A key German lay body has denied that the Pope criticised the ‘synodal path’ reform process of the Church in that country.

– Controversy at the General Audience

This week the pontiff caused controversy in the German Church with remarks he made at the Wednesday General Audience.

In his catechesis Francis admitted, “At times, I feel tremendous sadness when I see a community that has good will, but takes the wrong road because it thinks that the Church is built up in meetings, as if it were a political party. ‘But, the majority, the minority, what do they think about this, that and the other… And this is like a Synod, the synodal path that we must take…’.

“I ask myself: ‘But where is the Holy Spirit there? Where is prayer? Where is communitarian love? Where is the Eucharist?” Without these four coordinates, the Church becomes a human society, a political party – majority, minority – changes are made as if it were a company, according to majority or minority… But the Holy Spirit is not there”.

– “I cannot imagine Pope Francis wanting to prevent democratic decisions” on future of Church: head of Central Committee of German Catholics

One day after the Pope’s warning against transforming the Church into a “human society” and taking decisions on the basis of majority will, Thomas Sternberg, the president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) – the key lay body partnering with the German Bishops on the synodal path – denied that Francis was alluding to the German Church’s renewal project.

Far from criticising the synodal path, in his comments Francis was urging Catholics “to courageously look for solutions for the path of the Church today and for the preaching of the faith” while at the same time remaining attentive to the “spiritual dimension” of that search, Sternberg told German Catholic news agency KNA.

The German Church’s ‘synodal path’ reform process is bringing together clerics and laity along with outside experts in discussions on four key issues of Church life and practice which the German Bishops identified as having contributed to the clergy sex abuse crisis in the country.

Those four issues are the abuse of power and authority in the Church, oppressive Catholic sexual morality, the onerous demands of compulsory clerical celibacy and the absence of women in decision-making roles.

Synodal path participants have repeatedly attracted the attention of the Vatican for their declared willingness to vote for changes even to the Church’s most sacred truths on those issues.

But in his latest comments on the synodal path, Sternberg played down the revolutionary nature of the discussions, and insisted that the process is doing nothing more than combining “the democratic search for new solutions” with “spirituality, prayer and worship”.

“I cannot imagine Pope Francis wanting to prevent democratic decisions on structures and forms of organisation by referring to the spiritual dimension of the Church”, the ZdK president argued.

– “The Church is not a Church of the clergy. We are all Church together”: Archbishop of Freiburg

Along with the synodal path, another recent point of tension between the Vatican and the German Church has been the instruction on parish life that the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy issued in June.

Many German bishops and laypeople saw that instruction as impinging on their plans to entrust more local Catholic communities to the exclusive leadership of non-ordained men and women.

Congregation for the Clergy prefect Cardinal Beniamino Stella tried November 12 to smooth the tensions over with an online meeting with the president and vice-president of the German Bishops’ Conference.

But even before that meeting, at least one German archbishop was still maintaining that the Vatican parish instruction was not a stop sign to the parish reorganisation and Church reform plans of several German dioceses.

“Rome shows the framework in which we can develop perspectives for the future organisation and structure of the Church”, Archbishop of Freiburg Stephan Burger told KNA October 30.

Even conceding that point to the Vatican, Burger insisted that the different perspectives of all female and male Catholics are needed for a “lived togetherness” in the Church.

“The Church is not a Church of the clergy. We are all Church together”, the Freiburg archbishop explained, even as he warned with regard to the synodal path that “we should not forget that we are a world Church and that Germany alone cannot be the measure of all things”.

On Novena, all the latest news on the German Church’s ‘synodal path’:

Groups representing 1.5 million German Catholics reiterate “urgent need for change” in Church to reverse “loss of credibility”

Spiritual director of German Church’s ‘synodal path’ doubts Pope expressed “dramatic concern” over reform process

German Bishops’ head claps back at Cologne cardinal after he warned of danger of schism in ‘synodal path’ reform process

‘We Are Church’ Germany pleads for ‘synodal path’ reforms to continue despite COVID-19, “extremely irritating” Vatican parish instruction


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.