‘Misdiagnosis’ — or Worse? German Synodal Path’s Solutions to Abuse Crisis Questioned
NEWS ANALYSIS: Critics of the effort don’t disagree with the need for reform — they disagree that the solutions posed actually address the crisis, raising questions of underlying motives.
In his response to a “fraternal open letter” to the Catholic bishops of Germany warning of their Synodal Path’s “potential for schism in the life of the Church,” Bishop Georg Bätzing wrote that his critics were missing the point.
“The Synodal Path is our attempt in Germany to confront the systemic causes of the abuse and its cover-up that has caused untold suffering to so many people in and through the Church,” wrote Bishop Bätzing, president of the German episcopal conference, in his April 16 response to the fraternal letter, which has now been signed by nearly 100 bishops from six continents. “This occasion and context is particularly important to us, but unfortunately it is not mentioned at all in your letter.”
The bishop of Limburg has taken this approach to deflecting criticism before. For instance, after similar cautionary letters regarding the “Synodal Path” were issued by the president of the Polish episcopal conference and the bishops of the Nordic countries, Bishop Bätzing responded by reemphasizing that the “Synodal Path” is a response to the clergy sexual-abuse crisis in Germany, suggesting that his critics had not adequately factored this dimension into their analyses.
But it’s a rhetorical move that — ironically — seems to mischaracterize the positions of those expressing concern about the “Synodal Path.”
The international bishops’ April 11 letter, for instance, makes explicit reference to “the need for reform and renewal,” which it describes “as old as the Church itself,” the impulse for which “is admirable and should never be feared.” In fact, in a previously unpublished portion of an interview given to the Register prior to the publication of the letter, Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, one of the organizers of the letter, stated that “anything contrary to the Gospel needs to be corrected” and specifically cited the “terrible scourge of sexual abuse of children” as something “that is desperately in need of reform.”
What Bishop Paprocki and his fellow signatories, several Catholic theologians and advocates for Church reform seem to be questioning isn’t the need for meaningful reform in the life of the Church in Germany — but rather the Synodal Path’s proposed solutions, which include calls for the ordination of women to the priesthood and changes to Church teaching to permit same-sex sexual activity, and even its diagnosis of the causes of the abuse crisis.
Misdiagnosing the Problem
The extent of sexual abuse in the Church in Germany was revealed in a 2018 report commissioned by the German bishops’ conference, which found that at least 3,677 minors, mostly boys under the age of 13, had been sexually abused by Catholic clergy in the country from 1946 to 2014. The report also found systematic cover-up of the crimes and a failure to punish and remove abusive priests from ministry.
Deborah Savage, a theologian at Franciscan University of Steubenville who has spoken and written extensively about the causes of the sex-abuse crisis in the Church and the need for reform, affirmed that the “travesty of sexual abuse goes against everything authentically human.”
“We all want to put an end to it, once and for all,” she said.
But Savage said that the Synodal Way’s proposals — which break away from clearly established teaching on sacramental ordination and human sexuality grounded in divine Revelation and apostolic Tradition — will not only “fail to resolve the crisis — they will leave it untouched.”
That’s because the abuse crisis, Savage emphasized, is not the result of a flaw of the Church’s teaching, but a systematic failure to be faithful to it.
For instance, Savage strongly criticized the idea that ordaining women will end a clerical culture of cover-up and complacency. That’s because the problem isn’t with the nature of the male-only priesthood, she said, but with a rejection of it by those who commit and cover up clergy abuse.
“The priests who engage in sexual abuse of anyone for any reason have forgotten what it means to be a man and, by extent, a father — whose fundamental charism is to protect and to guide,” said Savage, who played a pivotal role in priestly formation at the St. Paul Seminary in Minnesota for 15 years before her move to Franciscan. “Those found guilty of it should be sent to do hard labor somewhere, to build houses for Habitat for Humanity, to serve the poor — not to cushy prisons. They need to be reminded of what it means to be a man.”
Savage told the Register the Church should pursue meaningful reforms related to the priesthood, but these lie in the realm of formation, not in alterations of the fundamental character of the priestly ministry, which was instituted by Christ and has been consistently confirmed by the Church. Instead of attempting to ordain women, which Savage said would betray any kind of authentic feminism by implying women need to operate by “the masculine principle” in order to contribute to the Church, she advocated for ensuring the inclusion of women in ecclesial life in a way that recognizes and cherishes their distinctive charisms and gifts as women.
For instance, she said that faithful women are essential to the process of priestly formation, an area of reform that she views as critical for affecting a long-term, meaningful response to the sources of the abuse crisis, as opposed to “mere administrative solutions.”
“The seminarian not only needs the witness of women who are grateful to them for answering God’s call, but such women are crucial in the formation of priests because the seminarian needs to be called out of the relative safety of the male-only world and into one of relationship with the Other,” she said, referring to an article she has previously written on the topic.
Dominican Father Pius Pietrzyk agreed that the response of the German bishops to the sex-abuse crisis “fundamentally misdiagnoses the problem,” which he describes as essentially a moral problem.
In particular, the canon lawyer and professor of theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., points to a collapse in moral theology over the past 60 years, which has been especially pronounced in Germany. Coinciding with a time of “extreme sexual experimentation” in the wider culture, Father Pietrzyk said the result has been a moral climate in which the objective nature of human sexuality and the gravity of sexual sins has been obscured.
As a result, the hierarchical Church’s judicial response to the sexual-abuse crisis among its clergy lacked “sufficient outrage at the tenor of the crime because of the weakening of the moral sensibility of the hierarchy of bishops,” explained the Dominican priest. A “weak-willed pastoral response” was provided, instead of the needed imposition of “penal remedies as a response to the injustice that has been committed.”
While the German “Synodal Way” has attacked priestly celibacy and the male-only priesthood as the root of the problem, Father Pietrzyk suggested instead that a form of “clericalism” that lacks both a respect for “the need for law and justice within the Church generally” and a proper moral framework is the actual heart of the matter, as it gave unjust benefits to abusive priests.
“What they’re suggesting isn’t a solution to the problem,” he said. “It’s entering more deeply into the problem because they’re really incorporating and really making permanent many of the same attitudes.”
Critics of the “Synodal Path” don’t necessarily think all of its proposals are off the mark. For instance, Stephen White, executive director of The Catholic Project, a collaborative effort of clergy and laity that formed in 2018 to promote Church reform related to problems like the sex-abuse crisis, recently wrote that “reforming the ways bishops are nominated, how seminarians are formed, and how cases of accused priests are handled” could all be parts of a solution.
But White said changing a clerical culture that protects its own cannot be achieved by “simply shifting power from one group (clergy) to another (laity),” a perspective which itself relies on a deeply problematic conception of the Church primarily in terms of power.
Furthermore, White wrote that “for all the talk about the need for unflinching reform in the wake of the abuse crisis, the most controversial proposals coming out of the German Synodal [Way] have little obvious connection to the abuse crisis.” Instead, he describes them as “precisely the same set of issues Catholic progressives have been pushing for decades: end priestly celibacy, ordain women, abandon the Church’s teaching on the nature of human sexuality and human acts.”
Sara Perla, communications manager for The Catholic Project, offered a similar observation to the Register, noting that while the “Synodal Way” is right to describe the scourge of sexual abuse and cover-up as a “systemic crisis,” the “so-called solutions offered are not actually an answer to that problem, but, rather, a thinly veiled attempt to resurrect ideas that were fashionable in the 1970s.”
Savage and Father Pietrzyk share similar assessments of what the real aims of the “Synodal Path” might be.
Savage said the Catholic leadership in Germany’s approach is derived from a fatally flawed premise that “the only way to stay relevant and sustain the Church’s presence” is by accommodating the demands of secular culture — a failure to follow Christ’s instruction to transform the secular order and not adopt its norms, especially those that are evidently contributing to “the descent of humanity.”
She described the German attempt to use the clergy sexual-abuse crisis as “a promising point of leverage” to advance “the same worn-out agenda items” that have been pushed by dissident theologians for decades. Savage described this effort as “not only a diversion,” but an “outright subterfuge, a kind of cosmic trick, now driven by a powerful subset of men who are themselves blinded by a culture in the process of committing suicide.”
“It is the blind leading the blind, and we should resist them at every level.”
Father Pietrzyk described the effort as “a backdoor way of trying to adapt the Church to modern thinking.” While the Dominican said that Church teaching should always be presented in a way that people can understand it, that’s not the same as changing the teaching itself so others will accept it.
He described the German approach to making the Church appear credible as “incredibly bureaucratic, even a kind of marketing [campaign],” mistakenly forgetting that it is Jesus and his teaching — not programs and concessions — that makes the Gospel credible.
“If you want something that’s going to be truly effective, the Church can’t respond to the evils of the world by betraying herself. All that does is just exacerbate the evil.”
Instead of renewing their fidelity to Christ and his Church as a source of renewal, Father Pietrzyk said that the German bishops are going the route of a very different kind of “reformer”: Martin Luther.
The Dominican priest notes that Luther raised some legitimate points about abuses within the Church in his own time, but he called for changes that weren’t really reforms, but deformations, of the faith. Father Pietrzyk said the ultimate realization of Cardinal Thomas Cajetan, the Dominican papal legate sent to Luther to resolve the controversy, is applicable to the German hierarchy today: “You don’t want to the reform the Church. You want a different church.”
And barring a movement of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of German ecclesial leadership, or at least an intervention by the Holy See, the concern of many is that we may soon see the emergence of another schismatic rupture, borne from false reform in Germany, but with consequences for the Church universal.