Roman Catholics in Germany were the first to embark on the synodal process that Pope Francis would later ask the entire Church around the world to take up.
They began their Synodal Path (Der Sinodale Weg) in December 2019, nearly two years before the pope launched local consultations in October 2021 for the global Catholic community. This latter process was the “diocesan phase” of an ongoing three-part preparation for the next assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which will be held here in Rome in October 2023.
The Synodal Path in Germany has been a controversial project, to say the least. Some have seen it as an effort to subvert longstanding Church teaching and have warned menacingly that it is leading towards a schism.
But, in all truth, the Germans may have found the exactly right method for paving the way to a true reform of Catholicism.
They decided there was an urgent need for synodal discussions that included the country's clergy (including all the bishops) and lay faithful after the publication of a devastating report on the priest sex abuse crisis. The original plan, which would be reconfirmed and intensified over time, was to address the structural, theological and sociological issues in the Catholic Church that allowed such abuse to happen and even continue to the present day.
The German Bishops' Conference (DBK) and the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) formed a Synodal Committee co-chaired by the top officers of each organization. Famous for their stereotypical obsession with meticulously organizing nearly everything, the Germans then drew up a structure and precise rules of procedure for what would be called the Synodal Path.
A Synodal Assembly of 230 Catholics of various ages and walks of life was formed and its work was divided into four “forums” that would focus on the following subject areas: 1.) Power and the Separation of Powers in the Church; 2.) Living Love in Sexuality and Partnership; 3.) Women in Ministries and Offices of the Church; and 4.) Priestly Existence Today.
The issues and some of the proposals for addressing them have caused alarm and aroused fear in more traditional Catholic circles, including among some cardinals and bishops in Rome and elsewhere. One of the reasons for the negative reaction is likely due to inaccurate media reports and alarmist "commentary" about the Synodal Path. Church officials and reform-minded Catholics in Germany are well aware that misconceptions are being perpetuated.
That is one of the reasons why the German Embassy to the Holy See recently hosted a conference in Rome with law professor Charlotte Kreuter-Kirchhof, a member of the Synodal Assembly and one of six women who sit on the Council of the Economy at the Vatican. “We are members of the Roman Catholic Church, and we will stay members of the Roman Catholic Church,” she told an English-speaking gathering that included diplomats, priests and religious, a number of journalists and a cardinal from northern Europe.
Kreuter-Kirchhof then clearly explained the procedures the Synodal Path has followed during and between its four meetings up to now. A fifth and final session is to be held in March. She explained the democratic process the Synodal Path has adopted to pass resolutions but debunked the myth that it was trying to force the bishops into making changes that are contrary to Church law. In fact, she stressed that canon lawyers were made members of the Assembly to help avoid any such attempt.
Documents must be approved by two-thirds of the German bishops and two-thirds of all the others (laity, priests and religious) in the Assembly. Only some of the items that pass can be adopted without approval from Rome. But no bishop can be forced to adopt any such changes.
Other items that are approved by the Assembly, notably those that propose changes in doctrine and law, must be sent to the pope for his consideration.
All this information and documentation can be found in various languages, including English, on the Synodal Path’s website.
Kreuter-Kirchhof sought to assure her listeners that the Germans were not trying to lead another Reformation. During the question-and-answer period following her presentation, she paraphrased Pope Francis by saying, “We don't need another Protestant Church in Germany,”
The Synodal Path has not been all smooth sailing, however. It hit a crisis earlier in the year and “came close to a failure,” the law professor said, after the document on sexuality did not get the necessary two-thirds approval of the bishops. Members of the Assembly said they were blindsided by the move since no bishop had made strong objections during the multi-stage process of drafting and finalizing the proposed text. They urged the opposing hierarchs to be more engaged in the process.
Kreuter-Kirchhoff said that incident taught everyone a vital lesson about the synodal process.
“We learned that if the bishops turn away from the people of God or if the people of God are not with the bishops, the Church suffers,” she said. “The synodal Church is the place of common faith, of listening to one another, of discerning together and of common decision.”
Rather than paving the road to schism, this path marks the way towards even greater Church unity. And for this lesson learned, Catholics around the world can rightly tell their German brothers and sisters, “Danke schön!”
Robert Mickens is the English editor for La Croix International website.