The head of a key German committee of laypeople has insisted that a “positive attitude” and a “good mood” are still reigning in the ‘synodal path’ Church reform process in the country.

– Work has not stopped despite coronavirus, criticism

Thomas Sternberg, the president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), spoke to German Catholic news agency KNA July 5 about the progress of the synodal path, which although it got off to a flying start at the end of January with its first plenary assembly has now hit the roadblocks of the coronavirus pandemic and increasing episcopal and lay scepticism.

But the synodal path forums – which are looking into possible changes to Church doctrine and practice in the areas of the exercise of power and authority, sexual morality, compulsory priestly celibacy and women in ministry and Church offices – have quietly continued working during these months of lockdown, meeting regularly for online discussions.

Sternberg emphasised that fact – that the work has not stopped – and promised that progress is still being made despite the cancellation of the second plenary assembly in September and despite the criticisms of the auxiliary bishop of Cologne, Dominikus Schwaderlapp, and the Bishop of Regensburg, Rudolf Voderholzer.

– “Laity and bishops want to discuss the topics together and find solutions”

Sternberg told KNA that the decision to cancel the second plenary assembly was taken simply out of health concerns, and because “we did not want to hold such a meeting as a pure video conference”.

Nonetheless, synodal path organisers have found a compromise solution in the five regional conferences that will be held instead of the plenary assembly – as a way of still experiencing the “personal exchange regardless of the level of ordination, gender or role in the church” that synodal participants found so important in the first assembly,, Sternberg explained.

The ZdK president said the regional conferences will also be a chance for the forums to “feed back the first results of their work to the synodal assembly and put them up for discussion”, also “in the light of the corona pandemic and its impact on society and the Church”.

While Bishop Voderholzer demanded the regional conferences be cancelled for not appearing as a possibility in the synodal path statutes, auxiliary bishop Schwaderlapp went further in his criticisms, saying that Sternberg and others’ promises of “dialogue” on the synodal path were just a cover for the introduction of preordained changes to Church doctrine.

Though he pledged to remain in the synodal path, Schwaderlapp pulled out of the forum on sexual morality at the end of May, accusing his fellow forum participants of wanting to reformulate Catholic doctrine, and that much on foundations of “quicksand”.

But six weeks later, in his interview with KNA, Sternberg defended the discussion dynamic in the forums.

“Contrary to what some might think, it is not about negotiating already fixed positions” in favour of reforms, the ZdK president insisted.

“There is the declared will on the part of both the laity and the bishops to discuss the topics together and to find solutions. The positions are by no means as firm as they may seem”, Sternberg added.

Celebrating the “particularly striking” fact that “the number of fundamental critics” of the synodal path “has not increased” in the process’ 16-month lifespan to date, Sternberg sent a message directly to Schwaderlapp:

“If someone thinks that there is no need for change, it is better to stop working in a forum to develop new solutions. After all, he is not leaving the synodal assembly”.

– Würzburg diocesan council chairman to critics: prevention of abuse, future of the Church at stake

In the meantime, and still regarding the synodal path, Bishop of Würzburg Franz Jung also referred July 4 to Schwaderlapp’s exit from the forum on sexual morality, expressing his hope that the auxiliary bishop’s example “does not set a precedent, even if it is celebrated in certain circles”.

The chairman of the Würzburg diocesan council of Catholics, layman Michael Wolf, went further than his bishop in his criticisms of Schwaderlapp and accused the auxiliary bishop of shutting down conversation by walking away from the forum.

Wolf also reminded Schwaderlapp that if synodal path participations choose conflict over cooperation, the mass exodus of the faithful already underway in the German Church could continue or even intensify.

“Let us not forget: What today is regarded by many as ‘unchangeable’ or ‘God-given’ is not. It is a long tradition, conditioned by human desires and in some places by external constraints. The good news is divine, church law is not”, Wolf reminded Schwaderlapp.

The diocesan council chairman added too that it was important to keep in mind the principal reason why the German Bishops and the laypeople of the ZdK committed to the synodal path in the first place: to reform those Church structures and practices that foster child sexual abuse.

Novena’s full coverage of the German Church’s synodal path reform process:

German bishop blames mass Church desertions on tired old parish-centred pastoral model

Pope encourages German Church to make “good progress” in synodal path reform process

German bishop warns ‘synodal path’ reform process must succeed or else Church “will become a sect”

German Bishops’ president insists ‘synodal path’ reform process “alive and kicking” despite cardinal’s objections

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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.