The German Synodal Way: An Explainer

For the organizers of the German Synodal way, the process is necessary to discuss the future of church life in Germany.

Thomas Sternberg, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), speaks at a ‘Synodal Way’ press conference.
Thomas Sternberg, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), speaks at a ‘Synodal Way’ press conference. (photo: Rudolf Gehrig/CNA Deutsch. / Rudolf Gehrig/CNA Deutsch)

What is the German Synodal Way, also known as Synodal Path? 

The “Synodal Way” – in German: Synodaler Weg – is a controversial discussion process underway in Germany with the declared aim of addressing the Church’s clerical sexual abuse crisis by debating and passing resolutions on whether, or how, Catholicism needs to change (“develop”) its teaching – and the Catholic Church therefore change its approach – to questions of sexuality and the exercise of power, including doctrine and the sacraments.

Who is running the German Synodal Way? 

The discussion process is a joint and co-equal effort of the German bishops' conference and the Central Committee of German Catholics, a lay body known by its acronym ZdK (see What is the “Central Committee of German Catholics”? below). 

When did it start, and when will the process conclude?

The German Synodal Way commenced on September 1, 2019, following a resolution of the German Bishops' Conference. It was scheduled to be completed within two years. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, key dates have been pushed back. A new completion date has not been confirmed, but the current official target date is some time in February of 2022. 

How does it work?

The main body is the “Synodal Assembly” that has 230 members. Apart from the 69 German bishops, this assembly includes 69 members of the Central Committee of German Catholics as well as representatives of religious orders as well as other bodies, associations and councils. These members meet to discuss – and pass resolutions on draft declaration then to be drawn up – on four official topics in four distinct forums, each presided over by a bishop and a ZdK functionary. These deal with the way power is exercised in the Church; sexual morality; the priesthood; and the role of women, respectively. The official forum titles are:

“Power and Separation of Powers in the Church - Joint Participation and Involvement in the Mission”

“Life in succeeding relationships - Living Love in Sexuality and Partnership”

“Priestly Existence Today”

“Women in Ministries and Offices in the Church”

What is the “Central Committee of German Catholics”? 

Founded in 1949, the Central Committee, known by its German acronym “ZdK,” claims to represent lay Catholicism in Germany. According to its own website, the ZdK received 2.45 million Euros (almost 3 million USD) in funding from sources provided by the German Bishops' Conference in 2018. 

As of 2021, the ZdK and/or its leading representatives are on the record for pursuing a number of controversial goals also associated with the German Synodal Way, including the blessing of homosexual unions, the ordination of women to deacons, abolition of celibacy, and intercommunion with Protestants. 

Its president, Thomas Sternberg, has decried the critical interventions and concerns raised by the Vatican as “disturbances from Rome”.

Why do proponents of the Synodal Way believe it is necessary?

For the organizers of the German Synodal way, the process is necessary to discuss the future of church life in Germany. One goal is to regain trust lost after the abuse scandal. Another is to revitalize reform debates that have been brewing in German speaking Europe for decades.

Pope Francis, in his letter to German Catholics, pointed to another challenge: “I painfully notice the growing erosion and deterioration of faith with all it entails not only on the spiritual level but also on the social and cultural level,” he wrote, calling on evangelization instead of a false reform. 

The call to add evangelization as a forum to the process was declined by the organizers of the Synodal Way, but picked up by at least one participant in a wake-up call to reclaim the primacy of evangelization.

Was there a precedent or role model for the German Synodal Way? 

Yes. The German Synodal Way has a precedent of sorts in an actual synod held in the 1970s in then West Germany, which was undertaken with the declared goal of debating and passing resolutions about the Second Vatican Council. This synod also involved lay people as voting participants. It was held from 1971 to 1975 in the Cathedral of Würzburg. While not referencing sexual abuse, it raised several of the same – or similar – questions about sexuality and power that are now raised again, for instance on celibacy or the ordination of female deacons, at the current process.

Until the German Synodal Way was announced, the Würzburg Synod had been largely forgotten, even in Germany, according to observers. 

Is the German Synodal Way a Church synod? 

No. When announced in 2019 by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the then-president of the German Bishops' Conference, the prelate declared it to be “a process sui generis” that would be able to pass “binding resolutions” on questions that pertain to the universal Church. From the outset, this claim, and the moniker “Synodal Way,” were contested: Bishop Konrad Zdarsa of Augsburg called the concept a “tautology,” going so far as to decry it as a “labelling fraud”. 

Following several interventions and despite resistance from the two process presidents, Cardinal Marx and Thomas Sternberg of the ZdK, the discussion process has meanwhile been confirmed not to be binding – and not a synod.  

Just how controversial is the German Synodal Way? 

Pope Francis and the Vatican have intervened repeatedly with a number of unprecedented measures, as have a growing number of bishops and theologians, both from Germany and around the world, raising serious concerns about many aspects of the Synodal Way.  

The Holy Father took the historic step of writing a letter to all Catholics in Germany in June 2019, warning of a “belief that the best response to the many problems and shortcomings that exist is to reorganize things, change them and ‘put them back together’ to bring order and make ecclesial life easier”.

In September 2020 Vatican Cardinal Kurt Koch went public saying Pope Francis was “concerned” about the Church in Germany. A German bishop followed this up with a similar warning in October, referring to the Holy Father’s “dramatic concern” about the situation. 

On June 8, 2021, Cardinal Walter Kasper, considered to be close to Pope Francis, said that he was  “very worried” about the German Catholic Church’s controversial “Synodal Way.”

In the main, concerns pertain to the underlying assumptions and operating premises of the process – which the Vatican initially declared “ecclesiologically invalid” in 2019, but also the legal claims and questions of basic legitimacy, given the refusal of the Synodal Assembly to rule out decisions that run counter to Catholic doctrines. Doubts have furthermore been raised about the selection of participants, choice of topics, theological claims, internal procedures. 

Looking at the goals of the process, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the former head of the Italian bishops’ conference and vicar of the Diocese of Rome, said in early May 2021, the German Synodal Way pursued “not only the blessing of same-sex couples, but also the priesthood of women, the abolition of the obligation of ecclesiastical celibacy, the intercommunion between Catholics and Protestants”.

In summary, as of 2021, the German Synodal Way was mired in controversies and marred by sustained and substantial criticism from leading theologians and senior prelates. These concerns have culminated in dire warnings of the threat of a new schism in Germany. 

Is the Synodal Way leading to a new schism in Germany?

Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, the chairman of the German bishops’ conference, has insisted that no schism is on the horizon.

However, fears that the German Church was heading for a breach with Rome have been expressed by the English Bishop Philip Egan, Australian Cardinal George Pell, Spanish Bishop José Ignacio Munilla Aguirre and Italian Cardinal Camillo Ruini.  Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver even published a letter calling to conversion in response to the Synodal Way, which was publicly supported by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco.

What is more, Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former bishop of Hong Kong, added his name to an appeal, launched in Portugal, asking Rome to take action to stop a “schism” in Germany. And George Weigel, the biographer of St. John Paul II, as well as Fr. Thomas Weinandy, a Capuchin Franciscan theologian, both have also expressed concern about the direction of the German Church.

On June 10, 2021, CNA reported that three German Catholics had submitted a “dubium” to the Vatican asking if the Church in Germany was in fact already in schism. The trio from the Diocese of Essen formally requested a ruling from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  

What about Catholics in Germany? 

Arguably the most concerning aspect of the German Synodal Way is that it appears to fail most of the very people it claims to reach out to: The “Pilgrim People of God in Germany”. 

As CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German news partner, reported, a survey in September of 2020 showed that only 19 percent of Catholics agreed with the statement that the Synodal Way was of interest to them. The vast majority of Germans responded in the negative.

This is in stark contrast to claims made by Cardinal Marx, who said in September 2019 that “countless believers in Germany consider [these issues] to be in need of discussion”.

The question of just how relevant the issues raised by the German Synodal Way has also been brought up by the president of the Italian Bishops Conference, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti, who stressed that the Italian synodal process was completely different from what was happening in Germany.

And on May 6, 2021, the Archbishop of Sarajevo said the “exotic ideas” of Germany’s “Synodal Way” were alien to a Church that survived communism. Cardinal Vinko Puljić castigated the German Synodal Way, saying, “such attitudes offend and astonish our believers. We cannot understand a Church in which sacrifice is a foreign word and there is a Jesus without a cross.”

This has raised the wider concern whether the Bishops' conference and the “Central Committee” were sincerely engaging with Catholics on the ground.