A key German lay representative has hit out at one of his country’s cardinals for suggesting that the national Church’s “binding synodal process”, or grassroots consultation process, could lead to Church division.

Driving the news

In March this year, the German Bishops announced that they would set off on a “binding synodal process” to tackle issues arising from the clerical sex abuse crisis.

At first, the issues on the table were priestly celibacy, the Church’s teaching on sexual morality and clerical power.

After pressure from lay groups, however, the Bishops later added a fourth discussion point: women in Church ministry.

But not all of the German Church has been on board with the idea of a consultation process.

Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, for example, warned just this week of the danger “that the ‘synodal path’ leads us onto a German separate path; that we, at worst, even put at risk the communion with the universal Church and became a German national Church”.

The cardinal also said the synodal process could lead to a split in the German Church itself.


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Go deeper

But layman Thomas Sternberg, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), dismissed Woelki’s concerns.

“I don’t understand the statements of Cardinal Woelki”, Sternberg said.

“There has never been talk of treading a German special way as a national Church”.

“Of course we live in a universal Church; nobody is aiming for anything else”, the ZdK president continued.

Sternberg recalled that although the synodal process will discuss important Church reforms – such as ordaining women or letting trained theologians preach at Mass – the discussions are just that: a process.

“Nobody seriously believes that women will be ordained priests from next year”, the layman said.


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Why it matters

Nevertheless, the president of the ZdK said it is important that the discussions lead to action.

The faithful, Sternberg warned, are restless and dissatisfied, and can’t understand why reforms in the Church take so long to arrive.

“The times when it was conservatives and progressives at each other’s throats is over: the unrest is now among the most loyal”, the layman warned.

That’s why it’s important, in Sternberg’s opinion, that the bishops move ahead on changes, even without consensus.

“If 24 dioceses implement one decision and three don’t [of the 27 German dioceses – ed.], I believe it’s better to settle for that patchwork than to agree unanimously on all issues”, the layman explained.

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What’s next

The criticisms of Woelki and other sceptics are not the only difficulties the German Church synodal process is facing.

This week the Catholic women’s reform movement ‘Maria 2.0’ announced it would not take part in the synodal process’ women’s forum, out of their desire “to stay free, not get involved and not give ourselves a structure”, in the words of Maria 2.0 co-founder Andrea Voss-Frick.

The loss of Maria 2.0 is a big blow to the process, given that their repeated calls to overcome sexism in the Church has resonated with thousands of the German faithful.

This week, too, the Federation of German Catholic Youth (BDKJ) asked the bishops for a ‘youth quota’ in the synodal process.

Such a quota would see one-third of synod decision makers be a young person under 30 – or their elected representative – to reflect the fact that young people make up more than one-third of German Catholics.

The BDKJ board also asked the bishops to consider four other proposals in the context of the synodal path: new Church governance models with laypeople and clerics “at eye level”, the acceptance and possible blessing of same-sex partnerships, equal rights for women in the Church and life-long training for priests.

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