Ahead of key ‘Synodal Way’ meeting, lay leader says: ‘What matters now is the ability to compromise’

Thomas Sternberg, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), speaks at a ‘Synodal Way’ press conference Thomas Sternberg, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), speaks at a ‘Synodal Way’ press conference. | Rudolf Gehrig/CNA Deutsch.

Ahead of a crucial meeting for Germany’s controversial “Synodal Way,” an influential lay leader has said that “what matters now is the ability to compromise.”

Thomas Sternberg told CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner, that the plenary session of the Synodal Way in Frankfurt, southwestern Germany, on Sept. 30-Oct. 2 would feature votes on draft texts dedicated to hot-button issues.

The texts have been drafted by forums dedicated to each of the Synodal Way’s four main topics: the way power is exercised in the Church; the priesthood; the role of women; and sexual morality.

Sternberg is the president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), which is overseeing the Synodal Way together with the German bishops.

He said: “We now need to work together on these texts. Amendments will have to be dealt with in Frankfurt, and work is underway to discuss the texts in a first reading so that they can be finalized in a second reading in six months.”

“The amount of work that has been done in the forums is enormous. What matters now is the ability to compromise and to open up old doctrines to new readings.”

Sternberg noted that the draft texts for the forums on power, the priesthood, women, and sexual morality were posted on the Synodal Way’s official website on Aug. 30.

He said that the texts included “strong statements.”

“For example, the forum on ‘Living in Successful Relationships’ describes the many ways in which relationships are fruitful,” he said.

“The forum on ‘Women in Ministries and Offices of the Church’ describes how innovative ‘leadership in the Church’ must be thought of today.”

“The forum on priestly life today demands that the priest should see himself as an official of a synodal Church, and the forum on power and the separation of powers clearly states that you will not reach people, let alone proclaim [the Gospel] to them, in this day and age if you ignore their self-conception.”

“There are strong statements, strong texts, which now get a first reading.”

The German bishops’ conference clashed with the Vatican after it initially suggested that the process would end with a series of “binding” votes -- raising concerns in Rome that the resolutions might challenge Church teaching and discipline.

Bishops and theologians have expressed alarm at the process, which is expected to end in February 2022, but German bishops’ conference chairman Bishop Georg Bätzing has defended it vigorously.

Days before Sternberg spoke to CNA Deutsch, a German bishop proposed an alternative text for the Synodal Way’s forum on power.

Introducing a new website featuring the document, Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg wrote: “We are joining in the Synodal Way, but we are increasingly convinced that [this process] will not reach its goal if it continues along the path it has taken so far.”

“We are convinced that only a Synodal Way that is undertaken alongside and by the whole Church can be sound and achieve its goal. The whole Church is not only the worldwide Church, but also the early Church and the Church of the saints who have already arrived at their destination.”

More in Europe

In June, the Church in Germany was shaken when the powerful Cardinal Reinhard Marx offered his resignation to Pope Francis, saying that the Church appeared to be at a “dead end” because of the clerical abuse crisis.

The pope asked the 67-year-old archbishop of Munich and Freising to continue in the post, but Marx said later that he could not rule out seeking to resign for a second time.

In his interview with CNA Deutsch, Sternberg looked ahead to the second meeting of the Synodal Assembly, the supreme decision-making body of the Synodal Way, later this month.

He said: “All four forums, each with their respective topics, will play a role in Frankfurt. In which of these the greatest debates will be held remains to be seen. It is difficult to predict.”

“However, I would warn against reducing the Synodal Way to vexatious issues. The task now is to make reforms possible. That’s where every single step toward changing the Church counts.”

“Remember that the abuse scandal was the trigger for the German bishops to ask the ZdK to embark on the Synodal Way together. Now we have to manage to establish structures that will help prevent sexualized violence in the Church in the future.”

Asked how he assessed the progress so far, Sternberg indicated that he was optimistic.

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“I continue to count on the good spirit of Frankfurt, which was already noticeable at the first synodal assembly [in January 2020],” he commented.

“There is this good, even euphoric, feeling that we are on the way together as God’s people, thinking independently of hierarchies about how this Church can find new credibility again.”

“The Synodal Way has already succeeded in breaking down the blockades that existed in ecclesial actions and words. There is debate [of issues], of which all too often there was silence. This is the prerequisite for real reforms to become possible.”

Pope Francis addressed concerns about the trajectory of the Synodal Way in an interview with the Spanish radio station COPE aired on Sept. 1.

Asked if the initiative gave him sleepless nights, the pope recalled that he wrote an extensive letter that expressed “everything I feel about the German synod.”

Responding to the interviewer’s comment that the Church had faced similar challenges in the past, he said: “Yes, but I wouldn’t get too tragic either. There is no ill will in many bishops with whom I spoke.”

“It is a pastoral desire, but one that perhaps does not take into account some things that I explain in the letter that need to be taken into account.”

Sternberg said he believed that participants in the Synodal Way were united with Pope Francis, who has asked Catholics worldwide to take part in preparations for the 2023 meeting of the synod of bishops in Rome.

He noted that some commentators argued that the German Synodal Way was now superfluous, given the worldwide preparations for the synod on synodality.

But he said that most participants in the German process believed that it was complementary to the pope’s global initiative.

“The Synodal Way in Germany brings clergy and laity to the same table,” he said. “I am pleased that the world synod of bishops is taking up the pope’s call for a true ‘synodal Church.’”

“Pope Francis, as his important letter to us in the summer of 2019 shows, has recognized the urgency of reform in this new era,” he continued, referring to the pope’s 19-page letter to German Catholics.

“I understand the Synodal Way in Germany as practiced synodality with thematic overlaps with the world synod of bishops.”

He continued: “The Holy Father already made it clear at the beginning of his pontificate that the universal Church is diverse. How unity and diversity can be brought together in a post-European Church will certainly also be a topic in Rome. How is the ‘healthy decentralization’ of which he speaks to be realized?”

“We therefore see ourselves united on the Synodal Way with the pope and his concerns. The Church needs a shape that is in keeping with the times and with the people, also here in Europe. We need to reach out to those on the margins, to the doubters and the seekers, and to resist the lure of the small flock.”

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