‘Pure Manipulation’: Germans Continue Push for Radical Change After Worldwide Synod

NEWS ANALYSIS: How German Church leaders are spinning the Synod on Synodality’s first assembly and planning to influence its concluding assembly next year.

(L-R) German Bishops Stefan Oster, Bishop Franz-Josef Oberbeck, Bishop Georg Batzing, Bishop Felix Genn and Bishop Bertram Meier pose in front of St. Peter's Basilica at the end of the Synod on Synodality.
(L-R) German Bishops Stefan Oster, Bishop Franz-Josef Oberbeck, Bishop Georg Batzing, Bishop Felix Genn and Bishop Bertram Meier pose in front of St. Peter's Basilica at the end of the Synod on Synodality. (photo: Christoph Sator / AP)

VATICAN CITY — In the aftermath of the recent Synod on Synodality assembly at the Vatican, leaders of the Catholic Church in Germany have been eager to frame the synod’s results as an endorsement of their ongoing push for radical changes to Church teaching and practice — and as a justification for similar efforts they plan to make in the coming months.

In fact, at least some German Catholics calling for radical change didn’t even wait until the synod’s concluding Mass had been celebrated to start advancing their narrative.

The morning after the synod had approved its 41-page summary document, Bishop Georg Bätzing, the president of the German Bishops’ Conference (DBK), and other German bishops who had participated in the Oct. 4-29 gathering held a press conference in Rome. 

The DBK president contended that the Vatican synod echoed many of the issues that have been advanced by the controversial German Synodal Way, a non-canonical assembly of bishops and laypeople that has pushed for condoning same-sex sexual relations, the attempted ordination of women, and lay governance of the Church. 

A similar claim was made by Thomas Söding, the vice president of the Central Committee for German Catholics (ZdK), a powerful lay organization that has co-sponsored the German Synodal Way. 

The October assembly was “a confirmation of the Synodal Path in Germany,” said Söding, who served as a theological expert at the Vatican assembly. “The issues we address are clearly issues that are important throughout the universal Church.”

When asked if the synod members seemed open to the changes in sexual morality that have been demanded by the German Synodal Way, Bishop Bätzing pointed to a single paragraph in the summary report, which stated that “the anthropological categories” used by the Church to engage with contentious issues related to sexuality and identity are sometimes “not able to grasp the complexity of the elements emerging from experience or knowledge in the sciences,” and therefore require “greater precision and further study.”

For some, this line may have seemed like a measured request to consider how the Church’s teaching can better connect with people’s lived experience and the latest scientific findings, especially considering that the report goes on to state that “Church teaching already provides a sense of direction on many of these matters” that may simply need to be better translated into pastoral practice. 

But for Bishop Bätzing, the report’s language about “anthropological categories” was a ringing endorsement that an “overwhelming majority” of the universal Church is open to the kind of thorough revision of sexual ethics proposed by the German Synodal Way.

“When the synod says that previous formulations in the Church’s teaching on human beings are no longer sufficient here, and that they are moving forward at this point, also with support from science, then this is a huge step forward,” said the bishop of Limburg.

Advancing Their Own Goals

Bishop Bätzing’s characterization doesn’t seem to square with most interpretations of the synod’s summary report, which notably dropped the term “LGBTQ+” from its final version, after it had been included in both the synod’s working document and the initial draft of the summary report, due to serious pushback. 

As one example of this consensus, one European publication described the synod and its results as “decaffeinated,” illustrating how participants had chosen to avoid making any definitive statements on contentious topics under consideration in order to build consensus and pass the summary report.

But for longtime critics of the Synodal Way, it’s clear that the German proponents’ framing of the Synod on Synodality results are less about accuracy and more about advancing their own goals.

According to Neuer Anfang, a group of German Catholics opposed to the Synodal Way, said that Bishop Bätzing and other Synodal Way leaders’ push for “quick judgments” and calling for the Vatican synod to embrace change are not consistent with Pope Francis’ call for the synod to be a time of listening.

“These examples show that the praise of some Germans for the world synod is not sincere,” Neuer Anfang said in a statement to the Register.

Martin Brüske, a German theologian, said that Synodal Way leadership is “trying to create the impression that strong parts of the global Church are on their side” — a characterization that he described as “absurd.” 

Brüske told the Register that this German spin is being done not only to diminish criticisms that have been made of the Synodal Way from other Catholic leaders from around the world, including Pope Francis, but also “to provide tailwind for the realization of the Synodal Way’s agenda, which is massively underway in Germany.”

“There is nothing written but pure manipulation,” he told the Register, adding that Synodal Way proponents will also use their narrative — that their agenda has been endorsed by the Vatican synod — “to drive opposition in Germany into resignation.” 

The Next Step

The next big phase of the Synodal Way agenda is set to begin later this week, with the first meeting of the so-called “synodal committee.” The mixed body of bishops and laity, which will meet Nov. 10-11, is tasked with implementing the Synodal Way’s agenda more widely in German Catholic life, including laying the groundwork for a permanent “synodal council” to govern the Catholic Church in Germany. The synodal council, which would allow laity to override bishops in decision-making, has been explicitly forbidden by the Vatican.

Four of Germany’s 27 bishops in charge of dioceses voted to block funding the synodal committee and will not participate. But Synodal Way proponents attempted to justify the start of the committee as consistent with the Vatican synod’s call to begin practicing synodality in local communities before the October 2024 assembly. 

“We continue on the common path of bishops and laypeople,” Irme Stetter-Karp, ZdK president, said in a statement at the close of the Vatican synod.

Neuer Anfang has criticized the synodal committee for defying the spirit of the Vatican’s prohibition and also calls from the ZdK to restrict participating bishops’ ability to veto proposals.

“The whole thing is a manipulative game with the bishops’ notoriously guilty consciences,” the group told the Register.

Söding said that proceeding with the synodal committee is a way of ensuring that the Vatican synod’s call for greater decentralization “leaves a lasting mark on the ground.”

One concern is that Synodal Way proponents’ implementation of their agenda under the cover of the Synod on Synodality won’t just have an impact in Germany, but also on the global Church’s synod itself.

The Synod on Synodality will hold its second and concluding assembly in 11 months — plenty of time for Synodal Way leaders to continue to implement the radical elements of the agenda under the guise of “synodality” and report back to Rome in October 2024.

A clear indication of this possibility came last week, when the bishop of Speyer called for priests in his diocese to be open to blessing same-sex unions, including in Catholic churches.

Bishop Karl-Heinz Wiesemann stated that the decision was not only consistent with the Synodal Way’s endorsement of blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples, but was also made with the Church outside of Germany in mind.

Said Bishop Wiesemann in his Nov. 2 letter to local clergy, “I hope that on the path of the global synod this pressing question of our time can also experience positive development.” 

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.