It has become the daily custom—the press briefing ritual—that all the guests at the press table speak about their own experience of synodality. And they do so, often rhapsodically and often uniformly, celebrating the synod’s enveloping atmosphere of prayer, openness and universality. I believe that they are sincere—after all, La Sala Stampa della Santa Sede (the Press Office of the Holy See) is not a Beijing or Moscow-like apparatus of state—and their stalwart defense of the efficacy of the synod process is not to be gainsaid.
But it is wonderfully refreshing when one of the prelates goes off script while responding to a question, speaking from the heart with no polite evasions and with searing honesty. I don’t mean to suggest that the other guests—bishops and sisters predominantly—are pollyannaish in their remarks because they do address the pastoral challenges facing their dioceses and communities forthrightly, but not with the passion of Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, Military Ordinary for the Federal Republic of Germany.
Of course, there has been a years-long concern in Rome, and in other quarters, over the process, status and content of the German Synod—too liberal, no doctrinal guardrails, dissension among bishops, etc.—and there was a palpable fear among many that the wild liberality of the Germans could compromise the Rome Synod on Synodality. The Rhine flows into the Tiber all over again. In fact, there were frank exchanges between the Vatican and the German hierarchy and episcopal visits to Rome to calm curial nerves and to assuage papal anxiety.
There was also a letter signed by more than a hundred bishops from around the world sent to the German episcopacy addressing what they considered excesses in the German synodal process. The letter, consisting mostly of very conservative American and Latin American prelates with a mere sprinkling of Canadian hierarchs located in the western provinces, was ostensibly a corrective of the German experiment, but indirectly a warning to Francis to beware what he was opening.
So, when Overbeck discussed the reality of the German church he pulled no punches. He spoke of its four-year national synod, the very public debate about women in ministry, the often fierce tensions between doctrine and enculturation, as well as the personnel challenges in his own diocese where since he has been bishop he has presided over the funerals of some 300 priests and the ordinations of a paltry 15. The German synod was a synod of repentance and it started because of the catastrophic consequences of the clerical sex abuse tsunami.
Overbeck commented that sitting on his desk back home is a dossier of allegations concerning a cardinal deceased by two decades. The pastoral task of healing continues, the voices of the survivors must be listened to, and justice and reconciliation secured. “The disaster is unending,” the plain-speaking bishop opined, and although committed to synodality as understood by his Roman experience, he is no less committed to the synodality of his German experience.
Although clerical sex abuse has commanded little overt and sustained attention at the Synod on Synodality, clericalism, the abuse of power and the need for meaningful priestly formation have surfaced regularly precisely because they were raised repeatedly during the consultative phases—local, diocesan, national and continental—thereby confirming their global significance.
In the judgement of many reputable church historians and theologians the ever-festering, ubiquitous and morale-sapping reality of clerical sex abuse constitutes the greatest institutional and moral crisis facing Catholicism since the Reformation.
The German bishops are facing the crisis head on. Besieged by the angry, the disillusioned and the alienated, the bishops have tried, and I would argue heroically, to grapple with the pastoral implications and to think boldly of how they can move forward.
The synodal model vigorously on display in Rome is one way forward but the German church is wrestling with a pressing moral urgency and time is not an option. Following the release of the Sauvé Report in France, the delayed awakenings to the issue in Italy and Portugal, the tremors shaking Poland and the bankruptcies of many American dioceses, the Vatican strategies of redress and reform are inadequate. Time to think boldly indeed.
When discussing the roots of clericalism, it makes sense to discuss where the incubation of clericalism and its attendant problems lie: the seminary. That is beyond the remit of the Synod, but not beyond its scope. Listening to the Germans has been a bracing corrective.
Christoph Schönborn, the Dominican Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, opted like Overbeck to speak in English rather than German and made a special point of underlying one overriding truth, “If faith, hope and charity do not increase as a result of our work on synodality then it has been in vain.” In this he echoed the sentiments expressed at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. In short, we have our work cut out for us as a church.
Like Overbeck, Schönborn pulled no punches. Europe is no longer the center of Catholicism—a reality that Benedict XVI never fully embraced—but it can and must become a moral center for the challenges facing humanity in Europe and elsewhere that the political classes seem powerless to address. The political leadership of Europe is incapable of reaching an agreement on the matter of immigration and refugees and this is disastrous. The church can fill that vacuum. In addition, Schönborn noted the comment of a highly respected political scientist who remarked that the method of synodality at work in Rome—prayerful disposition, speaking, silence, listening with the heart and the mind, integrating convergences with divergences in a new synthesis of understanding—if applied to the Security Council of the United Nations could shatter the ideological barriers that render the cessation of conflict and the emergence of peace impossible. Think Israel and Gaza; think Ukraine and Russia.
Although it might shock them both, Schönborn and Mary McAleese, past President of Ireland and perennial gadfly in Roman curial circles, have this in common: the Catholic Church with its reach, history and rich philosophical and theological tradition could be the global organ for human rights.
Could be; must be.
Michael W. Higgins is a senior fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto. Next year his book on the Bergoglio papacy, “The Jesuit Disruptor: Francis Takes on His Church” will be published and his book on the Synod, “The 60 Days that Shook the Church: The Synod on Synodality,” will be published in 2025.