The German Synodal Odyssey
Hans Feichtinger tracks the path of recent events in the German Church
To understand what is going on in and around the German Synodal Way, we need to remember that the Church in Germany was hit late, but hard, by the sexual abuse crisis. This crisis had explod- ed much earlier in other countries, but up until fairly recently German dioces- es were still in full scale denial about its depth and extent. They were, therefore, unprepared for the sexual abuse crisis when it finally hit Germany and have since done an almost 180-degree turn on the subject—declaring themselves now to be the worst institution ever. Such extremes are never a good sign.
Compared to the Church in other nations, the German Church has also been tardy in facing up to the need for renewal and (re-) evange- lization. In reality, the Germans should have been the first to adopt the call to evangelize, considering that Kerygmatic Theology (Ver- kündigungstheologie) was originally developed in the German-speaking world. However, German dioceses and theology faculties are often frozen in antiquated “anti-Roman” atti- tudes and have found it difficult to embrace the vision of St John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis. Nowhere in the world have theolo- gy and human studies had greater influence on the life of the church; nowhere are more consultative structures in place; nowhere are more laypeople employed by the church; nowhere is dissent from certain Church teachings more ingrained—and yet, the Church in Germany is in precipitate decline by every possible means of measurement (from declining membership, to collapse of vocations, now even something like a first financial crisis). This situation of ecclesiastical institutional paraly- sis is the context in which the emergence of the “Synodal Way” in Germany has to be understood.
The German Way
The Synodal Way is an experiment. But it is an experiment with many systemic flaws, start- ing with the fact that it is not actually a Synod, and consciously so, for a Synod (as tradition- ally understood by the Church) was perceived in Germany as too restrictive and too cleri- cal. A second and deeper flaw is that those driving the German Synodal Way do not want to be bound by Catholic and Biblical doctrine, never mind Canon Law. The Synodal Way was conceived and organized as an intention- al paradigm shift, triggered by the (real and perceived) recent failures of the Church, but in reality, based on tendencies that have characterized (and haunted) the Church in Germany for a long time.
The Synodal Way itself embodies the convic- tion that the German way of “doing church” and “doing theology” is superior to what the Church generally does, and to what Canon Law prescribes. And, therefore, the stated goals of the German Synodal Way have set it up for failure. For Synods are not meant to update Church teachings and practices so they can become less challenging and/or more acceptable to contemporary society. If we still think that the aggiornamento of Pope St John XXIII is something like an appease- ment strategy, we have learnt nothing from him or from Vatican II. The German Synodal Way, in particular, while declaring itself to be the final implementation of Vatican II, is in fact at odds with what the Council actually said and wanted to achieve. The role of the bishops, the mission of the priests, and the vocation of the laity, as described in the documents of Vatican II, are certainly not what the Synodal Way envisions.
In Germany, the media pay more attention to the church than in other countries, and now praise the Synodal Way for its innovative, pro- gressive approach. Yet, already, a few sceptical voices can be heard, even from serious Protestants. These fellow Christians know, often from bitter experience, what it means when a national Synod starts to re-frame what Christians have for a long time known and believed to be true and holy. What the German Synodal Way is proposing is not just adaptation of missionary approaches and of canonical rules; rather, it is proposing a shift away from traditional and even biblical teaching.
The German Synodal Way looks more like a Protestant system, with much voting and organizing majorities. Certain spaces for the ordained are preserved within the Synodal Way, but it is not at all clear why. Most importantly, the Synodal Way diverges from the teaching of Dei verbum, the most doctrinally sig- nificant of the Vatican II documents. For the Synodal Path embraces a view of religion in which “lived experience” overshadows the authority not only of the Church, her laws and Magisterium, but also the illumination we receive from Catholic Tradition and even from Holy Scripture. The ability to listen to the Word of God, and to give witness to it, “in and out of season”, does not seem to be the desired end of the Synodal Way. Protestant observers have started to pick up this scent, for which they are particularly sensitive. We will see if they will be taken seriously.
The Church in Germany continues to focus on (and get lost in) its own problems and preferences. A serious investment in evangelization is not and cannot be made under these circumstances. Theological institutions in Germany are hardly producing any remarkable con- tribution to the Church’s most fundamental mission, while in other countries serious work is done on evangelisation, and has been for some time. This is both problematic and humiliating. The time of theologians needing to learn German, the “third biblical language,” in order to do their work seriously, has certainly passed. Even on the new translation of the Roman Missal the Germans, despite having the best funded institutions in the world and representing a relatively small language area, have been incredibly slow—not least because of relentless attempts to uphold theological obsessions. The prison bars of theological self-importance and ecclesiastical (including finan- cial) self-preservation are hard to break because they are rooted in a highly developed culture and have created a hermeneutical trap which is nearly impossible to avoid.
The Sex Abuse Crisis and the German Synodal Way
The crucial question is what the Synodal Way wants to achieve. The founding constitution (Satzung) describes the project as “a way of repentance and renewal”, which will enable Catholics to fulfil their vocation to proclaim God’s “goodness and loving-kindness” (Tit 3:4) in word and action, so that people today can freely hear and accept the Gospel. Specifically, “the Synodal Way wants to improve the conditions of fulfilling this task in a credible manner.”
Establishing credibility, specif- ically in the face of the sexual abuse crisis, appears to be one the most important aims of the Synodal Way
While this is understandable, it also problem- atic not least in that the crisis has dominated how the four major topics to be addressed by the Synodal Way (and thus also the four working groups) have been formulated. However, the fact that this crisis exists does not mean that responding to it is necessar- ily the way either to renew the Church as a whole or to bring its evangelizing mission into focus. Moreover, at this point, we are simply not able to determine with sufficient certainty how particular Catholic (or clerical) elements have contributed to the crisis; not least because no other comparable institu- tions (other churches, residential schools, social services, etc.) have even begun to face the abuse crisis in the way the Church has, at least not yet and not in Germany. This makes it impossible to draw conclusions from the data about the sex abuse crisis which can be safely used in reforming the Church.
Instead, there has been a real attempt to instrumentalize the abuse crisis (and the fail- ures of individual bishops) in order to bring pressure to bear on those synodal delegates who have in any way opposed the opinions of the majority. In the mainstream and Catho- lic media, a tendency has developed to pay particular attention to the perceived failings of “conservative” bishops who are less open to the majority proposals of the Synodal Way, while liberal bishops who are “on side” are treated with relative leniency. Sadly, this is even the case in commentaries by theologi- ans and among bishops. Tensions within the Synodal Way and the Bishops’ Conference are probably close to a breaking point, while of course still downplayed in public. The art of open and honest disagreement is not a strength of the today’s Catholic elite.
The Satzung (Synodal Constitution) allows the Synodal Way to go down well-known rabbit holes: the demand for more democratic structures and less hierarchical governance; ending priestly celibacy; opening more minis- tries to women, including ordained ones; less restrictions in (sexual) ethics—while simply ig- noring the fact that almost all these proposals have been accepted and are already in place in the many mainline Protestant churches in Germany and have, however, produced no recognizable signs of ecclesial renewal.
The majority of delegates at the Synodal Way probably believe that they are prior- itizing evangelization, as Pope Francis did urge, but in reality, that is not the case. The majority believes that serious, if not radical, changes need to be made to Church practice and doctrine before any effort to evangelize is possible. That approach, however, follows an outdated model which current promot- ers of evangelization have abandoned. This approach presumes that, first, people need to believe (in) what you say, so that then they start to behave accordingly, and finally can and want to belong to the church. But at least in our world, this is not the normal order of things. The credibility of our message does not first and foremost depend on its content but on us having a real interest in the other, building a relationship with them, and thus creating a sense, or at least a desire, to belong. Only on this basis can people come to embrace what the Church believes, cel- ebrates, and transmits through its living tradition. And only then, finally, will they begin to live and behave accordingly, to conform their lives to the example of Jesus and to the divine commandments in which consists the love of God (1 John 5:3). “Repentance and renewal” are especially dif- ficult for churches that are as well connected to political power as the Catholic and the Lu- theran churches have been in Germany since the Peace of Westphalia, which produced the curious system of two established churches in one nation. When it comes to efforts of renewal, churches deeply rooted in majority society, especially in our liberal-democratic states, primarily tend to look into questions of power and institution, wanting to preserve their place in society. This also betrays how much a political analysis of reality has taken root in the German Church. There is no doubt that such an approach helps us see certain things more clearly, but for the Church it can never become the only, or even the most important, lens through which we perceive and analyze reality. Germany’s ecclesiastical establishment today has no privileged access to what Christianity and Catholicism really mean, compared to previous times and/or other particular churches. The “lived experi-ence” of the average German Catholic itself is in need of “repentance and renewal”, and not normative either for how the Church should understand Scripture and Tradition or for the direction in which it needs to move.
Finally, the fact that among the delegates of the Synodal Way there seems to be no one who is not ethnically German and/or totally socialized in the German Catholic environ- ment, is curious or even scandalous: it does not correspond to where the Church in Germany is (going). And it is, again, revealing about who and what the Synodal Way is.
Instrumentalizing synodal structures for problematic theological agendas is nothing new (cf. Leo the Great and the robber synod of 449 AD). But the German Synodal Path goes further: for most of its participants, it is becoming a tool for the “reinvention” of Church doctrine and for adapting Church practices to the expectations of post-Chris- tian Germans. The Synodal Way misunder- stands that without a strong commitment to biblical and traditional teaching, you cannot be fruitful, you have cut yourself off from the ever-fresh fountain of God’s Revelation, and you are becoming suspi- cious to (many of) your fellow Christians and Catholics, both in Germany and around the world. Again, you have underestimated that without strong bonds of relationship and trust, without massive investment in belonging together,
to Christ’s Church and to her sacred Tradition, what you say and propose is not only shallow, and often outright wrong, it will also remain unconvinc- ing. A shared com- mitment of both laity and clergy to the faith of the Church, including her sac-ramental structure and biblical anthropology, is essential if the Church is to rediscover and fulfill her primary mission to evangelize.
The Synodal Way still has a chance of yield- ing some good fruit. I am thinking, in par- ticular, about a recommitment to the rule of (canon) law in criminal matters, rather than going with dubiously “pastoral” solu- tions. But the chances for a good end to the German Synodal Way are diminishing fast. Pastors on the ground and people in the pews feel the tension, and they often feel abandoned by their alleged leaders and representatives. The Synodal Way will have to “check its privilege” and its theological competence. Most of all, it will have to reflect on whether its faith in (doctrinal) progress, German-led and systematically organized, is by now stronger than its foundational trust in Scripture and Tradition. A theology whose content, structure, and emphases do not mirror the Creed and the Scriptures is off-balance, unstable, unreliable, and will be ultimately unfruitful. As long as we get these priorities wrong, the longed for, and much needed, re-evangelization of the West will not occur.
Both the theology and the leadership of the German Church (and not only of the German Church) have long been influenced by a po- litical conviction that the only way forward is by way of compromises between the various groups inside the Church and/or between the Church and her surrounding society. This ‘irenicism’, already con- demned by Pius XII, is a very old temptation (late antique Christian emperors attempting to influence ecumenical councils and their interpretation are an early version of such politically motivated com- promising of Christian doctrine). The situation now is different, but the problem has not changed - especially at the most recent Councils where theologians, often German speaking ones, have viewed con- ciliar debates as struggles for power between various factions, between majority and minori- ty. Indeed, the German bishops played crucial roles in this regard at both Vatican I (1870-71) and Vatican II (1962-65). Especially after Vatican II, German-speaking theologians depicted the conciliar doctrinal debates as a power-struggle between (their own) alleged- ly “more advanced” theology and the “retrograde” Roman school, with the naïve majority in between. In this conception, Catholic doc- trine is no longer respected as something that neither Romans nor Germans can control.
The only thing that this political ideology achieves in the Church is polarization. Trenches are being dug ever deeper and the search for the moral failure of “the others” (as proof for how they are wrong) becomes ever more obsessive. Attempts to convince “the others” by evidence and argument fail, inner-ecclesial debates become more acrimonious, and the evangelizing mission of the Church suffers.
The latest and most visible example of this political ideology in the Church is the concerted blessing of not-married (mostly homosex- ual) couples, with the intention of teaching and doing something civil society agrees with and demands. The question is what kind of consequenc- es (fruits) such a move is supposed to produce. Is it really to be expected that such a demonstration will make the Church more attractive? Leaving aside the obvious contradiction of biblical and traditional insight, I fail to see how this is a strategy for fostering conversions. Nor is it clear to me what is meant when Bishops seriously maintain that the goal of such blessings is to maintain marriage between a man and a woman while also blessing other forms of (family-like, erotic) relation- ships. Such a proposal is ludicrous—either the fruit of bottomless naiveté or just a procedural trick.
Hermeneutic of Discontinuity
The trust that is being lost both among the participants of the Synodal Way, and between those participants and the ‘ordi- nary German Catholic in the pew’, cannot be rebuilt by any measure of theological debate. That applies also to the relations of the German Bishops’ Conference to the Holy See and to other bishops’ conferenc- es. Again, this is the mistake of thinking that all depends on making (my version of) church doctrine acceptable to the other side (or to the world). Curiously, coming from the otherwise self-proclaimed “holistic” Germans, this is actually a form of rationalism and intellec- tualism, a charge which is normally leveled at Roman school theology by the Germans. Unless we (re-) build relationships and trust, inside and outside the church, the Gospel message cannot be effectively communicated to the world. Rearranging doctrine in order to make evangelization possible (as the Synodal Way desires) is profoundly misguided.
The authority of Catholic doctrine does not depend on the persuasive and argu- mentative power of theologians and neither must it be identified exclusively with any one kind of theology. Nor must we create a situation, neither in the reality of Church life nor in our theological minds, in which Peter can no longer speak through the Pope (as the council of Chalcedon proclaimed in 451 about Leo the Great).
What seems to be prevailing in the German Synodal Way as it develops is a “hermeneutic of reform in discontinuity”. It is a hermeneutic of power and majorities—which on closer inspection reveals itself to be a contradiction in terms
For it is no longer a search for what is true, good and holy but rather a technique of organizing practical change and creating ideological support and legitimacy for that change (by faking paradigm-shifts). This strategy certainly has Marxist overtones but, more importantly, involves giving up the trust in Scripture and Tradition that is essential for being Christian. Within this trust in Scripture and Tradition lies faith itself, i.e., trust in Christ as the one who — once and for all — has redeemed the world and revealed God to us and who is faithful to his Church even in dark and difficult times.
Unless the Synodal Way becomes a way of returning to this God it can only be an erring odyssey that leads away from the love of God and the freedom of his children.
Hans Feichtinger is parish priest of St. George’s Parish and St. Albertus’s Parish in Ottawa.