European Synod Discussions in Prague Sought to Maintain Unity, Despite Key Divides

The Feb. 5-12 Continental Assembly of the Synod for Europe was marked by strong tensions, but at the same time revealed a willingness to preserve Church unity.

Father Antonio Ammirati (l), the spokesman for the Council of European Bishops' Conferences and Archbishop Jan Graubner of Prague address the European continental assembly of the Synod on Synodality Feb. 6 in Prague, Czech Republic.
Father Antonio Ammirati (l), the spokesman for the Council of European Bishops' Conferences and Archbishop Jan Graubner of Prague address the European continental assembly of the Synod on Synodality Feb. 6 in Prague, Czech Republic. (photo: Michal Krumphanzl / CTK via AP Images)

PRAGUE — “It is clear that many people, while working actively in the Church, are familiar neither with the Bible, nor with the teachings of the Church, and this does not really come out in favor of our work.” 

These words, pronounced by Archbishop Jan Graubner of Prague at the opening Mass of the Continental Assembly of the Synod on Synodality on the evening of Feb. 5, reflected the climate in which the discussions began.

The assembly was held in the Czech capital from Feb. 5 to 9 and gathered some 200 people, including 156 delegates from the 39 bishops’ conferences of Europe and some other 200 people online. It was followed by a private meeting between the presidents of the bishops conferences, which concluded on Feb. 12.

In his homily, Archbishop Graubner referred to the summaries of the first diocesan consultations of the four-year synodal process initiated by Pope Francis in 2021, entitled, “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission.” 

The various national syntheses sent to Rome in the summer of 2022, following local consultations, were the subject of contentious debate across Europe. 

Critics asserted the national processes had given too much importance to small groups of faithful who encouraged changes in Church doctrine on a number of subjects, starting with the ordination of women, the blessing of homosexual unions and the marriage of priests — divisive topics that appeared to be far away from what the synod’s theme had indicated should be its focus.

Indeed, one of the key objectives of this new “continental phase” of the synodal process, in Europe and elsewhere, is to analyze the content of the earlier diocesan syntheses, to determine whether this content accurately reflects the voice of the People of God or if there were aspects that required revision. 

Evocative Homilies 

Archbishop Graubner’s opening homily, in which he also deplored that the local consultations “failed to discover the sensus fidei of the faithful” and that many “Christians tend to focus excessively on themselves and their rights,” sounded like a wake-up call to correct those who hoped to see doctrinal changes emerge from this new step of the synod process. 

“It is obvious from the consultations I read that people nowadays are not catechized enough, although I’m not saying that the main result of the synod should be some kind of ‘catechesis on catechization,’ but it is very important to learn how to listen to God, on the basis of the teachings of his Church,” the archbishop commented in an interview with the Register following the liturgy. 

But the archbishop of Prague was not the only prominent Church leader to criticize some members of his audience during the meetings’ Eucharistic celebrations. 

In his homily at the morning Mass on Feb. 7, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops, offered a thinly veiled critique of some of the ideological drift in the synodal discussions, drawing on the Gospel of the day, from St. Mark, Chapter 7. 

“The Lord takes exception to the [pharisaic] mentality that claims to obey God while acting contrary to his word,” he said. “This warning also concerns us and challenges us in our work to achieve a more synodal Church. Are we not sometimes tempted to interpret the word of God in a way that is contrary to what it really says?” Cardinal Ouellet asked. 

For his part, during the Mass celebrated in the Cathedral of Sts. Vitus, Wenceslaus and Adalbert on the evening of Feb. 8, the secretary-general of the synod, Maltese Cardinal Mario Grech denounced representations of the synod “as a battle of the conservatives against the liberals,” or as “an opposition between the West and the East, the North and the South.” 

Tensions Around the Role of Women 

The main points of contention that divided the assembly, without being explicitly mentioned in the homilies, were summarized by the general rapporteur of the synod, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, who considered it opportune to recall, during a press briefing on the afternoon of Feb. 8, that it was “not a synod on homosexuality” nor on the “priesthood of women.”

However, the place of women in the Church was indeed a recurring theme in the debates of the assembly, which included 65 women (selected by the presidents of the episcopal conferences) and 46 bishops. Many of the women present criticized the fact that none of them were called to sit at the podium with the cardinals and bishops who presided over the first day’s sessions.

In her summary of the closed-door discussion of the second Francophone group on Feb. 7, Josianne Gauthier, the delegate for International Cooperation for Development and Solidarity, mentioned tensions regarding the functions that women can have in the Church, affirming that this issue is still unresolved and that inequalities and injustices also continue within the Church.

The following day, three German delegates who are also directly involved in the controversial German Synodal Way —  Irme Stetter-Karp, president of Germany’s lay Central Committee of German Catholics, Thomas Söding, the central committee’s vice president, and Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German Bishops’ Conference as well as the president of the Synodal Way —  made interventions (speeches) in support of the ordination of women to the priesthood. 

Some female delegates also criticized Latvian Archbishop Zbigņevs Stankevičs of Riga, who recalled during the debates that he was behind the Latvian government’s refusal to ratify the 2014 Istanbul Convention, opposing violence against women, primarily because of its promotion of gender theory. 

The archbishop responded to these criticisms by pointing out, in an interview with the Register, that many key positions are held by women in his diocese. 

“Caritas Latvia, the parish council, the Federation of Catholic Schools, the Higher Institute of Religious Sciences, youth ministry all have a woman in charge, and we also have many female chaplains,” Archbishop Stankevičs said, adding that the staff of his archdiocese is also composed of a majority of women.

“I don’t see how to go beyond this level, and people aiming for women’s ordination need to understand that it is not provided for in God’s plan for the Church.”

Beyond Personal Wishes

In part, these tensions reflect persistent historical and cultural differences between the countries of Eastern and Western Europe.

The open letters released last year by the Nordic Catholic bishops and the president of the Polish Bishops’ Conference expressing their concern about the ideological drift of the German Synodal Way — whose proposals were often taken up by the participants in the diocesan phase of the Synod on Synodality — are also indicative of these tensions.

According to Archbishop Stanislaw Gądecki, president of the Polish Bishops’ Conference and author of the letter, these cultural differences are often used as an excuse not to take into consideration some criticisms, even when they are constructive and fraternal.

“German priests and cardinals, and even Protestant professors, have thanked me following the publication of this [Polish] letter, which I wrote out of love for the German Church,” Bishop Gądecki told the Register on the evening of Feb. 8. 

Speaking at the end of the three days, he also warned against too much overlap between the religious and political fields, which can result in the politicization of religion. “What we’ve heard so far is often a whole bunch of desires, desires for inclusion, without ever defining it, without clarifying whether inclusion can involve the inclusion of sin. I’m afraid that this concept of inclusion stems from a current political desire that sees LGBT issues as essential to the life of the Church,” he said.

For the Polish archbishop, the best way to approach synodality is to keep in mind the image of a child who was born as a human being and died as one, with exactly the same essence, but having gained in intelligence over time.

“The concept of Catholic tradition implies not changing what is essential and at the same time developing what is secondary,” said Archbishop Gądecki.

Thirst for Unity, Beyond Ideologies

The divides observed during the synodal discussions, however, did not dampen the optimism of Cardinal Hollerich, who emphasized in his Feb. 8 press briefing that this was the first time that a real dialogue had taken place between Christians from Central, Eastern and Western Europe. 

“I am satisfied and reassured because it could have been much more violent,” he said, mentioning the possibility of continuing this type of meeting at least every 10 years. 

Signs of hope were also perceived by Father Giacomo Costa, consultor to the General Secretariat of the synod since 2016 and a lead organizer of this synodal process. He told the Register that there was initially strong pressure by people of various ideological sensitivities wanting to direct the outcome of the discussions.

“It didn’t feel right, but then this dynamic faded to make room for the depth of the desire to be together in the Lord, and the initial tensions that peaked on Tuesday morning turned into more constructive criticism as the meetings progressed,” he said, adding that one could see the work of the Holy Spirit. 

In particular, he mentioned the case of an English-speaking working group that almost broke up in a heated closed-door discussion, but which eventually decided unanimously to continue the dialogue together. 

“It really moved me because there seemed to be an awareness that we are all baptized, and despite the differences that may be more or less profound, the priority is to preserve unity,” Father Costa continued. “So many participants found a way to say that the desire, not to eliminate differences, but to see a part of Christ in their opponents, overrode everything else.” 

“Any criticism is acceptable as long as it is motivated by a real love for the Church, and only those who have come here to fight an enemy will be disappointed,” Father Costa concluded. “If we do not listen to the Spirit all together, it is a defeat for everyone. Either we all win together, or we lose together.” 

The Prague assembly was one of seven synod continental assemblies occurring around the world in February and March. The examination of the seven final documents of the continental assemblies sent to Rome will result in the synod’s instrumentum laboris (working document), which will be finalized by June 2023. This document will serve as a basis for the work of the General Assembly of the Synod on Synodality, which will meet in Rome in October 2023 and 2024.