The German 'synodal path'

Full steam ahead for German “synodal path” reforms despite Pope’s ‘no’ for moment to worldwide change

It’s full steam ahead in Germany for that country’s Church’s “synodal path” reforms despite the Pope’s ‘no’ for the moment to worldwide change in his post-Amazon Synod apostolic exhortation.

– Theologian: Pope said “Church must become incarnate in a distinctive way in each part of the world”

Würzburg pastoral theologian Erich Garhammer took to the electronic pages of the Münster Forum for Theology and Church February 18 to insist that the German Bishops have full licence to continue their push for changes to Church doctrine in the synodal path reform discussions, particularly around married priests and women deacons, despite the Pope’s apparent ‘no’ to these openings worldwide in Querida Amazonia (QA).

With his new exhortation, “the Pope has not taken this route from them”, Garhammer insisted.

According to the theologian, that’s because Francis insists in his text that “everything that the Church has to offer must become incarnate in a distinctive way in each part of the world, so that the Bride of Christ can take on a variety of faces that better manifest the inexhaustible riches of God’s grace” (QA, 6), and the proposed synodal path reforms, Garhammer said, are one way of achieving this.

Even if not unanimous, it is conceivable that a bishop of a specific diocese could decide to implement an eventual synodal path vote for an end to compulsory celibacy and/or for the ordination of women “with good arguments and in consultation with Rome”, the Würzburg professor explained.

The fear that such discrepancies among the episcopate could lead to a full-blown schism in the Church is unfounded, Garhammer continued, since “there are currently very different realities in the dioceses of Germany under the guise of unity: pastoral and leadership styles are already diametrically different”.

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With individual bishops’ choices for change or for business as usual after the synodal path, those differences among the dioceses could then come out into the open, the theologian said.

“Then individual bishops would have to justify themselves to their believers for their way – with arguments and not with easily predictable evasive manoeuvres”, Garhammer added.

– Much depends on who succeeds Marx as Bishops’ President

Garhammer’s assessment that the synodal path can continue as planned after Querida Amazonia stands in sharp contrast to those voices warning that with the Pope’s silence on married priests and women deacons, the German reform process is dead in the water.

According to observers and participants in the synodal path like theologian Thomas Söding, much depends on who succeeds Cardinal Reinhard Marx as German Bishops’ President.

Speaking February 18 on Deutschlandfunk public radio, Söding said that along with the need for generational change Marx spoke about when he made public his decision not to seek re-election, there was also a need that the next head of the episcopate be someon “who holds the Church together, who leads the Church forward, who doesn’t block anything off”.

Like Garhammer, Söding insisted that “in no case” is the synodal path a dead end after Querida Amazonia, especially because the Pope in his exhortation “didn’t just say from above: that’s how we do it – and that’s not how we do it”.

– Conservative synod-phobes have “little power” to rise to Bishops’ chair: observer

With regard to Marx’s successor, former religion editor at Deutschlandfunk Philipp Gessler told the National Catholic Reporter February 19 that the first synodal path assembly in Frankfurt at the end of January showed that the conservative, synod-phobic German bishops – like Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg or Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne – don’t have the support they might think they do.

At the Frankfurt assembly, Voderholzer and Woelki were repeatedly outvoted by 80% to 90% when they tried to amend assembly procedural rules, Gessler recalled.

“It showed them how little power they have when they are confronted by representatives of all Catholics, not just the ones that think the way they do”, the expert explained.

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– Synod supporter Stephan Burger, Archbishop of Freiburg: the frontrunner?

One bishop who ticks all the boxes to become Marx’s successor when the German Bishops vote for a new president at their spring assembly in early March is Stephan Burger, the Archbishop of Freiburg.

Influential French Catholic newspaper La Croix recalled February 19 that Burger, 58 in April, has been behind the synodal path right from its very inception.

“Dialogue with different, critical and even conflicting voices in the Church is absolutely essential for a Church which is alive and has a sustainable future, a Church in which the Gospel message is clearly visible and can be experienced”, the archbishop said at the beginning of the synodal path planning two years ago.

Not only was Burger deeply impressed with the debates in the first synodal assembly, but he is also a firm supporter of more responsibility for women in the Church, La Croix said.

“It is quite clear that there can be no Church without women… Giving women responsibility wherever it is already possible is a no-brainer for me”, Burger said.

The present Archbishop of Freiburg also has an impressive record on the management of cases of clerical sex abuse, the trigger for the synodal path: to the point that Burger has gone it alone among the German Bishops and decided to implement in his diocese a restitutions scheme that provides survivors with up to 800 euros a month in compensation.

“We bishops will have to fully come to terms with the past. We must stand by the truly terrible things that happened and take full responsibility for them”, Burger stressed.

He added, regarding his compensation program for survivors of abuse unique among the German dioceses: “[A]fter one victim told me that, by the time he had paid all his bills and fixed costs, there was almost no money left for food, I knew I had to help… and help quickly”.

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Next on Novena:

Despite Amazon exhortation letdown, German bishops, laity pledge to fight on in synodal path for married priests, female deacons

German female theologian insists: “We need a Church where women can discover their empowerment”

Cardinal Woelki: “We need more women superiors of priests”

Cardinal Marx steps down as German Bishops’ head after warning Church must not revolve around itself

German ‘synodal path’: “The majority of the faithful will leave the Church if it fails”

“Grateful to speak for the people”: non-binary German “synodal path” participant speaking truth to power

Cologne cardinal Woelki paying price for allergy to reform? 120,000 left local Churches just in 2019

On doctrine on homosexuality, two German bishops urge “widening, opening, change”

“So far away from reality”: German Catholics blast Cardinal Müller for “synodal path”-Nazi comparison

Women to take over pulpits for a Sunday in Germany in push for Church gender equality

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Cameron Doody

Director and editor at Novena
PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. Lecturer in ethics at Loyola University Maryland, Alcalá de Henares (Spain) campus. Religion journalist with 4 years experience.