10 German Dioceses Push for Major Changes During Upcoming ‘Synodal Path’

According to a joint open letter released in Germany, vicars general say ‘fundamental reform’ is ‘essential’ and ask that accusations that participants are ‘lacking orthodoxy’ be avoided during the two-year synodal process.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference
Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference (photo: Edward Pentin photo)

Now that the Pan-Amazonian Synod is over, attention is turning to the German bishops’ “synodal path” whose latest development is the publication of a joint letter from vicars general representing 10 German archdioceses which strongly endorses the synodal process that begins Dec. 1.

The letter, published on Tuesday, was addressed to the German bishops’ conference and the largest and most influential lay group in the country, the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK).

The vicars general, representing the archbishops of Berlin, Essen, Hamburg, Hildesheim, Limburg, Magdeburg, Münster, Osnabrück, Speyer and Trier, wrote that they considered “fundamental reform of the Church in Germany to be urgently necessary, indeed essential.”

According to Katholisch.de, a news portal administered by the German bishops’ conference, they said they wanted a Church "in which plurality and diversity are desired and permitted” as only an open and diverse church has the chance to “remain effectively present” in society. And they see the “synodal path” as means to achieve this.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the president of the German bishops’ conference, has said the two-year synodal path of meetings proposes to tackle “key issues” arising from the clerical sex abuse crisis, ostensibly with the aim of helping the Church align with the times. 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 ZdK, which openly supports ending priestly celibacy, ordaining women and blessing same-sex couples in churches, is to work closely with the German bishops during the process.

In their joint letter, the vicars general wrote that the crisis in the Catholic Church and “the many critical questions” they have provoked from people and the media are a “sign of the times” and a “challenge that God gives us for us.” For this reason, and after “deep and honest conversations,” they said they are “convinced that it is God’s will to take significant steps of change.” And they added that if the Church persists with a “business as usual” approach, she cannot do justice to her mission.

Noting that such changes can be painful, the bishops’ representatives said they hoped the “synodal path” would engender “an honest and open dialogue, characterized by mutual trust and respect and the willingness for mutual understanding.” 

But they also notably ask the bishops’ conference and the ZdK to “refrain from insinuations and even accusations of lacking ‘orthodoxy.’” They said a reliance on “God’s spirit” will help participants to take “reasonable steps” to renew the Church.

The Spirit of God can help “to determine the appropriate ratio of Tradition and Innovation today,” they added.

“We expect that the results of the synodal path will change our practice significantly,” the vicars general concluded. “We want, and are open to, such changes. Moreover, we are ready as administrative managers in our dioceses, together with our bishops, to implement reform decisions.”

“Do we want to be a closed Church or one that embraces life and culture?” Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück said in a recent Washington Post interview on the “synodal path.”

But critics believe the process could lead the faithful down an erroneous path that will ultimately damage the Church and, according to Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, possibly lead to “schism within the Church in Germany” and a “German national church.”

German Cardinal Walter Brandmüller has criticized German bishops for displaying what he views as “embarrassing arrogance” by pursuing a “self-destructive, national particularism.”

The vicars' general letter is “basically an attempt to increase public pressure,” an informed German Church source told the Register. The Pan-Amazonian Synod, which has proposed the ordination of married men and further discussion of a female diaconate, “was not an end but just a beginning,” the source predicted.

Speaking on Monday evening, Cardinal Woelki stressed that unchangeable stipulations of the faith should not be questioned and recalled that Pope Francis did not want synods to resemble parliaments with “quasi-parliamentary votes on the faith.”

Also recalling Pope Francis, he said the answer to renewal was primarily through evangelization rather than change of structures, and that this meant reviving our friendship with Christ and immersing ourselves in the Tradition and doctrine of the Church.

He also warned against separating from the world Church. A choir, he said, is not about elevating individual voices.

He said, “Shrill sounds should therefore be avoided.”