Resisting the Zeitgeist

A NOTE FROM THE PUBLISHER: We must pray for the Church in Germany and for the members of the ‘Synodal Way,’ that they take to heart the unity of Catholic teaching.

Synod members sing and pray during the final day of the "Synadoler Weg" Catholic Reform Movement Congress on February 05, 2022 in Frankfurt, Germany.
Synod members sing and pray during the final day of the "Synadoler Weg" Catholic Reform Movement Congress on February 05, 2022 in Frankfurt, Germany. (photo: Thomas Lohnes / Getty)

For the last several years, Catholics worldwide have watched with increasing alarm as Church leaders in Germany have pushed ahead with their “Synodal Way” and its radical departure from timeless Catholic teaching. While many hoped that Pope Francis’ Synod on Synodality, scheduled in Rome next year, might steer the Germans away from the path toward schism, the German synod’s persistent dissent, bolstered recently by wildly heterodox statements of some prominent Church leaders, now requires a more urgent response. 

Under the cover of a multiyear synodal process to confront the crisis of clergy sexual abuse in Germany, the “Synodal Way” was hijacked by progressive Catholics and like-minded bishops with the aim to start a theological revolution that unravels foundational Catholic teaching on authority in the Church, sexual morality, the priesthood and the role of women. Despite the Vatican’s assurance that Germany’s synodal process has no binding authority, the synodal deliberations are damaging enough. 

Such is the level of distress among faithful Catholics that two of Germany’s neighboring bishops’ conferences have issued public letters warning about the danger at hand. 

The first came last month, when the president of the Polish bishops’ conference, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, wrote to the head of the German bishops’ conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing. Archbishop Gadecki’s letter noted that one of the terrible temptations in the modern Church — on stark display in the German “Synodal Way” — is to try to “update the Gospel” by comparing Our Lord’s teaching with contemporary developments in psychology and the social sciences. 

Archbishop Gadecki then cut to the heart of the matter: faithfulness to the truths given to us by Christ. “We should not yield to the pressures of the world. … Let us avoid the repetition of worn-out slogans and standard demands such as the abolition of celibacy, the priesthood of women, Communion for the divorced, and the blessing of same-sex unions.”

The Polish bishops understand profoundly the roots of this dangerous moment. “The crisis of the Church in Europe today is primarily a crisis of faith,” Archbishop Gadecki warned. “The crisis of faith is one of the reasons why the Church experiences difficulties when it comes to proclaiming clear theological and moral doctrine. The authority of the pope and bishops is most needed when the Church is going through a challenging time and when she is under pressure to depart from Jesus’ teachings.”

Those strong words were followed on March 9 by Germany’s neighbors to the north. In their own letter to Bishop Bätzing, the bishops of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland pointed out something crucial that should be obvious to any bishop of the Catholic Church. 

“It has ever been the case,” they wrote, “that true reforms in the Church have set out from Catholic teaching founded on divine Revelation and authentic Tradition, to defend it, expound it, and translate it credibly into lived life — not from capitulation to the Zeitgeist. How fickle the Zeigeist is, is something we verify on a daily basis.” 

Surrendering to this zeitgeist —the spirit of the age is in the very blueprint of the German “Synodal Way,” but it is also unmistakably on display in the thoughts and concerns of many senior prelates in charge of the Church in Germany, even some who wield great influence over Pope Francis’ own Synod on Synodality. 

In an interview with the German magazine Bunte in early March, Bishop Bätzing called openly for changes to the Catechism on sex outside of marriage and homosexuality. He asserted that same-sex relationships were permissible, “if it’s done in fidelity and responsibility. It doesn’t affect the relationship with God. … How someone lives their personal intimacy is none of my business.”

Bishop Bätzing echoed the call for a revision of Catholic teaching on homosexuality by Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg. Cardinal Hollerich’s comments are especially significant because he serves as the official in charge of guiding the entire process of the Synod on Synodality that is currently underway across the globe at the diocesan level. 

That any Catholic bishops should be expressing such opinions is disturbing to faithful Catholics, but that such prominent leaders should be advancing these ideas is even more outrageous. 

Pope Francis has spoken out about the “Synodal Way,” going so far as to write the Germans in June 2019, imploring them to turn away from their road and embrace his vision of synodality. The Pope wrote, “Every time an ecclesial community has tried to get out of its problems alone, relying solely on its own strengths, methods and intelligence, it has ended up multiplying and nurturing the evils it wanted to overcome.”

The German bishops and laypeople in charge of the “Synodal Way,” however, seem determined to do the exact opposite, plunging ahead with a demolition of Church teaching with the manifest goal of influencing the Synod of Bishops in Rome next year. 

The German “Synodal Way” is “multiplying and nurturing” evils, and at this point only Pope Francis can deal with this crisis. Stronger measures are needed, including empowering the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to deal more effectively with the scandalous agenda of the German synod, publicly correcting dissenting prelates and preventing any risk of the German “Synodal Way” influencing the Synod of Bishops’ deliberations next year. 

As the Polish and Nordic bishops have stressed, this is a crisis of faith. And here Pope Francis offers a fundamental teaching to the Germans and to all Catholics. He wrote in the first encyclical of his pontificate, Lumen Fidei, in 2013: “Since faith is one, it must be professed in all its purity and integrity. Precisely because all the articles of faith are interconnected, to deny one of them, even of those that seem least important, is tantamount to distorting the whole” (48).

We must pray for the Church in Germany and for the members of the “Synodal Way,” that they reject the zeitgeist and take to heart the unity of Catholic teaching and the fraternal concerns of their neighboring bishops and of Pope Francis. 

God bless you!

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne attends a German Synodal Way assembly on March 9, 2023.

Four German Bishops Resist Push to Install Permanent ‘Synodal Council’

Given the Vatican’s repeated interventions against the German process, the bishops said they would instead look to the Synod of Bishops in Rome. Meanwhile, on Monday, German diocesan bishops approved the statutes for a synodal committee; and there are reports that the synodal committee will meet again in June.