Concerned German Catholics Publish Reform Initiative Opposing Controversial Synodal Path

The group of German lay faithful contend that the Synodal Path, which has ignored repeated corrections from the Vatican, is promoting disunity and paving the way for schism.

Pope Francis meets with German bishops during their ad limina visit Nov. 20, 2015.
Pope Francis meets with German bishops during their ad limina visit Nov. 20, 2015. (photo: Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY — As the second high-level meeting of the German Church’s Synodal Path opened in Frankfurt on Thursday, a group of German lay faithful published their own manifesto of reform that criticizes the multi-year process for promoting disunity, falling short of conditions for genuine reform, and paving the way for schism.

Called “Neuer Anfang” (New Beginning — A Manifesto for Reform), the authors of the campaign acknowledge the need for “foundational reform” of the Church but argue that the abuse crisis that triggered the Synodal Path has been “instrumentalized” in order to implement “a well-known political-ecclesiastical agenda.” 

The Synodal Path, which began in January 2020 and is slated to end next February, aims to tackle key issues it says arise from the clerical sex abuse crisis. The focus is on four separate themes, in discussions each headed by a bishop and a layperson: power and authority, sexual morality, priestly life, and the role of women in the Church.

But the process has been criticized as a means to push through highly contentious and forbidden changes, many affecting the universal Church, such as the ordination of women and the blessing of same-sex unions, as well as radical reform of the sacramental and hierarchical structure of the Church.

The lay faithful behind the manifesto, who describe themselves as devoted to anthropology, ethics, philosophy, theology and journalism, stress that any such reform must be centered on the Gospel and the “living word of God,” and that their conscience prevents them “from ever supporting demands or following initiatives that threaten to dissolve our bond with the living word of God or relativize it.” 

They reject both the Synodal Path’s claim to “speak for all Catholics in Germany and to make binding decisions for them,” and its “committee-oriented and permanent ‘lay’ redistribution of power and secularization within the Church.” 


‘Disobedience and Rebellion’

The authors go on to criticize the Synodal Path for being “evidently uninterested in processes of repentance and spiritual renewal,” and for discussing ethical concerns with a view to fitting the Church into the “cultural mainstream.” 

“Hardly any attention is given to the question of how people of our time can find growth, healing and integration in the light of the Gospel and in the relationship with Jesus Christ,” the authors contend. They also point out that Pope Francis’ 2019 cautionary letter to German bishops on the Synodal Path has been “simply ignored” and papal teaching on core questions “arrogantly put aside.” 

“The Catholic Church is Catholic as long as it is in living unity and in dialogue with the universal Church,” the manifesto authors argue. “We do not wish to be a ‘Church of disobedience and rebellion’ and reject any attempt at establishing an ecclesiastical way of its own in Germany.” 

The Synodal Path, they add, wishes to break the power of bishops and priests by bringing them under the power of lay officials. And while they acknowledge the need for more lay participation, especially by women, they make it clear they do not want “a Church of functionaries with a bloated apparatus and permanently installed chatter.” 

They also criticize the Synodal Path for overlooking sin, the brokenness of human nature, and the complementarity of the sexes, as well as obscuring the call to the priesthood “by marginalizing it theologically and strategically.” 

The authors repeatedly say the Synodal Path has exploited the abuse crisis, distorting the debate which needs “greatest care and attention” and instead enabling a self-referential Church geared towards self-preservation. Such an approach “doesn’t lead to reform but ultimately ecclesial atheism,” they say. “The only remedy is renewal from the depths of the Gospel. ‘Go and act according to what He tells you.” 

The Synodal Path “falls short of the conditions for genuine reform,” they contend, adding that by fixating on external structures, it “misses the heart of the crisis; it violates the peace in congregations, abandons the path of unity with the universal Church, damages the church in the substance of its faith and paves the way towards schism.”


Great Tension

News of the manifesto comes at a time of great tension in the Church in Germany as the Synodal Path organizers push ahead with their program, marginalizing and silencing critics who, in response, are increasing their resistance. 

On Sunday, one of the Synodal Path’s longstanding episcopal critics, Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg, gave a homily in which he accused the leaders of the process of instrumentalizing sexual abuse “to try to reshape the Catholic Church along the lines of Protestant orders.”  

His comments came in the same week as the second plenary session of the Synodal Assembly, the supreme decision-making body for the Synodal Path, got underway in Frankfurt. Around 230 members will be discussing 16 texts on the four themes during the Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 meeting. 

The president of the German bishops’ conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing, firmly criticized Bishop Voderholzer’s comments, saying at the opening of the assembly they were “totally unacceptable and highly presumptuous” and failed to do “justice to those affected.” 

In early September, Bishop Voderholzer launched his own website on the Synodal Path which aims to make contributions to the synodal process through texts that are faithful to the teaching and tradition of the Church. 

Its first counterproposal, written by a group of four laity and clergy on the Synodal Path’s forum on power and authority in the Church, was lauded by Cardinal Walter Kasper, seen as Pope Francis’ unofficial representative to the Church in Germany. The cardinal said it clearly analyzes the existing problems in contrast to the Synodal Path’s official document on the subject which, he said, was so hypothetical that “in the end, many wonder whether all this is still entirely Catholic.” 

Further signs of tension were witnessed in a speech Bishop Bätzing gave to a group of 200 politicians on Sept. 27 in which he criticized “admonishing words” from the Roman Curia on questions such as the blessing of same-sex unions which, according to him, “have been answered long ago in our enlightened and freedom-loving society.” 


Bätzing Targets Woelki

He also criticized Pope Francis for not dismissing Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne for “major mistakes in his approach” to historical abuse cases, even though a Vatican investigation had exonerated the cardinal of any illegalities in handling those cases. The Pope instead advised Cardinal Woelki who, like Bishop Voderholzer, has been one of the few outspoken critics of the Synodal Path, to take a period of leave because “the archbishop and the archdiocese need a time of pause, renewal and reconciliation.”

Many had suspected the cardinal, 65, was being targeted for removal because of his resistance to the Synodal Path. He will now be on sabbatical until March next year by which time the Synodal Path will have just ended.  

One of the founders of the “Neuer Anfang” lay group, Bernhard Meuser, criticized the treatment of Cardinal Woelki in Germany, writing in a Sept. 27 article for Catholic News Agency that he had been hunted down like an animal. 

Among the “preying hounds,” Meuser said, was Thomas Sternberg, head of the influential lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) which is taking a leading role in the Synodal Path and its reformist agenda. Furthermore, Meuser noted such opposition to the Cologne cardinal contrasted with the treatment of Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich who, he said, was guilty of greater omissions than Cardinal Woelki but whose offer of resignation was refused by Francis earlier this year. 

In Sept. 30 comments to the Register, Meuser said that matters have recently taken a “dramatic turn” in the Church in Germany “with an infinite amount of dynamite in the air.” 

He pointed out that the bishops’ conference is divided into a majority of those supportive of the Synodal Path, and a minority of bishops faithful to the magisterium “who feel as if they are in Babylonian captivity.” 

But the orthodox-leaning bishops “want to remain in dialogue until the bitter end,” Meuser observed, a move he predicted that “will lead to disaster.” 

“If the bishops don’t have the strength to resist,” he said, “we lay people will not let ourselves destroy the Church we love, and which is our spiritual home.”