A Tale of Two Synods: What Will German and Roman Synod Meetings Accomplish?

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising gestures on September 13, 2019, during the expanded joint conference of bishops and laity to prepare the “Synodal Way”. The bishops of Germany, reacting to an independent study of the extent of clerical sexual abuse in their country and its possible causes, chose to engage in a “synodal” process that was neither a synod nor a full council. (CNS/KNA/Harald Oppitz)

There are currently two synodal meetings in the Catholic Church – the “Synodal Way” of the German Church and the “Synod on Synodality” of the bishops of the Catholic Church – which will undoubtedly have serious repercussions on the life from the church.

A number of factors have influenced the German synodal path: the devastating consequences of the priestly sex abuse scandal, the cover-up by many bishops, and the appallingly low level of less than 6% of German Catholics attending Sunday Eucharistic liturgies. The synodal way of the German Church involves a synodal assembly with meetings beginning in 2020 and due to end in 2023.

There are two important characteristics of the Synodal Way. The first concerns the structure of the assembly. The German bishops worked with the Central Lay Committee of German Catholics. The assembly will have an equal number of bishops and laity, each having one vote. The bishops, then, not only listen to the laity, but there is an equal number of bishops and laity who vote. This is a new structure in the Catholic Church that is very disturbing.

The second important characteristic of the Synodal Path concerns the subjects to be treated. These are not general topics, such as evangelism, liturgy or the social mission of the Church, but rather very specific and controversial issues – power and checks and balances in the Church, sexual morality, the priestly way of life and the place of women in the Church. These topics include many burning issues, such as the ordination of women, public blessings for same-sex partnerships, married priests, and lay participation in the selection of bishops.

Many have seen the danger of schism in the German church. Shortly after the process was first announced, Pope Francis on June 29, 2019 sent a letter to the German church reminding them that they must walk in accord with the universal church and recognize the important role of the Holy Spirit, but the pope acknowledged that this “binding synodal procedure” is in accordance with Vatican II.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, then president of the German bishops, and Thomas Sternberg, the leader of the Catholic lay group, jointly responded to the papal letter, thanking the pope for his guidance and support.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, Germany, speaks on January 30, 2020, during a <a class=press conference for the opening of the synodal assembly in Frankfurt. (CNS/KNA/Harald Oppitz)” title=”Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, Germany, speaks on January 30, 2020, during a press conference for the opening of the synodal assembly in Frankfurt. (CNS/KNA/Harald Oppitz)”/>

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, Germany, speaks on January 30, 2020, during a press conference for the opening of the synodal assembly in Frankfurt. (CNS/KNA/Harald Oppitz)

There was also a reported meeting between Pope Francis and Marx to discuss the issues. Apparently, Marx recognized that the German church would not and could not go against universal church teaching, but would provide the results of their process for the discussion of the universal church. However, other curia leaders, such as Cardinal Marc Ouellet, have strongly criticized the structure of the synodal path as invalid.

More recently, Cardinal Walter Kasper expressed reservations on the German Synodal Way. Kasper has usually been associated with the moral liberal wing of German bishops, but he was recently a member of the Roman curia and is believed to be close to Pope Francis.

In the meantime, the processes related to the synod on synodality continued. Synods of bishops have been held in the Catholic Church since Vatican II. Originally, Pope Francis planned for the XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to be held to discuss the issue of synodality, but later called for a detailed process inviting the whole Church to participate in discussions leading to the Roman Synod, which is scheduled for October 2023.

The Vatican website on the synod on synodality has 10 different documents, the most important of which are the preparatory document and the vademecum or manual. The purpose of synod is for the whole church to walk together and reflect on ongoing learning that can help the church to live communion, advance participation, and be open to mission.

What does the Spirit invite us to do to be a synodal church? The synod’s spiritual process involves listening to the Spirit and to everyone in the Church, especially minorities, to discern how the Church should live out its mission.

Pope Francis leads a meeting with representatives of episcopal conferences around the world on October 9, 2021 at the Vatican.  The meeting came as the Vatican launched the process that will lead to the assembly of the World Synod of Bishops in 2023. (CNS)

Pope Francis leads a meeting with representatives of episcopal conferences around the world on October 9, 2021 at the Vatican. The meeting came as the Vatican launched the process that will lead to the assembly of the World Synod of Bishops in 2023. (CNS/Paul Haring)

The preparatory document describes in detail the processes which include four different phases:

  • The diocesan phase from October 2021 to April 2022 involves the local church;
  • A 10-page summary discernment of the diocesan phase will be submitted to each episcopal conference, which involves the second phase;
  • In the third phase, seven continental meetings will take place, each producing a final document to serve as the basis for the working document (instrumentum laboris);
  • The working document will be used by the Assembly of Bishops, which constitutes the fourth phase.

The instructions and plans for the diocesan phase are quite elaborate and include questions and topics for discussion. The basic question is: what steps does the Spirit invite us to take in order to grow in our journey together as God’s people?

Questions are asked in light of 10 themes, and include questions such as: How are young people and women listened to? Are we hearing the voices of minorities and the excluded? What prejudices and stereotypes harm our hearing? How does our church community identify goals to pursue and how to achieve them? How to encourage participation in decision-making within hierarchical structures? How can we grow in communal spiritual discernment? In addition, conversation and dialogue in assemblies can touch on other issues as well.

The preparatory document also points out the pitfalls that can prevent true synodality. These pitfalls are listed in terms of temptations—wanting to lead rather than be led by the Spirit; focus on ourselves and our immediate concerns; focus only on structures or problems; treat the synod as a kind of parliament involving political battles between different parties; and the temptation of conflict and division.

The German Synodal Way and the Roman Synod on Synodality are due to conclude in 2023. What will they accomplish?

We cannot know with certainty what will happen; but, in my opinion, neither synod will overcome existing divisions in the Catholic Church and may even exacerbate existing problems and tensions. There will be no consensus that will change existing tensions.

An ideal situation would attempt to flesh out the goal of unity in necessary things, freedom in doubtful things, and charity in all things. (Many claim that this guiding principle was found in Augustine, but more recent scholarship shows that it probably originated with the 17th century German theologian Rupertus Meldenius.)

The problem is in the details. What is necessary and what is doubtful? In the current situation, there is no agreement on what is necessary and what is doubtful – and not only in the Roman Catholic Church. In light of these existing tensions, the process of listening and trying to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit is unlikely to succeed. This is true for the two Catholic synods discussed here.

The German Synodal Way, to its credit, has identified many areas of discussion and disagreement within the church – the ordination of women, a reform of church teaching on sexual ethics, including homosexuality, acceptance of married men into the priesthood, more lay commentary on the appointment of bishops. All recognize that the German Catholic Church cannot change the teaching of the Universal Catholic Church on these issues. Likewise, the Synodal Way, in my opinion, will not be divided by cutting itself off from the teaching of the universal Catholic Church. Ultimately, the synodal way could easily cause more disillusionment and even cause more Catholics to leave the church.

The synod on synodality faces other problems. Perhaps some of the issues discussed in the German Synodal Way can be raised in the discernment process, but Roman synodal processes recognize the teaching role of the pope and bishops. In reality, Canon 343 of the Code of Canon Law now argues that the synod itself can only make a decision binding on the whole Catholic Church when the pope explicitly accepts such decisions. The synod will probably not even discuss the most controversial issues in the Catholic Church today which are the main concern of the German Synodal Way.

I am not very optimistic about what the two Synods will accomplish.

I hope I’m wrong.

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