The long-awaited “synodal path” Church reform process gets underway formally today in Germany, with youth and the laity dreaming of Church “democratisation”.

Driving the news

“Our demand is very clear: there must be gender equality in the Church”, German Young Catholics Federation (BDKJ) chairwoman Katharina Norpoth told January 30.

Norpoth is one of only twenty or so young people under 30 taking part from today until February 1 in Frankfurt in the first 230-strong assembly for the “synodal path”.

That’s the two-year long Church reform process charged with discussing possible changes to Church practice around the exercise of power and authority, celibacy and the priestly way of life, the place of women and sexual morality.

“It really is a shame that there are so few young participants at the Synodal Assembly… we young people are of course the future of the Church, but also its present”, Norpoth lamented.

Go deeper

Still, the young chairwoman of the BDKJ was optimistic ahead of the reform process, and not only that the synodal path will bring about more female responsibility in the Church, on which issue she said “the demand for more rights for women in the Church must be transmitted to Rome as a vote by the German Church”.

Norpoth also said that by means of the synodal path “the public blessing of same-sex couples should finally be made possible”, and “power and responsibility in the Church must also be shared equally between clerics and laypeople”.

“Now… the task must be to strengthen the credibility of the Church again and to put words into action”, the BDKJ chairwoman insisted, explaining that the Church “needs to learn” from the clergy sex abuse crisis.

On women, power, possible optional celibacy for priests and a new sexual morality, “what a majority decides [in the synodal path] must… be implemented”, Norpoth said, insisting that “the synodal path must not be a mere discussion process, but must bring about changes”.

Why it matters

Norpoth’s call for real change in the Church as a consequence of the synodal path was echoed by Thomas Sternberg, the president of the lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) – a key partner of the German Bishops in the reform process – in a January 30 interview with the German Catholic news agency KNA.

Like BDKJ chairwoman Norpoth, Sternberg said he trusted that the synodal path “can renew the credibility of the Catholic Church” after the pedophilia scandals.

“I think the perception that there are many who are against the Synodal Way is exaggerated”, the ZdK president added, “because the number of those who don’t like the whole direction is very small”.

“On the other hand, an overwhelming majority of people say: We must speak together about reforms and the reasons that have contributed to clergy abuse”, Sternberg explained.

The ZdK president praised the fact that finally, with the synodal path, laypeople “not only have an advisory role” in the direction the Church will take into the future, “[but that] they also take these decisions”.

Sternberg added that although the synodal path will discuss issues – such as the ordination of women – that can only be given the green light by the Vatican or a Church Council, and not at a local level, the many public submissions the reform process conveners have received to date “show how great the pressure for reform is among many Catholic believers”.

“We are in an historically remarkable situation”, Sternberg emphasised, adding that after a “standstill” in the Church under Popes John Paul II and Benedict, finally, “with Pope Francis, we have someone who is stirring things up and initiating discussion”.

Hazarding a guess at some possible results of the synodal path, the ZdK president predicted that “the extensive rule of bishops will decline and, at least in the questions of the social form of the Church, greater democratisation will take hold”.

For the record

For his part, and also reflecting on the formal start of the synodal path today, ZdK secretary Marc Frings told Domradio January 30 that “it is important that in the end there are binding ideas, suggestions and decisions”.

“There must be votes to make it clear that we have not only understood, but something has to be done”, Frings stressed.

“We are not breaking away, we are part of the world Church”, Frings continued, responding to never-ending conservative criticism – even from Cologne cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki – that the synodal path conclusions are “pre-ordained” in favour of deep reform and will lead to a German “special way”.

“But we also need very specific decisions with suggestions as to what is possible here in the German local church”, the ZdK secretary said, “because we see that the crisis of confidence [and] the systemic failure of the Church… all of this now requires directives”, Frings warned.

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