2021: Announcement of worldwide synodal process “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission”.

September 2021: Preparatory manual “Vademecum

9/10 October 2021: Pope Francis opens the Synod 

16/17 October 2021: Opening in the local churches

until March 2022: Synodal consultations at regional level under the moderation of the bishop on the basis of a central questionnaire and guidelines

April 2022: The Synod Secretariat evaluates the diocesan results and experiences and draws up a first working document (”Instrumentum laboris”).

September 2022: Publication of the first working document

16 October 2022: Announcement of extension October 2024

October 2022 to March 2023: Second phase of synodal consultations at continental level, co-directed by bishops' conferences

April 2023: Evaluation of continental results by Synod Secretariat. 

June 2023: Publication of the second working document (”Instrumentum laboris”).

4-29 October 2023: 16th Ord. plenary assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Rome (Part 1).

October 2024: 16th Ordinary Plenary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Rome (Part 2)


Manuscript for 

Forschungsjournal Soziale Bewegungen – Analysen zu Demokratie und Zivilgesellschaft

Online edition 2022, volume 4


Translated with DeepL

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