Synodal Way Isn’t Answer to Germany’s ‘Mission Country’ Status, Evangelization Leaders Say

Catholic leaders of evangelization efforts in Germany agree with Bishop Bätzing’s recent diagnosis of the country’s spiritual quandary, but some disagree with the approach Church leadership has taken to address it.

Chairman of the German Bishops' Conference Georg Bätzing addresses guests during the annual St Michael reception of the Catholic Church in Germany, in Berlin on September 4, 2023.
Chairman of the German Bishops' Conference Georg Bätzing addresses guests during the annual St Michael reception of the Catholic Church in Germany, in Berlin on September 4, 2023. (photo: Odd Anderson / Getty )

When a high-ranking German prelate recently described Germany as a “mission country” due to cratering rates of Christian affiliation and expressed the need for a “new evangelization,” many German Catholic leaders in evangelization nodded along in agreement.

After all, the leaders of these “new evangelization” efforts have operated under the premise that the once-Christian country is in need of a spiritual renewal for years, giving rise to apostolates dedicated to everything from catechesis to young adult formation.

But while Germany’s evangelization experts agreed with Bishop Georg Bätzing’s diagnosis, made in an interview with the German-language magazine of the Steyler Missionaries, many also expressed strong disagreement with how the prelate and the German Bishops Conference (DBK) he leads have actually responded to the nation’s spiritual quandary.

“The good bishop’s words sound great to me,” Jan-Philipp Goetz, a leader in evangelization efforts in Berlin, shared with the Register. “But until we see deeds along the lines of these words, it is important to do as they say, [but not] do as they do.”


Criticism of Synodal Way 

In particular, several evangelization leaders said that Bishop Bätzing’s call for missionary outreach is undermined by the DBK’s promotion of the controversial Synodal Way, a multi-year collaboration with the Central Committee of German Catholics, a powerful lay organization, aimed at dramatically changing the Church in Germany.

The Synodal Way has approved measures to adopt heterodox practices and beliefs related to sexuality and sacramental ordination, and has continued to push for a Vatican-forbidden form of mixed lay-episcopal governance, prompting Pope Francis to warn that the initiative is leading Germany away from unity with the universal Church. The Pope has also criticized the Synodal Way as elitist and unhelpful, and it has shown no sign of slowing the mass disaffiliation from the institutional Church — half a million Germans left the Church in 2022 alone.

Catholic theologian Johannes Hartl criticized the Synodal Way, which began in 2019, for increasingly focusing on “structural and doctrinal” changes that are disconnected from its original mandate to address the sexual abuse crisis in order to make the Church credible again. 

“Bishop Bätzing is completely right in his evaluation,” of Germany’s “mission country” status, Hartl, co-founder of the Gebetshaus ecumenical prayer house in Augsburg, told the Register. “Yet the actual focus on missions cannot be easily seen in the DBK’s current actions.”

Evangelization experts aren’t the only German Catholic leaders skeptical of the Synodal Way’s capacity to renew Church life in Germany. A recent survey found that young German clergy are far more enthusiastic about focusing on spiritual depth and conveying Catholic teaching than they are about Synodal Way focal points like women’s ordination and lay governance.

A spokesman for one Catholic group that organized in opposition to the Synodal Way went even further in his criticism, calling Bishop Bätzing’s comments on evangelization “trivial,” characterizing it as a throwaway line given to a missionary religious order’s magazine that is not matched by DBK leadership’s actions.

Peter Esser of the Neuer Anfang (New Beginning) initiative said that the Limburg bishop’s characterization of the Christian population as about half of Germany — while rates of religious practice are actually in the low single digits — indicates that the “missionary” work Bishop Bätzing has in mind is concerned mostly with retaining publicly-registered members of the Church in Germany, who pay a government-mandated “church tax.”

“It has nothing to do with Jesus’ Great Commission,” Esser said, adding that, Bishop Bätzing “does not give the impression that he has understood the dramatic nature of the loss of faith.” 


Needed Support

Esser is certainly critical of German Church leadership for promoting the Synodal Way, in which he said “mission did not play a role,” despite Pope Francis saying it should be the central priority of the initiative in his 2019 letter to German Catholics.

But Esser also faults Germany’s bishops for being largely unsupportive of initiatives that have long been doing exactly what Bishop Bätzing prescribed: getting in touch with non-believers and “talking to them without being pushy” or using a “negative tongue.”

“There are many missionary initiatives in Germany that are suspiciously tolerated in most dioceses,” Esser told the Register. “These initiatives are hopeful new beginnings. They need to be strengthened.”

But evangelization efforts in Germany are often looked upon askance, both within and without the hierarchical Church. For instance, dioceses like Augsburg and Passau may have offices dedicated to “new evangelization,” but the focus is a rarity. 

Relatedly, a new Catholic theological university in Cologne, which aims to form missionaries to today’s existential peripheries, was described by an influential newspaper in Frankfurt as a “madrassa” due to its use of magisterial Church doctrine as a foundation for its curriculum.

Goetz in Berlin is concerned that the groups often leading evangelization efforts in Germany, “traditionalist and charismatic Catholics,” are “targeted” by groups hunting for “‘right-wing’ views among leaders or faithful and then reporting them back to bishops or mainstream media.”

Church leaders have recently expressed alarm at the growing popularity of the right-wing populist AfD party, and efforts have been made to discredit the pro-life movement in Germany due to the participation of some AfD members.

“Using third parties to implement your own views within the Church does not foster a very loving atmosphere,” said Goetz. “And much of this is caused or at least allowed by our bishops.”


Embracing Evangelization

If German Church leaders like Bishop Bätzing are looking for a blueprint for promoting evangelization in Germany, then Hartl in Augsburg has a suggestion: “Mission Manifest,” a document signed onto by nearly 100 Catholic communities and religious congregations in 2018 that includes “10 theses for the Church’s comeback.”

Listed priorities include reemphasizing prayer and catechesis as the foundations of mission, as well as the need for a “democratization” of mission to all believers. The initiative’s website includes links to practical opportunities, like Alpha courses and the German apostolate Night Fever.

Catholic leaders like Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne and Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau have already signed the manifesto, but if addressing Germany’s “mission country” status is a true priority of the DBK, Hartl hopes more German bishops will take a look.

“New evangelization is already taking place successfully in many places in Germany,” Hartl said, with many German Catholics ready for more. “This would be the ideal time for the DBK to take concrete steps to implement the ideas outlined in ‘Mission Manifesto.’”

Jimmy Harrison, an American who lives in Germany and directs the FOCUS missionary apostolate’s European operations, said Bishop Bätzing’s call for missionaries today “is spot on,” and underscored the need for all German Catholics to embrace the task, especially in their everyday relationships.

“Looking to Jesus and the early Church as the models for all mission, I believe we are challenged to focus above all on the people right around us, to share life with them, to build relationships with them, and in that context to invite them into a life with God,” Harrison told the Register.

FOCUS currently has missionaries in the Archdiocese of Cologne and the Diocese of Passau, but Harrison expressed his eagerness to work with any German bishop who would allow them to serve in their dioceses.

“If the Church is to answer the call to the new evangelization, it will be largely through friendship, not through a program, a committee, or an event, helpful as those things might be,” he told the Register.

Goetz says “there is nothing more important and relevant in today’s increasing pagan Germany than evangelizing people.” He and thousands of German Catholics pray daily for the country’s bishops to fully support the effort — but are prepared to continue to be missionaries with or without the DBK’s backing.

“People need a savior from lives of fear and sin, death, and harm in general. Christians know the Savior. We need to share the knowledge.”