COVID-19 disrupts all things, except for the Synodal Way of the Catholic Church in Germany. The Synodal Way is a process launched in December 2019 to look for “steps to strengthen Christian witness.” It has been deemed so essential for the survival of the Church that at the beginning of the pandemic, organizers quickly adopted a decentralized, regional, and online model, so that the Synodal Way might continue even under lockdown.
The process involves focus groups on four topics: authority and division of power in the Church; priestly existence today; women in church ministry and offices; and flourishing relationships—living love in sexuality and partnership. It is noteworthy that three of these four topics concern people employed by the Church, and thus are more or less clerical topics. Despite Pope Francis’s urgent request, the topic of evangelization did not make it. Evangelization is mentioned in the documents produced by the Synodal Way, but look closely at how it is mentioned. Among Synod participants, both bishops and others, the prevailing conviction is that the Church needs to make changes to how she lives and works, if not to what she believes and professes, before she can get to evangelization. Forty-five years after Pope St. Paul VI wrote Evangelii nuntiandi, the Germans still think much needs to happen before we can get to the Church’s first duty and core mission.
The sexual abuse crisis is cited often to explain the necessity of the Synodal Way. Recent accusations have been made in the Cologne Archdiocese. Not even the left-leaning press seriously believes that Cardinal Woelki, the Archbishop of Cologne, has done something wrong. But Woelki is a chief critic of the Synodal Way, and this makes him a lightning rod. Woelki appears actually interested in getting to the bottom of the charges rather than pleasing the angry public with more of the Symbolpolitik that the Germans love so much.
The Synodal Way treats as fundamental a recent study on how the Church has dealt with abuse cases in the past. This study is biased and makes implicit suggestions about what needs to be changed in order to prevent similar systemic failures in the future. Two problems arise here. The study ascribes past failures to prevent sexual abuse to characteristics of Catholicism (hierarchical structure, celibacy, moral teachings). But how can we explain past failures in this way when we know, as we do, that very different organizations (religious and non-religious) have behaved in very similar ways? And if the current hierarchical leadership is the root of the problem, as the Synodal Way seems to presume, how can the Church today be a leader in protecting vulnerable people?
The Synodal Way wants to work toward and proceed as a “visible church,” thus embracing the ultra-Catholic slogan ecclesia visibilis. For the Synodal Way, this means two things: proceeding with transparency, and preserving the Church in Germany as a visible institution, defined as a publicly “relevant” institution that is part of mainstream society. One wonders if this is not in truth a recipe for ecclesia invisibilis, a church that merges and disappears into the culture.
The Synodal Way wants to make the Church fit for the twenty-first century, cleansing her of past sins and failures, and preparing her for mission. These are good goals. But the proposed means by which to reach these goals remain unconvincing, at least at this stage. At this point, the reports and documents produced by the Synodal Way come close to betraying the evangelical and apostolic mission of the Church. Compromising the faith and doctrine of the Church is not evangelization but zeitgeist surfing. And taking the steps that Lutherans and other Protestants took long ago, steps that have not yielded good results, is not Church renewal. They will not improve the Church’s chances of survival or help avoid abuses in the future. Ask any honest German Protestant, of which there are many.
The Church in Germany is in love with its own particular structures and role in German society, a society that was once Christian but is now post-Christian. This leads to unflattering contradictions. Closing any (state-financed) theological institution is considered a catastrophe, while giving up on Catholic traditions, even to the point of compromising the sacramental structure of the Church, is allegedly up for debate. The Fathers of Vatican II are turning over in their graves.
The Synodal Way laments a Church that is self-involved, but in the main it intensifies that self-involvement. It claims to be a learning Church, but only after rearranging the sources of inspiration and truth to fit with the desired outcome. It wants to be Catholic, but reduces the meaning of that word to the principles of a diverse, pluralistic society. Church order is viewed as something that needs to be adapted to the principles of liberal democracy in order to be “convincing” today. This is a latter-day union of throne and altar.
The Synodal Way believes that an ecclesiology of communion somehow means “less power” for the ordained and “more power” for the unordained. But Church renewal is not primarily about redistributing power. And in any event, no authority in the Church has the power to change the Church’s faith and structure to suit the Synodal Way’s needs and preferences. The hierarchical structure is given by Christ to make sure his regency remains uncompromised and subject neither to clerical manipulation nor synodal-democratic adaptation. We Germans, however, love looking at our own ways of doing things (often enshrined in Concordats with the Reich and the Länder) as somehow prophetic. The rest of the Church, we believe, should learn from Germany.
According to the Synodal Way, the new solution to most problems is “separation of power,” which is taken to be the core meaning of “synodality.” We are told that this approach will “inculturate” the Catholic faith to liberal democracy. German Church elites are convinced that what we need is less traditional faith and more submission to liberal principles. This feels a bit like defending Christian monarchies in 1918, though in this case it’s the European Parliament. It is astonishing that anyone can put such hope in the democratizing re-imagination of Church governance. And yet the Germans believe that a liberal-democratic “synodality” is the cure of all evils.
The Synodal Way’s vague references to important concepts in the Bible and the sacred tradition do not cut it, especially because they subordinate the Church’s sacramental nature and mission to secular interests and principles. The Church in Germany is proud of her huge influence and success in the past, including her crucial role of resisting during, and rebuilding after, the Nazi regime. She now believes that without redefining the role of priests and bishops, without ordaining women and de facto abolishing celibacy, without radically reimagining the very nature and structure of the Church, and without drastically revising biblical sexual morality, she cannot have a future. To a striking degree, the German Church wants to adopt the structures of liberal democratic societies. And once that is achieved, the hope is that the Church around the world will learn from what the Germans have prophetically started and are now bringing to perfection.
There is a great deal of clericalism in today’s anticlericalism. I remain amazed by how little we are willing to learn from ecumenical dialogue when the lessons do not align with our conception of which “side of history” we believe we must be on. This is the opposite of evangelization, which must often confront the spirit of the age, and thus it goes against what Pope Francis has written to the Church in Germany. It also goes against the experience of many of our Protestant brethren who have witnessed doctrinal dilution before. And it goes against what the Lord commissioned his Church to be, in Germany and anywhere else.
In truth, the Church in Germany has done little evangelization, dwelling instead on the self-fixated proposals of the Synodal Way. Interest in the German Church’s own structural survival and societal relevance has made us unable to hear God’s word of challenge and liberation. At this stage, I wonder if the whole thing can and should still be saved. Clearly, the Church around the world is paying less and less attention to German theology. Once the money runs out, other ways of influencing churches around the world will disappear.
Real revival and renewal will depend on those who stand up for the truth of the Catholic faith without compromise. What we need to do is point out that organizational and structural changes will fail to slow down the disappearance of the Church. The Church exists for making disciples, for evangelization; all her structures need to serve this mission. That is the freedom to which she is called (Gal. 5:13). You cannot even know what you need as a Church unless and until you courageously start evangelizing. Sadly, the Germans want to “reform” first and evangelize later.
Msgr. Hans Feichtinger is the pastor of St. George’s Parish and St. Albertus’s Parish in Ottawa.
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