Cardinal Kasper ‘Very Worried’ About German Church’s ‘Synodal Way’

The cardinal criticized not only the Synodal Path’s content but also its structure, arguing that it was hampered by a “birth defect.” He said that the process was “on weak legs.”

Cardinal Walter Kasper at the Ecumenical Vespers service inside the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls on Jan. 18, 2019.
Cardinal Walter Kasper at the Ecumenical Vespers service inside the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls on Jan. 18, 2019. (photo: Daniel Ibanez / CNA/EWTN)

FRANKFURT, Germany — An influential theologian considered to be close to Pope Francis has said that he is “very worried” about the German Catholic Church’s controversial “Synodal Way.”

Cardinal Walter Kasper said in a June 8 interview with the Passauer Bistumsblatt that he hoped the prayers of faithful Catholics could serve as a corrective.

The 88-year-old German cardinal said: “I have not yet given up hope that the prayers of many faithful Catholics will help to steer the Synodal Way in Germany on Catholic tracks.”

The Synodal Way is a multi-year process bringing together bishops and lay people to discuss four main topics: the way power is exercised in the Church; sexual morality; the priesthood; and the role of women.

The German bishops initially said that the process would end with a series of “binding” votes — raising concerns at the Vatican that the resolutions might challenge the Church’s teaching and discipline.

Cardinal Kasper told the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Passau, in southeastern Germany, that the Synodal Way’s organizers should have paid greater attention to Pope Francis’ 2019 letter to the German Church.

In the letter, the pope warned German Catholics not to succumb to a particular “temptation.”

He wrote: “At the basis of this temptation, there is the 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 by adapting it to the current logic or that of a particular group.”

Cardinal Kasper asked: “Why did the Synodal Way not take Pope Francis’ letter more seriously and, as befits a synod, consider the critical questions in the light of the Gospel?”

The cardinal, who served as president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity from 2001 to 2010, also commented on the Synodal Way’s high media profile. 

“It truly does not give a good public image,” he said. “I am very worried, but I am cautious about making a final overall judgment.”

CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner, reported that Kasper noted that loud individual voices and groups dominated the public discussion.

“In the beginning, it may have been good to let the different opinions have their say without being filtered. But it is beyond my imagination that demands such as the abolition of celibacy and the ordination of women to the priesthood could eventually find the two-thirds majority of the bishops’ conference or command consensus in the universal Church,” he said.

The cardinal criticized not only the Synodal Path’s content but also its structure, arguing that it was hampered by a “birth defect.” He said that the process was “on weak legs.”

“It is neither a synod nor a mere dialogue process,” he commented. “Initially it is a process of dialogue, then the bishops’ conference has the floor and, finally, as far as the universal Church demands are concerned, it is the pope's turn.”

“Moreover, every bishop is free to accept whatever he sees fit in his diocese. In view of the obvious disagreement among the German bishops, it is difficult to imagine how all of this can be brought to a common denominator.”

The theologian, who served as bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart from 1989 to 1999, said that renewal could only come from an inner growth of faith, hope, and love.

In the interview, Cardinal Kasper also argued that there was a serious problem with catechesis in the German Church.

“When I see what is happening in Roman parishes and in the United States, and under completely different conditions in Africa where catechesis happens, then we are a catechetical disaster zone,” he said.

“I don’t mean religious instruction in schools, which, given today’s school conditions, usually cannot be catechesis. What I am referring to is  catechesis in the parish, on the occasion of baptism, first confession, First Communion and confirmation, marriage preparation, and family catechesis.” 

“In places where this is done well, young people, young families with children, who can often be counted on the fingers of one hand in Germany, can be found at Sunday services.”

Commenting on the Vatican’s recent invitation to all Catholic dioceses to take part in the forthcoming synod on synodality, Cardinal Kasper emphasized that one could “not reinvent the Church,” but rather contribute to renewing it in the Holy Spirit. 

He said: “Synods are not a parliament, not a ‘paper factory’ that draws up long papers that hardly anyone reads afterward, nor a church regiment that says where to go.” 

“Synods are gatherings in which, in crisis situations, the bishop, his presbyterate, and the faithful face the signs of the times together, look to the Gospel, and listen to what the Holy Spirit says to the congregations in prayer and in exchange with one another.”

He added: “If — as the [Second Vatican] Council formulated — a ‘unique harmony’ between leaders and believers comes about, then that is a sign of the Holy Spirit that we are on the right path.”

Pope Francis signaled his approval of the cardinal shortly after his election in 2013. Speaking on the first Sunday after his election, he praised the theologian’s book, Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life.

The pope invited Cardinal Kasper to address a consistory of cardinals in 2014 on the question of admitting divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to Holy Communion under certain circumstances. 

The cardinal’s intervention influenced the ensuing debate at the family synods of 2014 and 2015, which led to the publication in 2016 of Amoris laetitia, Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on love in the family.

In the Passauer Bistumsblatt interview, Cardinal Kasper explained his approach to non-Catholic Christians seeking to receive Communion in Catholic churches — a topical issue in German Church circles. 

The cardinal said that he had never turned away a person “out of respect for the personal conscience decisions of individual Christians.” 

“This has now become fairly general pastoral practice in Germany and widely tolerated by the bishops. It is not perfect, but you can and must live with it for the time being,” said the Vatican’s former ecumenism czar.

But he expressed reservations about a controversial proposal for a “Eucharistic meal fellowship” between Catholics and Protestants in Germany.

The proposal was made by the Ecumenical Study Group of Protestant and Catholic Theologians (ÖAK) in a 2019 document entitled “Together at the Lord’s Table.”

He described the text, which prompted a Vatican intervention, as primarily “an academic document” and criticized its practical application at the Ecumenical Church Congress in Frankfurt last month.