The President of the lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), Thomas Sternberg, has blasted the “right-wing conservative” critics of the German Church’s “synodal path” and suggested similar Church reform processes could be carried out every five years.

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The ever louder and sharper “ranting and raving” of an “small group of bishops and websites” set “against the process unanimously decided by the German Bishops’ Conference” isn’t “a reflection of reality”, Sternberg told a Kirche+Leben event in Münster January 22.

In fact, “the opposite is the case”, said Sternberg, whose ZdK is a key partner of the German Bishops in the synodal path.

The ‘path’ will look at possible changes to Church doctrine and practice around the exercise of power and authority, the role of women, the priestly way of life and compulsory celibacy and Catholic sexual morality.

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Sternberg dismantled the conservative conspiracy theory that the synodal path will take the German Church down a “German special way”, separated from Rome and the rest of the global Church.

On the contrary: the ZdK President took the intense media coverage of the synodal path of international outlets from the United States, France, Italy and other places as evidence that the “issues… being negotiated here in Germany… are the same in many other areas of the world”.

Last year’s Amazon Synod in the Vatican also showed an overlap in concerns in that part of the world and in Germany, Sternberg added: for example, in the place of women in the Church, compulsory priestly celibacy and new Church leadership models.

Why it matters

Just days out from the first synodal path assembly in Frankfurt, Sternberg highlighted the “very trusting cooperation” the ZdK enjoys with the German Bishops, and added that to think the laypeople are engaged in a push for change that the Bishop can’t contain is a mistake.

“To think that only the ZdK wants reforms, while the bishops have no control over these rebellious lay people, has nothing to do with reality”, the ZdK President explained.

As for the outcomes Sternberg said he wanted out of the synodal path, he said the process should serve to make the Church “more believable” and “more credible” after the clergy sex abuse crisis that prompted the examination of conscience in the first place.

The synodal path isn’t about regaining people for the faith, but about winning back trust, the ZdK president added.

“I don’t want as many Christians as possible, but as many as possible to know about our faith”, Sternberg explained in that sense.

The layman said he could also see “synodal assemblies” becoming a regular part of the life of the German Church – perhaps every five years – in accordance with the wishes of Pope Francis.

“Pope Francis always encourages this chiesa sinodale, a synodal church. It is up to us to give shape to this desire”, Sternberg said.

Although the Vatican has made it clear that there are some reform questions the German Church cannot decide on alone, the ZdK President explained that didn’t mean the synodal path resolutions would count for nothing.

“Perhaps there will soon be a Council that decides on [universal Church questions] which can then fall back on our considerations in the Synodal Way”, Sternberg suggested.

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