VATICAN CITY — The vote at the Synod of Bishops on the Pan-Amazon Region last month to propose ordaining married men — the so-called viri probati — and to further study a women’s diaconate will be of “great importance” to the German bishops’ upcoming “Synodal Path,” one of the country’s bishops has said.
Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück, who will chair one of the Synodal Path’s four forums, told the Register Nov. 21 that the fact that two-thirds of synod fathers at the Pan-Amazonian synod voted “in favor of the consecration of viri probati, and also with the same majority brought into play the diaconate consecration for women, complies with our reflections for the Synodal Path.”
Such a synodal process is the “first time this has happened in the Church,” Bishop Bode said, and “in view of our situation in Germany,” these questions raised during the Amazon synod “are also of great importance for our Synodal Path.”
He added that they will “be taken up” in the two of four forums during the synodal process: one on “Priestly Life Today” and the other, which Bishop Bode co-chairs, on “Women in Ministries and Offices of the Church.”
The German bishops’ conference decided in March this year to begin a “synodal path” to “process” the abuse scandal and arrive at solutions following the publication last year of a devastating four-year study into clerical sex abuse in the Church in Germany.
Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the president of the German bishops’ conference, said the process, which will consist of two years of meetings, would tackle “key issues” arising from the clerical sex-abuse crisis. In particular, the bishops are set to question the Catholic Church’s perennial teaching on priestly celibacy, human sexuality and the role of women in the Church.
The Synodal Path begins informal talks on Dec. 1, with the first general assembly held on Jan. 30. The Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), the most influential lay group in the Church in Germany, which openly supports ending the discipline of priestly celibacy, ordaining women and blessing same-sex couples in churches, will be working closely with the bishops.
The Amazon synod, whose preparation was considerably funded by the Church in Germany, is widely thought to have been staged partly to prepare the groundwork for the reforms envisioned for the Synodal Path, in particular introducing married clergy to the Latin Rite, and a permanent diaconate for women.
“The whole process is totally preplanned and fixed — a ‘false game,’” an informed source within the German Church told the Register. “It is an attempt to Protestantize and revolutionize the Catholic Church in order to ‘catch up’ with the last 500 years, but this time from within. The focus is on power, money and influence, not faith and evangelization.”
Earlier this month, vicars general from 10 dioceses wrote that they considered the Synodal Path a means to achieve “fundamental reform of the Church in Germany,” which they deemed to be “urgently necessary, indeed essential.”
For this reason, the Register sought responses from a number of German bishops to two principal questions: how they thought the Synodal Path intended to build on the Amazon synod and what they hoped the process would achieve.
Other Bishops’ Responses
Bishop Felix Genn of Münster, who will co-chair the forum on women’s ministry, told the Register Nov. 21 he viewed the Amazon synod “as an encouragement for the Synodal Path we have chosen.”
“Like the Amazon Synod, the Synodal Path should also be a way of conversion and renewal, which serves as a point of departure in the light of the Gospel, to speak about the importance of faith and Church in our time and to find answers to urgent questions of the Church,” he said.
Similarly, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, who will co-chair the forum on “sexual morality,” also said the Amazon synod was an “encouragement” for the Synodal Path and that, like the upcoming process, it pointed toward “conversion and renewal.” If Jesus describes himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life, “then the truths of our faith cannot be rigid and immovable points of view,” he told the Register.
Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, who said ahead of the Amazon synod that it would lead the universal Church to a “point of no return,” and that “nothing will be the same as it was,” said he saw that “some topics of the Amazon synod are also relevant here in Germany,” but he added that the forthcoming discussions would also “take the situation of the local Catholic Church into consideration.”
Bishop Peter Kohlgraf of Mainz seemed less convinced of an Amazon synod-Synodal Path connection, saying the former “focused on questions of ecology and inculturation,” while the Synodal Path in Germany “has its own questions” deriving from the 2018 clerical sex-abuse study.
But he nevertheless foresaw the Synodal Path having an impact on the universal Church.
“Just as suggestions from the world Church can be significant for us, impulses from the Church in Germany can, of course, also be significant for the Church in the world,” he said.
Archbishop Heiner Koch of Berlin declined to answer the Register’s questions; instead, his spokesman directed attention to a Nov. 9 article on the bishops’ web portal Katholisch.de in which the archbishop urged listening and dialogue during the process to overcome differences and find solutions.
Cardinal Marx also chose not to respond to the Register’s questions, nor respond to Bishop Bode’s remarks on the “great importance” of the Amazon synod to the Synodal Path, because the subject matter to be discussed had not been finalized, and he “doesn’t comment on public statements or interviews of other members of the episcopate,” his spokesman Bernhard Kellner said.
But some bishops who don’t support the Synodal Path believe the process could lead the faithful down a path that will ultimately damage the Church. According to Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, it could lead to “schism within the Church in Germany” and a “German national church.”
Both Bishop Genn and Bishop Bätzing told the Register they did not think the Synodal Path would “lead to a schism.” They both said the Church in Germany is “not a ‘special Church,’ neither within the whole Church nor in the world,” but Bishop Genn saw the Central Committee of German Catholics, noted for its controversial positions on Church teaching, as playing a “responsible” role in following the Synodal Path.
He claimed “a very great unity” surrounds the Synodal Path. “Of course, there are also some who do not find everything right. But this is not a split; it is simply a debate,” he said.
“But shouldn’t we as Church, especially in times of political and social discourse that’s been brutalized by populists, also try to show that one can struggle hard in the matter, but nevertheless deal with each other well and constructively for the right way?” he asked. “The Catholic Church as a model of constructive conflict culture: That would be something!”
Many of the bishops the Register contacted saw the Synodal Path as a means to reach people and, in the words of Bishop Kohlgraf, help spark a “revival of the faith in our country.”
Bishop Overbeck thought it would “strengthen the Christian witness in our country”; Bishop Bode thought it would help clergy and laity “find the right way to evangelize” and help the Church be “more credible on the ground.” He also thought it could lead to a regional Synod of Bishops for Germany similar to the Amazon synod. Bishop Bätzing welcomed the fact that the process is beginning during Advent, when “something new begins,” and that the bishops will “wrestle and come to grips with hot-button issues” over two years.
However, Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg, one of a handful of German bishops willing to publicly criticize the process, told the Register that he believes the Synodal Path seems to “miss the reality of the crisis of faith in our country.” He urges looking at how Protestant denominations that have introduced similar changes that the Synodal Path looks expected to consider have rapidly declined.
He also noted that, despite its claimed emphasis on evangelization, the Synodal Path lacks a forum on evangelization, and he accuses the whole process of “insincerity,” with themes that are “pseudo-scientific.”
Bishop Voderholzer has reserved the right to withdraw from the whole process if the Synodal Path does not observe the primacy of evangelization and the unity of the universal Church — a call made by Pope Francis.
“I hope and pray that the Synodal Process will help to bring about a true renewal of the Church,” the bishop said, “despite what I consider to be wrong choices.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.