For nearly four years, ever since Pope Francis spoke about the possibility of a traditionalist schism in the Catholic Church in the US, the standard rebuttal by papal critics has been: “The real schism is in Germany.” This is a reference to Der Synodale Weg (the “Synodal Path” or “Synodal Way” in English) — an initiative that has taken place in the German Church over the past few years and has been a source of great controversy for many Catholics. This is because the participants in the Synodal Way have expressed views and ratified proposals that contradict Catholic doctrines and practices in areas such as the male-only priesthood, sexual morality, and authority in the Church.
First, some background information is in order. It should be noted that the Germans’ Synodal Way is not formally part of the global synod that is currently taking place in the universal Church. It began well in advance of the Synod on Synodality. It is a nationwide, multi-stage process initiated by the German bishops’ conference during their plenary assembly in March 2019 in Lingen. The Synodal Way was convened in response to the devastating findings of the MHG Study on sexual abuse in Germany, released in September 2018.
Two months later, the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) — a body of lay Catholics representing various Catholic organizations and associations that advises the German bishops — voted in favor of participating in the Synodal Way, and ZdK members make up 69 of the 230 participants in the Synodal Assembly. Both the ZdK and the bishops’ conference have official, defined roles in overseeing the statutes and procedures of the Synodal Way, which commenced in late 2019 and has met in five assemblies, with the final meeting taking place in March of this year.
The areas of discussion for the Synodal Way have fallen into four different “forums” — essentially broad parameters or topics to be addressed, and the synod participants were each assigned to one of the forums:
- Power and Separation of Powers in the Church – Joint Participation and Involvement in the Mission,
- Priestly Existence Today,
- Women in Ministries and Offices in the Church, and
- Life in succeeding relationships – Living love in sexuality and partnership.
As one might guess from the subject matter, many of the proposals brought forth by the assembly reflect the prevailing social views typically held by residents of a rapidly-secularizing European country today. Perhaps more surprising was that many of the proposals were overwhelmingly approved by the assembly, and received wide support from the country’s bishops. It seems that the Church in Germany — bishops, clergy, and laity — is headed for a collision with the Magisterium. What will happen when that day comes is yet to be determined.
Some Catholics inside and outside of Germany have attempted to put the brakes on the runaway train. There have been numerous interventions by bishops outside of Germany — including several from high-ranking Vatican officials — criticizing the Synodal Way, and there have been many calls for the pope to put a stop to the entire process. Catholic public figures in the United States have already declared that the Church in Germany is in schism, due to the positions they have taken on hot-button issues, and the recent vote in favor of a “Blessing for Couples who Love Each Other” (approved by an overwhelming majority of bishops) has moved the Synodal Way to the top of their lists of concerns.
I have written before about Cardinal Walter Kasper’s serious objections to the Synodal Way’s proposals to change the Church’s power structures in the areas of doctrine, discipline, and authority. For example, during the third synodal assembly, the members of Forum I overwhelmingly approved a document that proposed changes to canon law and Church government. It also said that they were “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.”
Despite all this, Pope Francis seems — at least for now — willing to allow the drama to continue to play out. Certainly, he has offered criticisms of the Synodal Way. In January of this year, during an interview with the AP’s Nicole Winfield, he said, “the German experience does not help, because it is not a Synod, it is not a serious synodal path. It is a so-called synodal path, but not one with the totality of the people of God, but one made by the elites.” He went on to say that the Synodal Way is “a bit elitist, and does not have all the procedural consensus of a synod as such.”
Many have argued (and I agree) that the Synodal Way is more the work of a “solutions-oriented” and long-secularized Church bureaucracy and less the voice of the faithful, the People of God. Francis also clearly believes that ideological and personal agendas have tainted the work of the Synodal Way. Later in the interview, he said, “the danger is that something very, very ideological trickles in. When ideology gets involved in church processes, the Holy Spirit goes home, because ideology overcomes the Holy Spirit.”
So why does he allow it to continue?
For one thing, I think he realizes that underneath whatever ideological and ecclesiastically-unsound proposals have been brought forth by the Synodal Way, there is a genuine crisis of credibility in the German Church. A record 359,000 Germans officially disaffiliated from the Catholic Church in 2021, far surpassing the previous record of 221,390 defections in 2020. The sexual abuse crisis stripped the Catholic hierarchy of its moral credibility in Germany, and people have been leaving in droves. Many German Catholics (like Catholics elsewhere) question the authority of Catholic clergy over sexual behavior when they have acted so hypocritically in this department, especially in their handling of abuse. This helps explain why thousands of them left as a direct response to the Church’s 2021 document rejecting the blessing of same sex-couples.
Francis also recognizes that the Church’s approach to people in various situations of sin and hardship has not always been the most pastoral. Many people associate the message of the Church (unfairly or not) with threats of damnation rather than the Good News. To shut down the German Synod without addressing its concerns — and the people raising these concerns — directly would be seen as yet another condemnation. It seems he thinks it’s time for a fair hearing. And perhaps there are positive things we can learn from the Germans in the process.
Ultimately, Pope Francis trusts that the Holy Spirit is guiding the Church, and he believes that the Magisterium acts as the backstop that preserves the deposit of faith. I can’t predict how things will shake out in the end, nor do I know how Pope Francis will respond. That said, I think it’s safe to predict that in the near future we will finally see the “mess” that Pope Francis called for back in 2013. Even still, speaking for myself, I am at peace with that uncertainty because I trust the Holy Spirit and I agree with Pope Francis that dialogue is the way forward. We can’t run from our problems. We must look to the future with faith and hope.
Image: Fifth Synodal Assembly of the Synodal Path (09-11 March 2023): Deliberations of the Synodal Assembly (09.03.2023)
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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.