Pope Francis has written a letter to the German Catholic Church to offer his thoughts on the “binding synodal process” through which the bishops, priests and laity of the country have pledged to re-examine the Church’s teaching on three key issues arising from the clergy sex abuse crisis: priestly celibacy, the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, and a reduction of clerical power.
The Jesuit Bernd Hagenkord, former editor-in-chief of the German edition of Vatican News, has today offered the following analysis of the Pope’s letter.
An “age of change” that calls for “debate”
“We are all aware that we are living not only in an age of change but also of epochal change that raises new and old questions which call for a justified and necessary debate,” Pope Francis writes in his Letter published on Saturday. He says he is aware of the dramatic situation of the Church in the country and offers his support to the reflection on the issue.
The Letter is the Pope’s contribution to the synodal journey which the bishops decided upon during their Plenary Assembly in March this year. Together with the representatives of the Central Committee of German Lay Catholics (ZdK) and external experts, the Church wants to discuss the central themes of the crisis.
The starting point for this synodal journey was a study commissioned by the bishops themselves on the theme of sexual abuse by the clergy and consecrated persons, but there are also other issues, such as the aging of communities, the lack of vocations, the non-acceptance of Catholic teaching on sexuality and the lifestyle of priests.
Centrality of the Holy Spirit
Pope Francis does not answer these concrete questions. His contribution is intended to be a spiritual foundation for the debate. He does not offer solutions, he does not forbid discussions, but in the style of “Evangelii Gaudium”, the Pope recalls the centrality of the Holy Spirit.
He views the question in the perspective of the Church. “Every time an ecclesial community has tried to get out of its problems alone, relying solely on its own strengths, methods and intelligence, it has ended up multiplying and nurturing the evils it wanted to overcome.”
The Pope begins the Letter by underlining two of the great strengths and characteristics of the German Church. “The Catholic communities in Germany in their diversity and plurality,” he affirms, “are recognized throughout the world for their sense of co-responsibility and generosity”. It is a Church of the outstretched hand. Secondly, the Holy Father commends the “ecumenical path undertaken”.
Erosion of faith
Following these positive characteristics, the reason for epochal change age takes third place.
“Today, however, together with you, I painfully notice the growing erosion and deterioration of faith with all it entails not only on the spiritual level, but also on the social and cultural level”, a multifaceted decline that is “not easy or quick to resolve”, writes the Pope.
Pope Francis dwells on the meaning of synodality, underlining its “double perspective”, in the sense that it is realized first of all “bottom up “ and only then “top down”. Therefore, daily life and concrete life in various places have priority.
In the Letter, the centrality of faith, evangelization and, above all, the Holy Spirit are repeatedly emphasized from various perspectives. Translated into everyday life, the Pope writes, “This stimulates the emergence and continuation of processes that build us up as God’s people, instead of seeking immediate results with premature and ‘mediatic’ consequences”.
The Pope’s Letter also echoes a warning against a false reform, as stated in “Evangelii Gaudium”.
In order to follow the synodal path, the Pope notes, courage is needed above all. At the same time, however, one needs to be careful not to fall into the traps set along the way, which he calls “temptations”.
“At the basis of this temptation,” the Pope warns, “there is the belief that the best response to the many problems and shortcomings that exist, is to reorganize things, change them and ‘put them back together’ to bring order and make ecclesial life easier by adapting it to the current logic or that of a particular group”. The Pope explains that an organized ecclesial reality solves nothing because also needs the “bite of the Gospel”, its freshness.
Evangelization – criterion par excellence
The Pope calls for proceeding wisely. The rational vision of problems has its meaning but this is not the fulfilment of “our faithfulness”. The Holy Father returns to his central message: “pastoral conversion”. Evangelization, he says, must be the “guiding criterion par excellence”.
According to the Pope, the centrality of the Spirit also shapes the way debates are conducted. “The synodal vision does not eliminate contradictions or confusion” nor does it subordinate conflicts to false compromises.
“Evangelization lived in this way,” observes Pope Francis, “is not a tactic of repositioning the Church in today’s world”, it is not a “retouching” that adapts the Church to the spirit of the times by making her lose her originality and her prophetic mission. Neither does evangelization mean “an attempt to recover habits and practices that make sense in other cultural contexts”: a double rejection of those who seek salvation through adaptation or traditionalism.
True reform and synodality
In order not to remain only in the abstract, the Pope indicates the objectives of a true reform: to set out on the move to meet the sisters and brothers, especially those on the margins, the weakest, in the context of a culture of waste and a culture where there are often “xenophobic discourses”.
Once more, drawing attention to the theme of synodality, the Pope says it needs a living “Sensus Ecclesiae”, a common feeling for the whole Church because the path taken must not end up “isolated in its peculiarities”.
“The challenges that await us, the various issues and questions that emerge,” the Pope observes, “cannot be ignored or hidden, but must be faced ensuring they are neither entangled nor lost sight of, narrowing our horizons and reality.”
This is how the Pope summarizes his vision of the synodal path. Everyone, especially the “simple and small”, must be heard.
“Let us walk together along the way, as an apostolic body, and listen to each other under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, even if we do not think the same way,” the Pope urges adding, “The Lord shows us the way of the Beatitudes”.