Friday’s unexpected statement from the Vatican Press Office on the German Synodal Path struck many observers as unusual, and its brevity – only two paragraphs – left many scratching their heads. Not a few commentators seemed to think that this was an attempt by the Vatican to put the brakes on some of the more ideologically progressive doctrinal recommendations proposed during the process. The statement, however, seemed to place most of its focus on Church governance and authority, stating that its purpose was to “clarify that the ‘Synodal Way’ in Germany does not have the power to compel the bishops and the faithful to adopt new ways of governance and new approaches to doctrine and morals.”
As the Tablet’s Christopher Lamb put it, “The latest intervention seeks to articulate the ‘general position’ of the Church’s central government with regards to the German synodal path and therefore increases the pressure on Germany to change track.”
Some observers attempted to play detective, trying to deduce who, if not Pope Francis, might have been the driving force behind the unsigned statement. It goes without saying that Francis almost certainly approved it, but the emphasis of the brief statement aligns closely with remarks made by the 89-year-old German Cardinal Walter Kasper last month during an online study day of the German Lay Initiative “Neuer Anfang” (New Beginning).
Cardinal Kasper, who has been a key advisor to Pope Francis on matters relating to the German Church, has become increasingly outspoken about his concerns with the Synodal Path, worrying that it is headed in a direction inconsistent with traditional Catholic ecclesiology and a true understanding of synodality.
The foundational text for the third synodal assembly held in February contains proposals aimed at overhauling “power structures” in the Church. The document says, “The Catholic Church must constantly re-examine the structures in which she lives her power. She must change these structures where service to the people requires it and develop them further to ensure the proper governance of the Church in the spirit of the Gospel.” The text then goes on to propose concrete changes that would radically overhaul the nature of ecclesial authority in the Church.
For example, the Synodal Path sought to “make a precise distinction between christologically-founded authority, and forms of exercising power that are necessary from an organisational point of view.” In other words, it tried to delineate the parts of Church governance that require the leadership of clergy and functions that might be carried out by laypeople. As the document put it, they were trying to separate the “power of ordination” and the “power of governance.”
Based on this distinction, the Synodal Path suggests that Church law “does not exclude a division of powers appropriate to the Church, in which executive, legislative and judicial powers are precisely distinguished.” They do concede that such a separation of powers is not entirely orthodox, stating, “It is true that a contradiction between the power of ordination and the power of leadership or jurisdiction would run counter to Catholic ecclesiology. But a stronger differentiation guaranteeing more transparency and control as well as more participation and cooperation is possible and necessary.” To this end, they propose changing canon law so “that a system of separation of powers, participation in decision-making, and independent scrutiny of power, is established.”
Certainly, most Catholics are concerned with a lack of transparency and a culture of secrecy in the hierarchy. This is what allowed a culture of abuse and cover-up to fester under the surface, the scope of which is horrifying. If it’s not seriously addressed, Catholics will continue to leave. But the German proposal risks transgressing the idea of a Church that walks together “with and under Peter,” and begins to look more like something that a team of corporate consultants might put together to improve a company’s efficiency.
It’s within the proposed democratized structure of the Church that the Synodal Path proposes its goal of totally rethinking the clergy. “We are therefore furthermore committed to casting qualified votes so that those among the faithful who are called and qualified, irrespective of their gender and state of life, are given access to all the Church’s ministries and offices – including all ordained ministries.” It also recommends appointing bishops at the local level, asserting that the faithful have “a right of co-decision in the preparation of the list of candidates, and a right to be heard prior to the selection being made from the list of candidates.”
It seems that rather than collectively discussing the ideas, hopes, and concerns of the faithful—which certainly include the role of women, power structures, and a lack of transparency—the Synodal Path has gone an extra step in proposing a radical overhaul of the ecclesiology of the Church. One might ask whether the German proposals, which were drafted independently of the Vatican and the universal Church, resemble the Catholic Church very much at all. This greatly concerns Cardinal Kasper, and he has been vocal about it.
In his address—which focused on the theme of true and false renewal in the Church—Cardinal Kasper said, “Renewal does not mean trying something new for a moment and reinventing a new church. Renewal means, as already promised in the Old Testament, to make oneself new by the Spirit of God and to be given a new heart (Ez 36:26 f).”
In other words, truly renewing the Church isn’t creating completely new structures or coming up with novel ideas about how the Church should be governed, but about, as Kasper says, “shaping the Church back into form — into the form Jesus Christ wanted and gave to the Church. Jesus Christ is the foundation stone, no one can lay another (1 Cor 3,10 f), and he is simultaneously the cornerstone that joins everything together (Eph 2:20). He is the measure, the Alpha and Omega of any renewal.” And of course, additional concerns are created because these changes are being proposed in the context of one local Church, without the input of the Vatican or other national Churches. The fact that one Church is off on its own, proposing radical changes to the Church’s governing structures, threatens ecclesial unity.
More fundamentally—as Cardinal Kasper explains—a synod is a spiritual event rooted in the Gospel with Christ at the center. He strongly denounces ideologically- or politically-driven approaches to synodality, saying, “A synod is the intermission of the ordinary business of the church to take time to listen and share what the Spirit has to say to us today. More specifically, what He tells us about the corrections we need to make and the direction we should take.”
Kasper appears to be deeply concerned about the intentions of the participants in the Synodal Path. He sees them calling for the dismantling of integral ecclesial structures; replacing them with committees or councils that have the authority to impose ideologically-driven changes to doctrine and Church governance. Kasper insists, “There can be no ideologically prescribed answers to these questions imposed by majority voting. Rather, the result must grow and mature in listening and praying together and in attentive conversation with one another.”
The cardinal went on to explain that synodality involves walking together as Church, following the Holy Spirit. “Synods are spiritual events. Historically, they were a liturgical event in which, in the beginning, the Evangeliary is solemnly enthroned and, in the hymn “‘Come, Creator Spirit,’ the Holy Spirit is invoked. The Gospel of Jesus Christ interpreted presently in the Holy Spirit should preside; it should be the norm that everyone follows to bring the church newly into form.”
Pope Francis, in his letter to the German Church, also warned against quick fixes and human solutions, writing, “At the heart of this temptation there is the thought that, faced with so many problems and shortcomings, the best response would be to reorganise things, make changes and indulge in ‘mending’ in order to adapt the life of the Church to the prevailing logic or the logic of a particular group.”
In the past, I have been cautiously optimistic about the Germans’ Synodal Path, and I still have hope that they will correct course. The problem here is not the discussion of hot-button “culture war” issues that have worried many US reactionaries. These topics were bound to come up in such settings and people want to talk about them. I think dialogue is a good thing. But the German Synodal Path seems to have gone far beyond dialogue and painted a roadmap that is very difficult to reconcile with the foundations of the Catholic Church.
Cardinal Kasper correctly stated, “Church reform does not turn the Church into some substance that can be remolded and reshaped to suit the situation. True reform is not about being as contemporary as possible but about being as Christlike as possible.” The Church is always in need of reform. But the Church always needs reform because it needs to become more like the Church founded by Christ. As Pope Francis wrote in his letter, “The challenges we face, the different questions to be addressed cannot be ignored or concealed: they must be faced, but without being trapped in them, losing perspective, shrinking the horizon and fragmenting reality.”
The leaders of the Synodal Path may have fallen into the trap of trying to direct change rather than listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit to direct them. Hopefully, they will heed the wisdom of Cardinal Kasper and Pope Francis as they continue on their journey.
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.