Cost of Germany’s ‘Synodal Way’ Remains a Mystery

The documents appeared to indicate that the project had so far cost more than 5.7 million euros (around $6 million).

The third Synodal Assembly of the ‘Synodal Way’ in Frankfurt, Germany, on Feb. 4, 2022.
The third Synodal Assembly of the ‘Synodal Way’ in Frankfurt, Germany, on Feb. 4, 2022. (photo: Max von Lachner / Synodal Way)

ROME — The German “Synodal Way” has created worldwide controversy. But how much it is costing the Catholic Church remains a mystery.

A spokesman for the Church in Germany declined on May 8 to give a breakdown of the costs of the multi-year project, which critics claim could lead to schism.

CNA approached the spokesman after seeing documents suggesting that the German Church had spent millions on the Synodal Way, an initiative bringing together laypeople and bishops to discuss far-reaching changes to Catholic teaching and practice.

The documents appeared to indicate that the project had so far cost more than 5.7 million euros (around $6 million).

The figure was based on data compiled by the Association of the Dioceses of Germany, a legal entity of the German bishops’ conference located in Bonn. 

The documents, which are not publicly available, suggested that the Church spent 703,195 euros in 2019, 878,035 euros in 2020, 2,231,400 euros in 2021, and 1,900,245 in 2022, for a total of 5,712,875 euros.

The documents seen by CNA listed the expenditures as “Consequences from the MHG Study,” with a note clarifying that “This cost center [Kostenstelle] includes all costs incurred in connection with the ‘Synodal Way’ of the German Bishops’ Conference.” 

But Matthias Kopp, a spokesman for the German bishops’ conference, told CNA on March 16 that the figures did not refer solely to the Synodal Way but to all expenses in the wake of a 2018 analysis of clerical abuse in the German Church known as the MHG Study.

The study was one of the factors that led the German bishops to embark on the Synodal Way in 2019.

Kopp said: “In our budget planning, we have set an annual budget of 2.5 million euros under the cost definition (Kostenstelle) ‘consequential costs of dealing with MHG Study’ (that means: all costs for the work after MHG, that means the office of work against sexual abuse, running costs of independent commissions on sexual abuse, Synodal Path in Germany).” 

He added that the figures showed that the costs fell “below the estimate” each year, but stressed that the figure for the year 2021 was incorrect.

“I repeat: the ‘Kostenstelle’ runs the costs of all (!) work dealing with the consequences of MHG Study not only the Synodal Path,” he commented.

Asked later if he could give a more detailed breakdown of the costs of Synodal Path itself, Kopp indicated that he was unable to provide further information.

How is the Synodal Way Being Funded?

The cost of the Synodal Way is controversial because the Catholic Church in Germany is funded by a church tax.

If an individual is registered as a Catholic in Germany, 8-9% of their income tax goes to the Church. The only way they can stop paying the tax is to make an official declaration renouncing their membership. They are then no longer allowed to receive the sacraments or a Catholic burial. 

Around 27% of Germany’s 83 million population identify as Catholics, with only 5.9% of Catholics attending Mass in 2020. More than 220,000 people formally left the Catholic Church that year.

But the Catholic Church in Germany remains one of the world’s richest. It received more money in church tax than ever before in 2019 despite losing a record number of members, due to the growth of the German economy.

The Church tax finances groups such as the influential Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), which has campaigned for many years for changes in Church teaching and discipline.

The ZdK partnered with the German bishops’ conference to launch the Synodal Way. 

The German bishops’ conference clashed with the Vatican after it initially suggested that the process would end with a series of “binding” votes.

Synodal Way participants voted in February in favor of draft texts calling for the abolition of priestly celibacy in the Latin Church, the ordination of women priests, same-sex blessings, and changes to Catholic teaching on homosexuality.

The Synodal Way’s Critics Speak Out 

The project has generated alarm among Church leaders outside Germany. 

In April, more than 70 bishops worldwide released a “fraternal open letter” to Germany’s bishops warning that initiative could lead to schism.

In March, the Nordic Catholic bishops issued an open letter expressing strong reservations at the project’s direction.

Their intervention followed the publication of a letter in February by the president of Poland’s bishops’ conference voicing “fraternal concern” over the initiative.

The Synodal Way has also faced criticism within the German Catholic Church.

Members of an initiative called “New Beginning” said that the process would deepen divisions among Catholics.

“The next schism in Christendom is just around the corner. And it will come again from Germany,” they said.

But Bishop Georg Bätzing, chairman of the German bishops’ conference, has repeatedly rejected suggestions that the Synodal Way will lead to schism.

Participants have cited the MHG Study in support of their contention that priestly celibacy should be abolished, women ordained as priests, and Church teaching on sexuality altered.

The study has been criticized as “unscientific” and also persistently questioned by Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg, an outspoken critic of the Synodal Way. 

The next Synodal Assembly, the supreme decision-making body of the Synodal Way, will take place in Frankfurt on Sept. 8-10. 

The Synodal Way is expected to end in spring 2023, ahead of the Synod on Synodality in Rome in October next year.