German bishops with their president, Cardinal Reinhard Marx

Bishops, laity hail German ‘synodal path’ as “last chance” to fix “broken” Church

Bishops and laypeople in Germany are billing the “synodal path” in the country’s Church that is slated to begin in December as the “last chance” to fix a “broken” Catholicism.

Driving the news

Gregor Maria Hoff, a theologian who is consulting with the German Bishops on the synodal path, told The Washington Post that more and more prelates are coming around to the idea that the Church needs changes.

“Nine or ten” of Germany’s 69 bishops are now liberals, Hoff told the US paper, while more and more are coming to favour moderate reforms.

The clergy sex abuse crisis, women’s demands for equality and society’s acceptance of LGBT+ identity are just a few of the factors that are forcing the bishops’ hand.

“People from the old system saw it was broken”, Hoff said.

“To be honest, this might be the last chance to change it”.

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Go deeper

“Nobody who is participating in this process wants a national Church”, Thomas Sternberg, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZDK) – the German Bishops’ partner in the synodal path – told The Washington Post.

But despite Sternberg’s protestations, many observers in Germany and around the world – including in the Vatican – think the planned synodal path discussion reforms go beyond its sphere of competence.

Concretely, the synodal path is slated to discuss from next month possible reforms to four key areas of Church life: power and authority structures, celibacy and the priestly way of life, Catholic sexual morality and the role of women.

And conservative suspicions have only been heightened by the fact that some German bishops are already pushing changes through in their dioceses.

Bishops like Franz-Josef Bode, of the Osnabrück diocese, who last year appointed a woman to lead one of his parishes, with the priest remaining just to say Sunday Mass in a “quarter-time” role.

“It went well – accepted by the parish”, Bode told the Post, adding that he is also in favour of abolishing compulsory celibacy for priests.

“Do we want to be a closed church or one that embraces life and culture?”, Bishop Bode said of the planned synodal path reforms.

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Why it matters

“Of course, we know that we cannot change at the national level the problems that affect the universal Church”, Stefan Vesper, Director General of the ZDK, told La Croix.

“We accept that this process is open but together with the German bishops we want to decide what changes can be implemented in our dioceses”.

Those “changes” include looking into the “unclear separation of powers in the Church” which “often provides the breeding ground for clericalism”, in the words of ZDK president Sternberg.

They also involve considering the possibility of priests being allowed to marry, which in the opinion of Bishop of Limburg Georg Bätzing is something that “would not harm the Church”.

With regard to the synodal path forum on women in the Church, likely co-chair Dorothea Sattler, Professor of Dogmatic and Ecumenical Theology at the University of Münster, told La Croix “it is important to open the right to reflect on an argument for the ordination of women”.

Stephan Goertz, a moral theologian in Mainz, added with regard to the morality forum that “all the prohibitions that the Church imposes on sexuality constitute a fundamental dilemma in the hearts of Catholics and contribute to keeping the baptized away”.

Around Novena:

German Bishops’ spokesman: “Synodal way exemplifies listening Church”

For the record

The vicars-general of ten German dioceses became the latest important Church voices to back the synodal path when on Tuesday they released a letter they addressed in September to ZDK president Sternberg and German Bishops’ President Cardinal Reinhard Marx.

The vicars-general of Berlin, Essen, Hamburg, Hildesheim, Limburg, Magdeburg, Münster, Osnabrück, Speyer and Trier wrote that “fundamental reform” is “urgent” for a Church that is “losing credibility” by “its own fault”.

“After deep and honest talks, we are convinced that God’s will encourages us to take significant steps towards change”, the vicars-general wrote, expressing their “[warm] welcome and support [for] the synodal path, its themes and its objectives”.

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