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German Synodal Path: A Road through Shifting Lands

The German synodal path takes resolutions that, in part, are in clear opposition to the doctrine of the Church. Those responsible are aware that some "changes" cannot be implemented unilaterally in Germany, but they hope that others can be implemented in the local Church.

José M. García Pelegrín-February 5, 2022-Reading time: 5 minutes
german sinndal road

A moment during the third session of the German Synodal Path ©CNS photo/Julia Steinbrecht, KNA

In Germany, the Synodal Path held its third plenary assembly from February 3 to 5. Prior to the issues that aroused the most public opinion - thepriestly celibacy, diaconate and priesthood of women, blessing of couples without access to marriage, "division of powers" in the Church-The assembly dealt with the "orientation text", a declaration of the "theological bases of the synodal journey", particularly controversial both for its form, since it was presented by the executive committee without consulting the "forums" or the assembly, and for its content: among the "loci theologici", in addition to Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium, the "signs of the times" and a "magisterium of those affected (by abuses)" are also mentioned.

Although the interpretation of the "signs of the times" showed the differences within the assembly, the expression was kept in the final text. However, the expression "magisterium of those affected" was replaced by "their voice as the source of theology".

Celibacy

In the days prior to the assembly, the statements made by Cardinal Marx of Munich - former President of the Bishops' Conference - and Archbishop Heiner Koch of Berlin in interviews had caused perplexity. Cardinal Marx told the "Süddeutsche Zeitung": "It would be better for everyone if there were both celibate and married priests. For some priests it would be better if they were married; not for sexual reasons but because they would not suffer from loneliness; we have to have this debate".

In his interview with the Berlin "Tagesspiegel", Bishop Koch said that celibacy is a "strong witness of faith", but it does not have to be "the exclusive path to priestly ministry", because he knows "the strong faith and witness of many married people, which would also enrich the priestly ministry".

Female priesthood

As for "the opening of the priesthood for women," Marx did not define himself: "It would not be useful to answer now because we are debating about it; I not only have my own opinion, but I have to watch over unity. Here, Bishop Koch was more explicit: "Personally, I support the diaconate for women; to ensure the unity of the universal Church, the diaconate for women would be a practicable step, because I do not see that the priesthood of women can be imposed worldwide".

At the press conference prior to the assembly, the President of the Bishops' Conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing, referred to these statements: "The celibacy of priests is a way of following Jesus Christ, witnessed to in the Bible. It is a great treasure; I joyfully - and I hope convincingly - live this way of life. But it is not the only one, not even in the Catholic Church: the Eastern Catholic Churches have married priests. I do not conceive that marriage and the priesthood cannot be an enrichment both for that ministry and for the common life of the spouses". Referring to the Special Synod for the Amazon, he added: "We adhere to a movement that has spread far beyond the borders of Germany".

It is not surprising, then, that the assembly pronounced itself in favor of "repealing the obligation of celibacy" for the priesthood and introducing the "viri probati"; that is, the ordination of married men. Now, this is a resolution - approved by a large majority - on first reading, just like the decision in favor of the "admission of women to priestly orders"; therefore, the text of the resolution is returned to the corresponding forum for processing. In the debate prior to the decision, a large number of the assembly members were in favor of a "full equality of men and women in the Church".

Rudolf Voderholzer, as well as the philosopher Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz and the theologian Marianne Schlosser spoke out against it. Schlosser emphasized that in order to change the constant doctrine and repeated practice of the Church, very strong arguments are needed. In her opinion, it is not enough to refer to a change in the understanding of roles. The assembly of the synodal path, however, instructed the Bishops' Conference to ask Pope Francis for an "indult", i.e. permission to admit women to the diaconate.

Blessing of homosexual couples

Related to these resolutions is also the vote in favor of the introduction of "blessing ceremonies for couples who love each other"; the assembly asks the bishops to make such ceremonies possible for couples who cannot (or do not want to) celebrate marriage; in addition to homosexual couples this also refers to divorced people who have entered into a new civil marriage or even to unbaptized couples. The argument: "to deny God's blessing to people who express the desire to receive it is heartless or even discriminatory".

Although such ceremonies are not currently planned, they are already taking place in many places in Germany, so the "situation of lack of clarity and unity" must be overcome.

The laity in the synodal journey

The synodal path also advocates a greater co-determination of the laity in the election of Catholic bishops; not only was a two-thirds majority obtained among the participants in the assembly, but also among the bishops: 42 (79 %) voted in favor and 11 against. Although each bishop can implement it in his diocese, it is recommended that a consultative body be created to draw up, together with the cathedral chapter, the list of candidates to be sent to Rome.

This resolution is in line with the approval of a text on "Power and separation of powers in the Church". On the basis that "there is a gap between what the Gospel teaches and the exercise of power in the Church", the assembly members voted in favor of a text in which the "norms of a pluralistic and open society in a democratic constitutional state" are considered positive, even though the Church is fundamentally different from the opinion-forming processes in society. Therefore, the central concept for the Catholic Church should be "synodality".

The resolutions of the synodal journey

Those responsible for the synodal journey are also aware that these resolutions can have different paths. At a press conference, the Secretary General of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), Marc Frings, acknowledged that some of the resolutions are to be sent to Rome, while others can already be implemented in Germany.

In any case, what ZdK President and Co-Chair of the Synodal Path, Irme Stetter-Karp, expressed at the opening press conference was clear: "The ZdK is willing to change the Church; I want to be President of the ZdK in a just Church, in a Church that is not primarily concerned with whether and how it gets out of its credibility crisis, but with how it does justice: For the victims of sexual abuse for the many affected, for church communities, for families, for people whose lives have not improved but worsened with the Church."

Among the various voices discordant with the decisions made by the majority in this assembly, the warnings of the Nuncio, Bishop Nikola Eterovic, in his address to the assembly members, are particularly significant. After referring to the fact that "the Pope is the point of reference and the center of unity for more than 1.3 billion Catholics, 22.6 million of whom live in Germany," he recalled that "the Bishop of Rome presented his authoritative opinion to German Catholics on June 29, 2019 in the well-known Letter to the people of God on pilgrimage in Germany.

In that letter, the Pope stressed that the decisions of the synodal journey must be in harmony with the universal Church, and in particular with the decisions of the Second Vatican Council, and he emphasized the supernatural vision, with prayer and penance, rejecting Pelagianism: "one of the first and great temptations at the ecclesial level is to believe that the solutions to present and future problems would come exclusively from purely structural, organic or bureaucratic reforms but which, at the end of the day, would in no way touch the vital cores that demand attention". Bishop Eterovic referred to the fact that the Pope frequently speaks of synodality, but also "encourages us to avoid false understandings and errors." While the synodal Church demands the participation of all, "Pope Francis warns against parliamentarism, formalism, intellectualism and clericalism".

The fourth plenary assembly of the synodal journey will take place in September 2022; the fifth - and, in principle, the last - in March 2023.

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