No to clericalism and yes to greater co-responsibility and participation on the part of laypeople in the Church. Those were the keys to the first assembly on the German synodal path which took place this past weekend in Frankfurt.

Driving the news

After the first assembly of the German synodal path – the two-year reform process on power, women, sexual morality and the priesthood – German Bishops’ president Cardinal Reinhard Marx declared “I am feeling confident”.

They were sentiments echoed by Thomas Sternberg, President of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), who said with the first assembly “my expectations have been fulfilled”.

Deputy ZdK chair and assembly co-president with Marx and Sternberg, Karin Kortmann, lauded the “hierarchy-free space” that opened up in Frankfurt, while deputy chairman of the Bishops’ Conference and Bishop of Osnabrück Franz-Josef Bode called the meeting a “great future workshop”.

In the course of the assembly discussions, Bode had proposed that in the future there be in the Church “two distinct forms” of priesthood, “celibacy and non-celibacy”.

In that context, the expression “married priesthood as a prophetic figure” came up multiple times.

The big picture

Meanwhile, Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen described the first synodal assembly as a “testimony to the true catholicity of the Church in Germany”.

“The discussions and encounters are characterised by an intense spiritual atmosphere and the search for God’s will”, said the prelate Saturday, adding later that “the debates were based on mutual respect and showed impressively how much we live in a world of freedom”, and that it is on that possibility of freedom that the message of the Bible and tradition “must prove itself today”.

The work of the assembly over the three days made it clear “that the participants agree on the basic values ​​of the Catholic Church, but also that these values ​​are lived in very different conditions today”, Overbeck said.

For his part, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Monday that at the first assembly “we practiced a new culture, listened to each other, spoke honestly with each other”.

Bätzing confessed that in the discussions “I felt a lot of energy” and the build-up of pressure for change “on the issues of power and separation of powers and on the role of women in the church”.

“We have to use this energy now”, the Limburg bishop urged, adding that  the question of the role of women especially is crucial for the future of the Church.

“There was a willingness to listen to each other and to treat each other fairly – despite the diversity of positions”, added Bishop Felix Genn of Münster, adding that “it can sometimes be a very difficult path, but I remain confident”. 

It is necessary, continued Genn, “that we as a Church find each other and not block each other, because that [finding] serves the unity for which we are responsible as bishops”.

Bishop Franz Jung of Würzburg also praised the constructive spirit palpable at the Frankfurt assembly of the German synodal path, explaining that “everyone’s concern for a good future path of the Church has become impressively clear” after the three-day meet.

Jung added that his impression was that participants angling for change were not so much interested in throwing Catholic teaching overboard, but about thinking through how that teaching can be continued and expanded today.

“Veritable reforms in the area of power and separation of powers are necessary and feasible for the good of Church mission”, said for his part Bishop Karl-Heinz Wiesemann of Speyer.

“We need greater participation by all members of the Church in decision-making processes”, added the Speyer bishop.

He insisted that that participation in responsibility should extend especially to “women participat[ing] accordingly at all management levels that are currently possible” under present Church law.

Why it matters

And indeed, the place of women in the Church was one of the topics up for discussion in the first assembly on the German synodal path that led to some of the most constructive debates.

Theologian Agnes Wuckelt, the vice-chair of the Catholic Women’s Association of Germany (KFD), proposed on the margins of the assembly a three-step process for achieving women’s equality in the Church.

First of all, Wuckelt said, more women must be placed in management positions and given opportunities for directing churches and celebrating church services.

Next, the German bishops should ask Rome about opportunities for the female diaconate.

The final step in the process would be a vote of the synodal assembly that “at the level of the world Church” – that is, at a Church Council – “the theological arguments for and against the priestly ordination of women… be gathered and examined”.

Wuckelt’s proposal came on the back of a joint position paper put out by the major Catholic women’s associations in Germany, Switzerland and Italy on the occasion of the first meeting of the German synodal path, in which the women’s rights groups insisted that “We believe that people are the image of God”.

“That is why women and men have the same dignity and the same rights. Because of gender, there must be no ecclesiastical or social disadvantage. Therefore women and men must have equal access to all ministries and offices in the Church”, the women’s associations argued.

But if that great push for women’s equality was the highlight of the first assembly of the German synodal path – along with the admission on the assembly floor of the Archbishop of Hamburg, Stefan Hesse, that the Church’s teaching on homosexuality is “hurtful and discouraging” and must be changed – the lowlight was the continued scepticism of Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne.

“My great concern that, due to the way this event was conceived and constituted, a Protestant church parliament is being implemented here, so to speak, has proved to be justified”, Woelki said.

That comment elicited the rebuke of German Bishops’ president Cardinal Marx, and others, to the effect that “I don’t know why Protestant should be a dirty word”.

“Do you want synodality, as the Pope always demands, or do you want an old model of Church organization from the 19th century?”, shot back at Woelki president Sternberg of the ZdK.

Also firing back at Woelki was chairman of the Diocesan Council of Catholics in the cardinal’s own diocese of Cologne, Tim Kurzbach, who said he feared that “Woelki destroys the authority of his episcopal office by not trying to convince with good arguments in the assembly, but by being indignant about the fact that he does not have more power resulting from his office”.

“Yet he should have recognised long ago that a position alone no longer creates true authority”, Kurzbach added.

For the record

Other memorable addresses in the first assembly of the German synodal path came from two young people present at the event: Mara Klein and Janosch Roggel.

Klein bravely denounced the clergy sex abuse and cover-up which were the impetus for the organisation of the synodal path, to clear the Church of those factors that facilitate a culture of abuse and secrecy.

Telling bishops that they “are not the victims” but in actual fact an “association of perpetrators”, Klein reflected on the fact that a bishop present at the meet, Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg, said – much for the same reasons as Woelki – that the whole idea of a “synodal path” made him “uncomfortable”.

“I hope that we do feel uncomfortable”, Klein said.

“We have every reason to be…As a young person in our church I feel uncomfortable standing here and knowing all those in the structure has caused the results, which the MHG study [the German bishops’ study on clergy sex abuse] only emphasized again, are gathered around me.

“I am against a polarization of clergy and laity, but I want to emphasize that we are dealing here with a massive structural sin. Show us that you can break out of it. I’m still standing here, and it’s hard for me, because I believe that we can break out of it”, Klein thundered from the synod floor.

Roggel, for his part, took the floor and declared “I am a transsexual. And abuse by a priest was the worst thing I have ever experienced”.

Roggel’s words left the assembly participants speechless and led to a round of applause and standing ovations.

An intense reaction absolutely worthy of that reminder of what really is at stake in the German synodal path.

Next on Novena:

Catholic women plead for end to Church oppression: “Every woman wants to be respected in her dignity”

(Small) Win for women on German ‘synodal path’: assembly votes to make resolutions dependent on female majority

“Synodal path” begins in Germany: youth, laity dream of Church “democratisation”

German lay head blasts “right-wing conservative” critics of “synodal path”, suggests Church reform processes every five years


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