Germany’s ‘Synodal Way’ Divides Local Catholics
Some laypeople who spoke with the Register support its heterodox approach, but others warn their local Church is careening toward schism.
ROME — The “Synodal Way” of the Catholic Church in Germany is revealing ingrained internal divisions as well as continuing efforts to radically change Church teaching and align it more closely with civil society, a cross section of German Catholics and non-Catholics have told the Register.
The multiyear reform process, which began in early 2020 and ostensibly aims to tackle “key issues” arising from the clerical sex-abuse crisis, drew headlines earlier this month after its participants approved drafts in favor of same-sex union blessings; changes to the Catechism on homosexuality and the ordination of women priests; for priestly celibacy to be optional in the Latin Church; and for lay involvement in the election of new bishops.
The latest developments, which took place at the Synodal Way’s latest plenary meeting in Frankfurt and are not binding on the universal Church, have caused considerable concern among Catholics in Germany who seek to remain faithful to the Church’s magisterium. These doctrinally faithful Catholics, who consider themselves a small minority within Germany, are looking with alarm at what is happening but also are noting the fact that the Church’s de facto internal schism that has existed for years is now being fully revealed.
“The schism is coming out in all its brutality,” said Bernard Meuser, a founder of the lay group “Neuer Anfang” (New Beginning) that is critical of the Synodal Way’s efforts at reform. Referring to recent attacks by German bishops on Pope Benedict XVI over allegedly mishandling historical abuse cases, a claim that Benedict denies, Meuser said that has also helped reveal “who belongs in which camp.” Such behavior, he said, is “something I have never experienced in the Church.”
Mathias von Gersdorff, an economist and member of the Tradition, Family and Property movement, said that from the beginning of the process he believed the Synodal Way would lead to the formation of a German national church.
“My concerns are heightened with the Synodal Way: A platform has been formed that includes bishops and grassroots groups of laypeople who want to push through their radical agenda,” he said. “This agenda is not new, but with the Synodal Way, they now have an ‘official’ platform that gives their concerns more weight in public.”
Synodal Path Structure
Germany’s “Synodal Way,” also known as the “Synodal Path,” which has now held four synodal assemblies over the past two years, is comprised of four forums, each headed by a bishop and layperson.
Within those forums, its 230 participants have been principally discussing four themes that they see as significantly related to the abuse crisis: “Power and the Separation of Powers in the Church,” “Priestly Life Today,” “Women in Ministries and Offices of the Church,” and “Living in Successful Relationships — Living Love in Sexuality and Partnership.”
Using the abuse crisis as a launching pad to push through this reform, the Synodal Way’s twin goals of tackling the crisis and advancing an agenda that conflicts with Church teaching are attractive to some German Catholics and non-Catholics who want the sex-abuse crisis resolved. They also see that as inseparable from a Church that needs to change some of its teachings to conform with the times.
The abuse crisis is the “No. 1 topic” in Germany at the moment, said Frank Hornig, the Rome correspondent for the large-circulation German magazine Der Spiegel. “It’s such a big topic for Germans compared to here in Italy, where they don’t even talk about it.”
Although he has lived outside his native Bonn for several years, Hornig said he believes many Germans are frustrated with the Church’s inability to come to terms with the local Church’s abuse scandal that began in Berlin in 2009, even though steps to address it have been made, including the Synodal Way.
Hornig said many people are leaving the Church because they don’t like the way the Church has handled the sex-abuse scandal, and he added that the general sense is, “Hey, if they cannot even deal with this abuse scandal after 10 to 12 years and are still struggling, we must show them they need to reform.”
Resentment has been heightened, he added, by the fact that German citizens are paying for the Church and bishops’ salaries through taxes and other means. (Recent reports revealed that 27 Catholic dioceses are receiving millions of euros in state aid each year due to laws dating back to the 19th century — 242 million euros in 2021 — in addition to gargantuan tax revenues amounting to 6.45 billion euros in 2020.)
Hornig said his impression was that many Catholics left the Church because of the abuse scandal and “don’t want to come back”; and that although there are a few “outspoken, traditional and conservative” faithful in the parishes, German Catholics “tend to be rather open-minded, liberal and worldly.” They want the Church to “open up and be brought closer to society,” he said.
Backed by Most Bishops
German lay Catholics who are supportive of the Synodal Way told the Register they see all the issues raised as worthy of discussion, partly because they believe the process gives a true picture of the present state of the Church in Germany, but also because of the high representation of bishops (60 out of the country’s 67), most of whom appear to agree with the reforms.
They include Archbishop Ludwig Schick of Bamberg, who, on Feb. 16, did not rule out the ordination of women in the Catholic Church, saying he was “committed to ensuring that women in the Church have a major, equal role” and predicting a Rome “council” to discuss it. However, Pope St. John Paul II definitively ruled out women priests in 1994.
Supporters of the Synodal Way also have a sense that it is completing unfinished business: The Würzburg Synod of 1971-1975, which aimed to implement the teachings of the Second Vatican Council in Germany, including introducing married priests and giving the local Church a say in appointing bishops, never advanced.
“For many of them, the fact that Rome did not take a stand at all at that time probably left its mark on their lives,” said a German lay Catholic in Berlin who wished to remain anonymous.
But, more generally, the majority of German citizens seem to care little about the country’s “Synodal Way,” including many of the country’s 22.6 million Catholics, of whom many are lapsed or poorly catechized.
“Most of them only read the headlines ‘Celibacy should be abolished!’ ‘Demand for the ordination of women as priests’; ‘Blessing of all sexual orientations,’” said Father Guido Rodheudt, a parish priest in Aachen. “The result is usually a loud yawning.”
He told the Register that German citizens “still turn around on Sundays when the bells ring,” but added that “no one finds their way to God because the Church now hires diversity-minded pastoral ministers or allows a woman to say Mass.
“The crucial questions ‘Is there a God? And if there is, how do I live with him beyond my death?’ remain unanswered in the ‘Synodal Way,’” Father Rodheudt added. “It is mainly a matter of power issues and jurisdictional wrangling. But this is of no interest to anyone who wants to know where his or her life’s journey is going.”
Father Rodheudt, who argued that the Synodal Way “has no general authorization” and consists “largely of officials and employees living off Church tax revenues,” said what happened at the recent Synodal Way meeting in Frankfurt was the “proclamation of a different Church” and a “death blow to Catholicism in Germany.”
Misuse of Abuse Crisis?
Some German Catholics have voiced concern that the abuse crisis is being exploited in order to introduce the Synodal Way’s revolutionary goals.
The sex-abuse scandal “is only being used for the radical restructuring of the Church,” said Meuser, himself an abuse survivor. “Because of abuse, we need abuse prosecution, not ‘Church reform,’” he added.
Commenting on the Synodal Way’s Facebook group, German Catholic layman Thomas Roik decried how abuse has been “instrumentalized to enforce political Church demands,” adding that it is making “a mockery of the victims.”
The Synodal Way’s claim that it is dealing with the real causes of the abuse crisis is also hotly disputed.
Writing in the Neue Zurcher Zeitung on Feb. 10, German Catholic writer Martin Mosebach said he believed the underpinning philosophy of the “Synodal Way” is the very one that aggravated the abuse, and which mostly took place in the post-conciliar era — a time, he said, marked by the collapse of “structures of obedience.” He asserted that the abuse took place not because priests “broke under the yoke” of discipline, doctrine and tradition, but, rather, because they had been “freed for decades from clear spiritual supervision.”
Other German Catholics, speaking to the Register, also rejected the German synodal process.
Carsten Brennecke, a non-Catholic lawyer who recently helped defend Benedict XVI over accusations made against him in the report on abuse cases in Munich, said he thought “a false impression” was being given to the Catholic faithful in the country that the reforms could be decided in Germany even though they regard matters that can only be decided by the universal Church. “I have the impression that citizens are incompletely informed because it is not made clear to them that such reform decisions cannot be made in Germany,” he said.
Brennecke also pointed out how determined the reformers are in achieving their aims and highlighted in particular the attacks on Benedict, especially in the media.
They were caused, he believes, because Benedict’s teaching is viewed as “rather obstructive to the Synodal Way.”
An informed German Church lay source who asked not to be named due to fear of retribution warned about the determination of those pushing the Synodal Way.
“It’s important to recall that the Reformation didn’t remain in Germany, and if people downplay it and ignore it, then it will lead to disaster,” the source said.
“Germany and religion is a dangerous mixture — this was the case even before Reformation. Unfortunately, history tends to repeat itself — only, this time, the bishops are lost, malformed and naive.”