The aim of several statements produced in recent months seems to be to help to channel, to orient in a different way, or to reformulate the objectives and methods of the so-called “Synodal Way” of the Church in Germany.
A few days ago, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, a highly respected figure with great weight in the Church in Central Europe, gave an interview to the magazine Communio; in it, starting from the theological foundations, he confronts the theoretical bases that inspire this process. Among other things, he underlines the “diachronic dimension” of the Church: she does not reinvent herself in each epoch because she is inserted in a long historical process, in which in a certain sense she depends on what she has received, and at the same time proposes it in her own epoch and for the future. Schönborn affirms that “the Church is a living organism in time… It is the Church of those who have believed before us and of those who will believe after us. And we are not at liberty to pretend, in this diachronic consideration, that the Church’s history of faith, the history of holiness—and naturally also of the sinfulness of the members of the Church—does not exist.” He also alludes to a defining element of the Church’s unity: her faithfulness to the deposit of faith in which she herself finds her origin.
A few days before this interview, the Italian theologian Marco Vanzini wrote in Omnes about this dimension. For him, precisely because of her synodal character, the Church follows a path in which she advances by listening: first of all, listening to the inheritance that has been deposited in her; and secondly, by carrying out the necessary renewal in each period of time. If she did not both listen to these voices that go before her, and at the same time bring them up to date, the Church would run the risk of becoming stagnant or of ‘abandoning the “Way” which is Christ to follow misguided directions’. For Vanzini, listening ‘in dialogue with and in Tradition’ is a guarantee that it offers the world not a solution of human wisdom, but an incarnation of the divine Word. In this sense, the synodality of the Church is above all historical: today’s Christians walk with those of yesterday and prepare the way for those of tomorrow. ‘Trusting in the aid of the Spirit of truth, the Church knows that Tradition is the place where God continues to speak to her, enabling her to offer the world a doctrine that is always alive and relevant.’
At the plenary assembly of February 3rd–5th, the German Synodal Way approved for the first time a series of proposals calling for changes in priestly celibacy, the ordination of women, the formulation of the Church’s sexual morality and the conception of the Church as founded on power. From the theological perspective mentioned above, their approval would introduce a complete breakdown in listening to what has been received, and in the faithful transmission of the deposit to successive generations; this, regardless of the motivation that inspires the proponents, which is the desire to put a solution to the causes of sexual abuse—but also, for many observers such as Cardinal Schönborn himself, also the ‘instrumentalization’ of abuses to introduce reforms that belong to a separate agenda. Schönborn offers an example: ‘When a vote was taken at the third synodal assembly in Germany on the question of whether to discuss the very necessity of ordained ministry in the future, and the motion received ninety-five votes in favor and ninety-four against, something has gone wrong. Plain and simple. Because a question like that can’t be negotiated synodically… This question isn’t up for negotiation… Imagine a synodal path without the depositum fidei: that’s no longer synodality. It’s another way, but certainly not synodality in the sense of the Church.’ On the true nature of synodality, which inspires the process of the Synod of Bishops of the universal Church, you can read here the full explanation of Luis Marin, one of its Undersecretaries.
Since the plenary assembly in February, there has been a succession of signals directed towards Germany, calling on the promoters of the Synodal Way to reconsider their approach. From the Nordic Bishops’ Conference came a letter that was balanced and fraternal, but also unequivocal. The President of the Polish Bishops’ Conference similarly wrote to the President of the German Bishops’ Conference, Georg Bätzing, explaining why he found the method and objectives of the German Synodal Way unacceptable. The same has been done by French, American and other bishops, individually or collectively. Now it has been Schönborn, who belongs to the Germanic linguistic and cultural world, who has made his disagreement public.
Almost at the same time as the publication of the interview with the Austrian cardinal, on June 14, La Civiltà Cattolica published an interview granted by the Pope to the Jesuit magazines of Europe. When asked about the situation in Germany, Francis recalls that he made this comment to the president of the German bishops: ‘In Germany there’s a very good Evangelical Church; there’s no need for two of them.’ This expression, together with the Pope’s Letter to German Catholics of June 2019, says almost everything that needs to be said.
Within Germany various bishops have made known their positions as reticent towards or critical of the Synodal Way: these include Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne and several others. Rudolf Voderholzer, Bishop of Regensburg, promotes a web page with alternative reflections and texts to those used by the Synodal Way. The respected theologian Cardinal Walter Kasper has also declared his skepticism. And various groups of the faithful, especially lay people, have organized themselves to redirect the process. One example is the ‘Neuer Anfang’ initiative, which promotes a manifesto with alternative reform proposals. These movements do not act in the manner of those who seek confrontation or rupture, but rather encounter and dialogue on serious theological bases. This is the effort of people like the philosopher and 2021 Ratzinger Prize winner Hannah-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz, who spoke in Madrid at a meeting of our Omnes Forum.
It is difficult to know how things will develop, but it does now seem impossible to ignore the references that mark these signs towards Germany: perhaps they indicate the clues for a redirection of the Synodal Way.