German bishop Felix Genn

German bishop stands by synodal path: “Theological enquiry doesn’t hurt anyone”

A German bishop has issued a stirring defence of the German Church’s “binding synodal path”, saying that reform is necessary to achieve equality between priests and laypeople and between Catholic men and women.

Driving the news

“We need a new division of power – concretely a new relationship between laypeople and priests, between full-time and volunteers, between men and women in the Catholic Church”, Bishop of Münster Felix Genn said in an interview Saturday with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Genn referred to the painful reality that he said has made the synodal process necessary: the sexual abuse of children by priests.

As bishops, “we must and want to follow the tortuous path of accountability, at first glance taking into account the victims but also the church structures that allowed and covered up these actions”, the bishop explained.

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Go deeper

The German synodal path has come in for criticism in recent days.

Not least of all from the Vatican, which warned its draft plans to vote on reforms to Church power structures, celibacy, sexual morality and the place of women were “not ecclesiologically valid”.

But Genn defended the process, saying that “as German bishops, we can’t commission a study on sexual abuse of minors within the Church, come to know all those terrible facts, and then go back to normal as if nothing had happened”.

“We have to gather the courage to take another perspective, to put the victims first, and that entails reviewing structures inherent to the Church that have made these acts possible and that have even covered them up”, Genn explained.

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The intrigue

Aside from being Bishop of Münster, Genn is also a member of the Congregation for Bishops.

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That’s the department from which the harsh Vatican criticisms of the German synodal path emerged.

But Genn denounced that the Prefect of the Congregation, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, neglected to consult him on those criticisms before sending them out.

He added that there was little place for those negative judgments, since “theological enquiry doesn’t hurt anyone, and especially not the Church”.

“On the contrary”, Genn affirmed.

The bishop insisted that “we need another power structure in the Church”.

He added that he personally is “willing to give up power” in favor of that new structure and “willing to submit to councils in which the laity have greater decision-making power”.

“I want that in the diocese of Münster we are not a Church of prohibitions and commandments, but a Church that lives in relationship with people and in relationship with Jesus Christ.

“We announce the Good News. This must be experienced by people in everyday life, and as a bishop, I can and I want to open the space”, Genn affirmed.

More on Novena on the “synodal path”:

Pope letter to German Church was Vatican attempt to stop “synodal path”: report

Why it matters

On the topic of one of the subjects up for discussion in the synodal path – that of compulsory priestly celibacy – Genn explained that though “it would be a simplification to attribute sexual abuse of minors to celibacy… we must ask ourselves the question of how celibacy, in certain people and in certain groups, is a risk factor for abuse”.

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On another controversial point of the synodal path – that of turning for help to experts outside the Church – Genn was just as clear.

“Professional support from outside experts is useful and relieves pressure. We need a more open Church, not a closed system”, the bishop affirmed.

Around Novena:

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What’s next

The goal of all the synodal path discussions, according to Genn, is the articulation of a Christian message more accesible to modern people.

“A sexual morality that most of our contemporaries consider to limit life and that, ultimately, is irrelevant to life, has to accept critical questions”, he warned.

“The Good News is a message that promotes the beauty and preciousness of life.

“We have virtually no traction on sexuality, and unfortunately neither on the protection of life from the beginning to the end”, Genn lamented.

Despite all the criticisms from inside the German Church and beyond, Genn said he was optimistic on the synodal path, which is still slated to begin in December this year.

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“There is a great unity in the German Church regarding the path taken”, said the Bishop of Münster, adding that “naturally there are some who aren’t happy with everything, but that doesn’t mean tension”.

The synodal path above all will be a “constructive” debate, Genn promised.

“I trust that our deliberations and our construction of opinion will be helpful for the Church in many other places in the world”, the bishop said.

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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.