One of the strongest speeches of the first synodal assembly was probably made by a religious sister describing the system of fear in the Church. But this fear has now shifted, believes Björn Odendahl* – towards the opponents of reform.

These were impressive and strong words, which the Benedictine Philippa Rath formulated at the synodal assembly.

The religious woman attested that the church still has a great potential for fear – among victims of abuse, among the faithful in the parishes and among the staff in the general vicariates. The trigger for her was always the same: the (clerical) power.

Perhaps this is one of the most important insights of the Synodal Way so far: Not decisions and reforms are the first step, but breaking through this system of fear.

And this system is crumbling.

Professors comment on the abuse of power by bishops and priests without fear for their “nihil obstat”. Female community leaders complain about the lack of equal rights for men and women without fear of “their” priest. And bishops without fear of Rome and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith complain about the treatment of homosexuals in their church. Not to mention the courageous words of those for whose sexuality the Church today, according to the Catechism, still has at best “pity” left.

So is the Church becoming a “fear-free space”? Unfortunately not yet. Fear is still there. It has only shifted a little.

Fear is now with those who wrongly believe that the Church has never changed and would never do so.

Those who so far have been able to reject every reform request, no matter how theologically well-founded, with reference to constitutions or the catechism. Their fear of having to work with arguments and at eye level in the synodal way is almost tangible and often reveals itself in helpless phrases like “majority does not mean truth”.

Also this fear must be taken seriously and the anxious must be taken along – at least as long as they do not take what the Bishop of Essen, Franz-Josef Overbeck, calls a “constructive conflict culture” ad absurdum.

For where one denounces, slanders, lies or insults, the Synodal Way cannot (and must not) drag along everyone who would rather stop. Time is too short for that.

For the truth is that the majority of the faithful will leave the Church if the process fails.

(Source: *Björn Odendahl, Head of Service at; translation: Voices of Faith)

Next on Novena:

“Grateful to speak for the people”: non-binary German “synodal path” participant speaking truth to power

Cologne cardinal Woelki paying price for allergy to reform? 120,000 left local Churches just in 2019

On doctrine on homosexuality, two German bishops urge “widening, opening, change”

“So far away from reality”: German Catholics blast Cardinal Müller for “synodal path”-Nazi comparison

Women to take over pulpits for a Sunday in Germany in push for Church gender equality

‘No’ to clericalism, ‘yes’ to co-responsibility: the keys to the first assembly on the German synodal path

(Small) Win for women on German ‘synodal path’: assembly votes to make resolutions dependent on female majority

“Synodal path” begins in Germany: youth, laity dream of Church “democratisation”


Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.