The German Synodal Path: An Explainer

The approved drafts have fueled worries that the Church in Germany is steadily moving toward schism.

Bishop Georg Batzing (L), Chairman of the German Bishops' Conference and Cardinal Reinhard Marx (R) talk during the final day of the "Synadoler Weg" Catholic Reform Movement Congress on February 05, 2022 in Frankfurt, Germany.
Bishop Georg Batzing (L), Chairman of the German Bishops' Conference and Cardinal Reinhard Marx (R) talk during the final day of the "Synadoler Weg" Catholic Reform Movement Congress on February 05, 2022 in Frankfurt, Germany. (photo: Thomas Lohnes / Getty)

The Catholic bishops’ conference of Germany launched its “Synodal Way” Dec. 1, 2019, nominally to provide a platform for discussion and reflection on the shocking revelations of clergy sexual abuse that roiled the nation. Organizers contended that a major reassessment of Catholic teaching was required to address the roots of the abuse crisis, regain the trust of the faithful, and ignite Church reform. 

The multi-year process of discernment remains a joint, co-equal effort by the German bishops’ conference, who initiated with a resolution, and the Central Committee of German Catholics, an influential lay organization known by its acronym, “ZdK,” with additional delegates from religious orders, associations and councils. Slated to complete its work by February 2023, the 230-member Synodal Assembly has focused on four major topics: the exercise of power in the Church; sexual morality; the priesthood; and the role of women. It has met four times, with smaller forums, headed by one bishop and one lay Catholic, tackling one of the four subject areas under review. 

Back in 2019, in statements that alarmed the Vatican, the Synodal Assembly signaled its intent to challenge Church doctrine and discipline, and vowed to issue its own “binding” teaching on a range of sensitive matters. This month, a plenary meeting of the Assembly in Frankfurt 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.” 


Cause for Concern

The approved drafts have fueled worries that the Church in Germany is steadily moving toward schism. More debate is expected before the final synod votes in 2023 to approve new “binding” rulings.

Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, the head of the German bishops’ conference, has previously insisted, “we are not schismatics.” But he has also publicly challenged Church teaching on a range of issues, and the mixed messages have created the expectation that the Synodal Path could result in a de facto Germany national church. 

The assembly’s rulings are not binding on the universal Church, as previous Vatican interventions have made clear. 

The Vatican has responded to the fast-moving developments in Germany, with statements from Pope Francis and other curial officials, and specific actions widely viewed as an attempt to to check the Synodal Path, like the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 2021 instruction barring same-sex blessings. Pope Francis wrote a letter to all Catholics in Germany in June 2019, objecting to the Church in Germany’s course of action. He cautioned that a failure to heed his warning could result in “multiplying and nurturing the evils it wanted to overcome.”

In September 2019, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect for the Congregation for Bishops, wrote to Cardinal Reinhard Marx, then-president of the German bishops’ conference, to report that the Pontifical Commission for Legislative Texts’ legal assessment of the draft statutes for the Synodal Assembly determined that the proceedings had no binding authority. Nevertheless, Cardinal Marx indicated that the Assembly would proceed as planned.


‘Fundamental Text’

In March 2021, the release of the “Fundamental Text,” the document guiding the deliberations in Germany, stirred more anxiety at the highest levels of the Church, with the document’s authors asserting that “there is no one truth of the religious, moral, and political world, and no one form of thought that can lay claim to ultimate authority.”

Meanwhile, ZdK’s out-going president, Thomas Sternberg, a theologian and member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) political party, dismissed the Vatican’s concerns as “disturbances from Rome.”

Founded in 1949, ZdK presents itself as a representative of lay Catholicism in Germany. However, a 2020 survey published by CNA Deutsch, Catholic News Agency’s German news partner, found that just 19% of Catholics agreed with the statement that the Synodal Way was of interest to them. The majority of Germans expressed the opposite view.

Such findings have raised questions about the Synodal Assembly’s actual standing among ordinary German Catholics. Papal biographer, George Weigel, argues that the process has been “dominated by “Church bureaucrats and academics,” who seem “determined to reinvent the Catholic Church as a form of liberal Protestantism.” The broadsides against the Church bureaucracy reflect the fact that the German Church is the richest in the world, due to the national Kirchensteuer, the church tax system that funds local dioceses and provides comfortable salaries and benefits to church personnel. In 2017, the Church in Germany received a reported 6 billion euros ($7.2 billion) through this system, with a significant portion of these moneys supporting Catholic institutions and charities in the developing world. 

Echoing the views of the Synodal Way’s critics, Weigel further contends that the assembly’s positions reflect the devastating failure of the modern Church to effectively transmit basic truths of the faith: that “divine revelation in Scripture and tradition” are binding, and that real Christian freedom is “doing the right thing for the right reason as a matter of moral habit.”

Some German Church leaders and theologians also suggest that public outrage over the abuse crisis has been cynically manipulated, to advance reforms that have no “connection” to the crisis.

“In the current debate on Church renewal, the necessity of which has become obvious through the abuse crisis, positions are often put forward whose contents have no secure connection with the reappraisal or prevention of abuse of power within the Church,” stated Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg in his September 2021 response to the Synodal Path’s manifesto.


Twin Goals

At the same time, Register Rome correspondent, Edward Pentin, reported this month that “the Synodal Way’s twin goals of tackling the [abuse] 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.” 

Likewise, the assembly’s supporters note that the vast majority of German bishops (60 out of the country’s 67) are involved in the controversial deliberations, and so appear to agree with the proposed reforms. In fact, it isn’t yet clear whether the majority of German bishops have backed the most radical draft proposals, as the voting process does not confirm which delegates took specific positions.

Thus far, Vatican officials have not acted decisively to correct or suppress the assembly’s work. And Church leaders beyond Germany fear the broader ramifications of an unchecked Synodal Path. The assembly’s documents are available in several languages, even as Australia, Ireland, Austria and Italy launch their own national synods.

“The Catholic Church in Germany is important on the map of Europe, and I am aware that it will either radiate its faith or its unbelief onto the entire continent,” wrote the president of the Polish Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Stanislaw Gądecki, in a letter addressed to Bishop Bätzing that was released in late February. “The authority of the Pope and bishops is most needed when the Church is going through a challenging time and when she is under pressure to depart from Jesus’ teachings.”

Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.