The Catholic Church in Germany has begun its “Synodal Way.” From Jan. 30–Feb. 1, the German bishops held the first synodal assembly in Frankfurt. Over the next two years, they will hold three more plenary assemblies and convene work groups dedicated to the four main topics of the Synodal Way: power and separation of powers in the church, sexuality and partnership, priestly life and celibacy, and women in church ministry and offices. The process will likely conclude with a vote on a final document of guidelines that the bishops (as a conference and in their dioceses) will be expected—if not strictly obligated—to implement.
It is off to a bad start. As Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki put it, “All my fears have come true.” Since these bishops have decided that Synod decisions need not conform to Church doctrine, many, if not all, bets are off. The underlying theology of the process is vague. At the first assembly, empirical data (or what we declare as such) seemed to assume theological authority alongside Tradition and Scripture—authority that might even trump Tradition and Scripture, should our exegetical methods fail to produce the desired interpretation. The Synodal Way is the culmination of a long history of German alienation from authentic Church renewal, going back to before Vatican II. The Germans, well-funded and theologically supercharged, have immunized themselves against inspiration from other churches, against direction from Rome, and against reforming impetuses from within. The Synodal Way has begun by doing what the German church has done for decades: Talking about itself, and looking for ways to fit in with its secular surroundings.
The selection of participants, in addition to the introductory study and the foundational theology, is tendentious. The process involves all bishops in Germany (ordinary and auxiliary) and an equal number of delegates (lay, religious, and clergy) selected from diocesan councils, Catholic associations, and other institutions of established Catholicism in Germany. A priest friend wrote to me this week that in his parish, people do not care or know much about the Synodal Way—but his lay pastoral assistant talks about little else.
The Synodal Way is dealing with the concerns of a bourgeois church that wants to bend traditional Catholic teachings and practices to its own ideas and principles. The process aims to bring about “real change,” to do things that Rome “need not go along with.” If that is not de facto schism, what is? In order to figure out where the Synodal Way will lead, no hypothetical slippery-slope arguments are necessary. You can figure it out by looking at the state of mainline Protestant churches today. (If the German bishops want to take empirical data into account, those churches have relevant data.)
Yet the Synodal Way mirrors the actual Catholic base much less than we were led to believe. The four topics are mostly elite, clerical concerns—pushed by clerics, church employees, high-ranking volunteers, and other functionaries. In Germany, the ecclesial world is so big and so connected to power in politics and society that it is actually possible to confound that world with the actual world. This is an elite bubble, but a big one. Only in Germany would the defense minister and leader of the governing party publicly demand the abolition of celibacy.
In any case, synods cannot simply be about democratic decision-making; a synod is not supposed to seek majority approval, but consensus—and not the consensus of participants only, but consensus as recommitment to Christ and his gospel, to the truth revealed to and preserved in his Church. Sadly, I rarely heard that language at the first synodal assembly. Instead, I heard many references to “the base” from people actually speaking for the elite and for themselves.
This elite is authentically concerned about church members; in Germany, however, “church members” does not necessarily mean those who go to Mass. Church members in Germany are principally those registered as Catholics with the state, those who pay the infamous church tax. Twenty-eight percent of the total population funds the life of the church, but less than 3 percent of the population attends Mass on Sunday. It is understandable that the church does not want to alienate its donor base—a base that has largely abandoned central tenets of Christianity like faith in the resurrection, the need for salvation and grace, and the reality of sin, not to mention the sacraments and commandments. But one cannot properly debate celibacy in a room where faith in the resurrection to eternal life is not a given.
What is the goal of the Synodal Way? A popular answer is: To connect to people “today,” and redefine Christian and priestly lives for “today.” This answer can be interpreted to mean evangelism, but what the bishops have said thus far sounds more like accommodation than like evangelization. In order to connect, are we adjusting our methods and approaches, or are we adapting the faith?
After the German church decided to launch the Synodal Way, Pope Francis sent a letter to Catholics in Germany, reminding them that evangelism must be the main goal. This now seems largely forgotten. At the first synodal assembly, one participant said in no uncertain terms that the Synod “at least” has to introduce female deacons. This is political, not theological, thinking: At the outset, demands are being formulated, bargaining positions occupied. How is this different from Trumpian deal-making strategies? How is this strategy adequate? As one bishop correctly observed: The question of power is crucial. Certainly, and sadly, the question of power is central to the Synod’s chosen topics. But to succeed, the Synod must recognize the supreme and life-giving power and authority of Scripture and Tradition, instead of looking for ways to accommodate that authority to “where we are today.”
This means, of course, that the deeper issue is about truth and fidelity. Power in the Church, starting with the magisterium of the pope and the bishops, is about fidelity to the apostolic faith and its continued proclamation—not to maintaining the Church’s institutional hardware and societal position. When it comes to evangelization efforts, the track record of German dioceses is abysmal, despite all their financial and theological resources. The mantra is ever the same: We need to discontinue old practices and teachings for the sake of connecting to people today, for the sake of accompanying them through their lives and working for peace and unity in the world. These are good goals, of course, and working for the survival of the Church as an institution is not a bad thing either. But without concrete fidelity to Christ, connection-building “would bring about the union of all, but only to their destruction” (Pius XII). Evangelism without doctrinal fidelity is not evangelism.
If the German church wants a future, it needs to get over its dependency on perceived social relevance, on institutional continuity, and on its connection to societal power. None of that is a primary goal for evangelization. The future depends on actually doing the work of evangelization in every generation, and certainly in 2020.
The Church in Germany and beyond should imitate King David: Once the prophet Nathan confronted David with his sin, the king was moved to contrition and repentance, ready to face the consequences. David relied on God’s mercy, and accepted the divine punishments. Forgiveness and renewal are always possible. Church reform today also has to follow a penitential logic, one that does not seek accommodation but that makes its discipline more demanding. Such reform may at first widen the divide between Church and world, but this will attract people to the light of the gospel, which is more purifying, more liberating, more forgiving, and more comforting than any human endeavor can ever be. This alone will authorize and motivate for mission.
Unless the Synod finds its way to doctrinal fidelity, schism will be the result. Maybe some bishops and delegates will be able to redirect the Synod. If not, eventually it may be best to walk away and let the whole thing implode. The question at stake is the one Jesus put to his disciples (John 6:66–68): “Do you also wish to go away?” In Germany and elsewhere, all the faithful—priests, bishops, and the pope—must answer unconditionally with Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Msgr. Hans Feichtinger is the pastor of St. George’s Parish and St. Albertus’s Parish in Ottawa.