Why do proponents of the Synodal Way believe it is necessary?
For the organizers of the German Synodal way, the process is necessary to discuss the future of church life in Germany. One goal is to regain trust lost after the abuse scandal. Another is to revitalize reform debates that have been brewing in German speaking Europe for decades.
Pope Francis, in his letter to German Catholics, pointed to another challenge: “I painfully notice the growing erosion and deterioration of faith with all it entails not only on the spiritual level but also on the social and cultural level,” he wrote, calling on evangelization instead of a false reform.
The call to add evangelization as a forum to the process was declined by the organizers of the Synodal Way, but picked up by at least one participant in a wake-up call to reclaim the primacy of evangelization.
Was there a precedent or role model for the German Synodal Way?
Yes. The German Synodal Way has a precedent of sorts in an actual synod held in the 1970s in then West Germany, which was undertaken with the declared goal of debating and passing resolutions about the Second Vatican Council. This synod also involved lay people as voting participants. It was held from 1971 to 1975 in the Cathedral of Würzburg. While not referencing sexual abuse, it raised several of the same – or similar – questions about sexuality and power that are now raised again, for instance on celibacy or the ordination of female deacons, at the current process.
Until the German Synodal Way was announced, the Würzburg Synod had been largely forgotten, even in Germany, according to observers.
Is the German Synodal Way a Church synod?
No. When announced in 2019 by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the then-president of the German Bishops' Conference, the prelate declared it to be “a process sui generis” that would be able to pass “binding resolutions” on questions that pertain to the universal Church. From the outset, this claim, and the moniker “Synodal Way,” were contested: Bishop Konrad Zdarsa of Augsburg called the concept a “tautology,” going so far as to decry it as a “labelling fraud”.
Following several interventions and despite resistance from the two process presidents, Cardinal Marx and Thomas Sternberg of the ZdK, the discussion process has meanwhile been confirmed not to be binding – and not a synod.
Just how controversial is the German Synodal Way?
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Pope Francis and the Vatican have intervened repeatedly with a number of unprecedented measures, as have a growing number of bishops and theologians, both from Germany and around the world, raising serious concerns about many aspects of the Synodal Way.
The Holy Father took the historic step of writing a letter to all Catholics in Germany in June 2019, warning of a “belief that the best response to the many problems and shortcomings that exist is to reorganize things, change them and ‘put them back together’ to bring order and make ecclesial life easier”.
In September 2020 Vatican Cardinal Kurt Koch went public saying Pope Francis was “concerned” about the Church in Germany. A German bishop followed this up with a similar warning in October, referring to the Holy Father’s “dramatic concern” about the situation.
On June 8, 2021, Cardinal Walter Kasper, considered to be close to Pope Francis, said that he was “very worried” about the German Catholic Church’s controversial “Synodal Way.”
In the main, concerns pertain to the underlying assumptions and operating premises of the process – which the Vatican initially declared “ecclesiologically invalid” in 2019, but also the legal claims and questions of basic legitimacy, given the refusal of the Synodal Assembly to rule out decisions that run counter to Catholic doctrines. Doubts have furthermore been raised about the selection of participants, choice of topics, theological claims, internal procedures.
Looking at the goals of the process, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the former head of the Italian bishops’ conference and vicar of the Diocese of Rome, said in early May 2021, the German Synodal Way pursued “not only the blessing of same-sex couples, but also the priesthood of women, the abolition of the obligation of ecclesiastical celibacy, the intercommunion between Catholics and Protestants”.