The German Church’s ‘synodal path’ reform process is struggling to live up to the deep reform hopes of two of its most important groups of participants: laypeople and women.

The big picture

Ten years ago, such a reform process as that inaugurated with a symbolic candle-lighting last Sunday by German Bishops’ Conference (DBK) President Cardinal Reinhard Marx and Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) Vice-President Karin Kortmann in Munich cathedral would have been unthinkable.

That was because of tensions between bishops and laypeople, now partners in the synodal path, over the clergy sex abuse scandal just coming then into view.

A 2010 attempt at dialogue between the hierarchy and the faithful “was disappointing because many bishops refused to engage and no concrete measures emerge”, said Gutenberg University in Mainz theologian Gerhard Kruip told La Croix.

The mutual listening “was not necessarily as intense” as it should have been, added Archbishop of Hamburg, Stefan Hesse.

Relations between the German Bishops and the German faithful have since been restored, and strengthened, to historical highs, with the DBK and the ZdK now pulling in the same direction on the synodal path.

“Equal work with the bishops has never taken place in this form”, ZdK President Thomas Sternberg told La Croix, recalling that the ZdK has appointed 94 of the 230 members of the synodal assembly to meet for the first time on January 30, 2020.

“We are witnessing much insecurity among believers. The Church must regain credibility with its own members”, Sternberg added.

But just because mutual confidence between the hierarchy and the faithful is at an all-time high, that doesn’t mean the laity is capable of blowing hard enough on the flame of reform to keep the synodal path candle alight.

“We must not throw all our strength into this synodal path. Our primary mission is to represent German Catholics in society and politics. We must continue to work on ecumenism, migrants and ethical issues”, Sternberg warned.

“The ZdK has gained in importance on issues internal to the Church but not to the political world”, observed Kruip.

The theologian added that another obstacle to the ZdK winning back its influence in wider society is its increasing diversification in membership and the decline in the number of Catholics in Germany in general, who make up now just 28% of the population.

Go deeper

Lay hopes in the synodal path are certainly there, but they are fleeting, and cautious.

Just like the hopes of Catholic women, who are no longer prepared to accept compromises when it comes to their full equality in the Church,.

Before the synodal path “the grief that women had to endure through the power of churchmen was too great, and the hope for real change was too small”, Mechthild Heil, leader of the Catholic Women’s Association in Germany, told the National Catholic Reporter.

Now Heil, who’s also a member of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union Party in the German Parliament, has hope the synodal path might lead eventually to women’s access to all the Church’s ordained and governing ministries.

But German Bishops’ spokesman Matthias Kopp has poured cold water on the idea that the synodal path will bring in the ordination of women, since that’s a question reserved to the Vatican, and not something national Churches can decide for themselves.

The most women’s ordination advocates can hope for in the synodal path, according to Kopp, is to “reflect and discuss the topic” in the context of a process looking to an “‘extended horizon’ that opens up new spaces in which innovative action can be taken”.

Why it matters

The ‘no’ from the outset to female ordination is why some German Catholic women are sceptical of the synodal path, even choosing not to participate in it at all.

The grassroots Catholic women’s reform movement ‘Maria 2.0’ – famous for the ‘church strike’ and separate women-led services without priests it held in 50 German cities and towns in May – is one of those groups boycotting the synodal path for fear the reform won’t go far enough.

Maria 2.0 leader Ruth Koch told the Reporter: “We need a new way to look at Catholic women in the Catholic Church and update the women’s image”.

“Jesus treated all people the same and the clerical church should look at his view and go back to that.

“We want to make known the great longing that women are as worthy as men and they have to be treated as the same… The Catholic Church does not do that”.

But far from becoming outcasts in the Church, many German Catholics are praising Maria 2.0’s stance and desire to preserve its independence by keeping out of the synodal path.

“Their founders are very spiritual… and they are standing up for the Gospel very credibly”, Koch’s parish priest in Münster, Fr. Stefan Jürgens, said to the Reporter.

Philipp Gessler, a former religion editor at Germany’s public radio station Deutschlandfunk, coincided with Jürgen’s assessment, and admitted:

“In my point of view, Maria 2.0 is a very important initiative. It’s kind of prophetic work they are doing”.

“Because we don’t know how God works in the end”, Gessler continued.

“I think that one day there will be women priests in the Catholic Church — it may not be in my lifetime.

“And then we can look back to groups like Maria 2.0, that these brave women have fought for this goal and now we have reached it”.

For her part, Maria 2.0 member Koch continues to identify as a Catholic, despite the sexism, and to work away for reform in the Church.

“It is necessary to stay and be persistent in demanding changes because the ‘house of church’ is in a very bad, battered and obsolete state, but it is our home”, Koch said.

“And if your home is dirty and needs renovation and fresh air, you would not just move, but you start dusting, cleaning up and opening windows to let in sunshine and fresh air”.

Next on Novena:

German Jesuit dismisses ‘synodal path’ schism talk as “politically motivated exaggeration”

German bishop warns “truths of our faith cannot be rigid and immovable”

German Bishops’ secretary urges “more courage” in opening up Church offices to women

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