As German Bishops Meet at the Vatican, German Catholic Philosopher Urges Pope to Correct Synodal Way’s Course

According to Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz, winner of the 2021 Ratzinger Prize, the Holy Father must draw a ‘red line’ against the doctrinal and ecclesiological errors German Church leaders are propagating.

Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz
Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz (photo: RPP-Institut / CC-BY-SA)

The German bishops traveled to Rome this week for their ad limina meetings, and Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, who leads the German episcopal conference, said that he hoped the meetings would tamp down concerns about the country’s controversial Synodal Way, and address the “lack of understanding about our process in Rome.” 

But a group of prominent German lay Catholics, Neuer Anfang (New Beginning), see things very differently. They are deeply concerned about the Synodal Way’s rejection of Church teaching on sexual morality, the hierarchical structure of Church governance, and an all-male priesthood, and have sought to affirm and defend Church teachings now under threat. 

Members of the group have called on Pope Francis to directly address the Synodal Way’s proposals during his meetings with the German bishops, and to clarify the danger they pose to the future of the Church in Germany and to the universal Church. They also have launched a “transparency offensive” that details the specific proposals endorsed by Germany’s synodal assembly, so that Church leaders have a more precise record of the synodal proceedings than has been available in media coverage.

During a Nov. 15 email exchange with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond, Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz, the 2021 winner of the Ratzinger Prize and a delegate to the Synodal Way, outlined her grave concerns about its deliberations and its impact on Pope Francis’ multi-year Synod on Synodality.

Gerl-Falkovitz currently heads the European Institute for Philosophy and Religion at the Pope Benedict XVI Philosophical-Theological University in Heiligenkreuz, Austria. 

A professor emeritus of philosophy of religion and comparative religious studies at TU Dresden, her research focuses on the philosophy of religion of the 19th and 20th centuries. And she is a specialist on Catholic philosopher Edith Stein and theologian Romano Guardini, to whom she has dedicated a number of writings


You are part of a group of German lay Catholics who are deeply concerned about the German Synodal Way and its rejection of Christian anthropology, moral teaching on sexuality, and the Church's hierarchical structure of governance. Why are you speaking out now?

I spoke out from the very beginning of the Synodal Way in 2021, when I was elected for its Forum III: “Women in services and ministries of the Church.” 

I defended in Forum III the male-female binary as the normal reality of creation in a paper, and organized a Zoom meeting on the question of the male priesthood, arguing for the nuptial theology of St. Paul and the specific representation of Christ by male priests. 

Some papers of mine were listened to, but not integrated into the final texts of Forum III. They can be read now in the homepage of the Diocese of Regensburg, where Bishop Voderholzer publishes the opinions of the minority of synodal delegates.


Why were you appointed as a delegate of the Synodal Way?

I was appointed after the “normal” nominations, when it became clear that only specific opinions were wanted. Some bishops insisted on the co-nomination of around 20 persons not belonging to the official mainstream.


Did you see problems early on? 

The problems were already clearly to be seen in the first session in spring 2021. The first announcements already concerned homosexuality as a problem of acceptance, and the full access of women to the priesthood.


What should we know about the Central Committee of German Lay Catholics [Kentralkomitee der deutschen Katholiken (ZdK)] who have played a major role in this process? Are they elected, appointed, or staff serving at the parish, diocesan or national episcopal level? What are the unique conditions in Germany that have made it possible for them to become so influential?

The German Zentralkomitee has a long and effective tradition. It was founded in the end of the 19th Century and acted effectively against Bismarck’s Protestant “Kulturkampf“ against Catholics. The (inner) political role of Catholics was and is its essential aim — but not the reform of the Church itself, nor fundamental criticism of the Church. 

Not all members have theological expertise; many of them are politicians, and leaders of Catholic organizations concerning social and public life. They do not represent the Catholic part of the German population because they are not elected in a democratic way.

After the 2018 abuse crisis, it is my impression that the bishops felt helpless and looked desperately for help from lay people. 

The problem is the rule [governing the Synodal Way’s proceedings]: One man one vote — independent from one’s theological capacity, one’s real practice of prayer and devotion, and independent of being ordained and specifically obliged to the Church by vows.


In July, a Vatican declaration stated that the Synodal Way has no power “to compel the bishops and the faithful to adopt new ways of governance and new approaches to doctrine and morals.” But in September, the synodal assembly still proposed the creation of a permanent body composed of lay people and bishops to oversee the local Church. 

This permanent “Council” is a great problem: It is absolutely not clear how lay people are theologically legitimated to rule — together with bishops — the dioceses. This will be a strong topic of dispute with Rome, just in these days and in the future — at least, let’s hope so. 

Church law and Catholic tradition are strictly against that concept.


The synodal assembly has also called for approval of homosexuality and principally of ''queer' people. But some German bishops opposed this. What now?

A minority of the bishops — one-third — voted against the approval of homosexuality. The approval of homosexuality as a "gift of God," and thus being biologically determined. According to the rules, the one-third minority is sufficient for stopping such a proposal. Nevertheless, although it was not accepted, leading German bishops declared publicly they would approve these proposals for their own dioceses, including the blessings of same-sex couples, and engaging them in the services of a church.  


What should happen when the German bishops are in Rome for their ad limina visits this week?

The Pope should draw a “red line.” [He should make clear that] the rejection of Catholic teaching on Church governance by bishops only; the necessity of the priesthood; the mission of women; and sexual morality cannot be endorsed without a schism. 


You also fear that the German Synodal Way will influence the Synod on Synodality. What are your specific concerns? Do you have evidence that this is a problem? 

Throughout the world there are questions about the pastoral accompaniment of [men and women who identify as LGBTQ], about the female priesthood, and of cultivating hierarchical and priestly power etc. 

But the solutions should not be as harsh and one-sided as in the German Synodal Way, with only a small and non-representative group of people to consider such questions. Nor can the solutions be found in the very brief time frame of two years. 


Some Church analysts suggest that the Synod on Synodality could co-opt the German Synodal Way and redirect it to prevent the possibility of schism. Your thoughts?

That is of course a hope. But my strong suspicion is that the opposite might occur, with the ideas of the German Synodal Way working like an infection that spreads across the Church.


What should Pope Francis do? Have you written him and the Synod officials in Rome to present your concerns?

Yes, I have written to the Pope personally. He should speak up clearly; so many people in Germany are missing his judgment and have become uncertain. They are longing for clarity. 

As to the Synod officials: I uttered my opinions more than once in the Forum sessions and in the conferences, and they can be read by everybody in the above mentioned homepage of the diocese of Regensburg.


A number of Church leaders across the world have spoken out against the German Synodal Way, warning of the danger of schism. What can they do now to prevent the damage it could inflict on the universal Church?

They should still keep speaking, and writing and also telephoning privately to the German bishops, to the Pope, and to the leaders of the dicasteries. 

The Synodal Way will have a last session in March 2023. Between now and then, it's still possible that a different and strong spiritual impulse could change its direction. 

At the moment, the leading German bishops are trying to soothe fears in Rome. But Rome still has to issue a judgment about a theology and an ethics that departs so openly from the New Testament and the tradition of the Church.


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.