The Synodal Way?
The Catholic Church in Germany has begun its Synod, or rather “Synodal Way”. A new term and concept of “Synod” was chosen as traditional synods were thought to be not inclusive and not innovative enough, insufficient for the present crisis. The “Synod” will focus on four topics: power and separation of power in the Church; sexuality and partnership; priestly existence/celibacy; women in church ministry and offices: so it's all seen as being about sex and power.
These topics have been selected on the basis of a study commissioned by the Episcopal Conference on the causes of sexual abuse of minors in the Church. According to that study, minor abuse is related to celibacy, Church teaching on (homo-) sexuality, and abuse of power in male-only, clerical environments. As the study itself admits, however, comparative analyses of other environments and institutions, somehow similar to the church, are not available. This fact undermines radically what we can learn from the study, as a bishop pointed at the Synod. Is the whole enterprise built on sand?
At the Synod and beyond, many German Catholics feel that finally the time has come to talk about these issues. But these topics are not at all new, and the Church in Germany is not “finally” talking about them but “still”. Many cannot remember a time when German Catholics were not fixated on these issues.
The Synod is off to a bad start, or as a cardinal put it: “basically, all my fears have come true”. Since the Synod has decided that its decisions need not be in conformity with the doctrine of the Church, many if not all bets are off. The underlying theology of the Synod appears vague, but empirical data (or what we declare as such) are certainly being raised to a theological authority that can match, or where necessary even trump, Tradition, and probably also Scripture, should our exegetical methods fail to produce the interpretation we need. The Synod is mostly interested in “being credible”; for that reason authenticity is a priority, but it also seems to think that what we believe, and in whom, needs to be updated in order to make the Church today more credible. So this is not about authenticity as the new orthodoxy, but also about new doctrines.
Besides the introductory study and the foundational theology, the selection of participants is tendentious. The Synod consists of all bishops in Germany (ordinary and auxiliary) an equal number of delegates (lay, religious and clergy), the latter selected from diocesan councils, Catholic associations and other institutions of established Catholicism in Germany. As a priest friend wrote to me just this week: in the parish, people do not care or know much about the Synod, but his lay pastoral assistant talks about little else.
But no lay bashing, please: clerical and lay synod participants are left-leaning, and as such exaggerating what the majority of Catholics in Germany believe, not contradicting it. The Synod deals with concerns of a bourgeois church that wants to subdue traditional Catholic teachings and practices to its own ideas and principles. The Synod wants to bring about “real change”, to start and do things which, generously, Rome and other churches “need not go along with”: if that is not de facto schism, what is? What its leadership is to the Church in Germany, the German Church is to the Church universal – not the good sourdough the Gospel speaks of. In order to figure out where the road taken by the Synod will lead, no hypothetical slippery slope arguments need to be made; you can see the results of such changes in where Anglican and Protestant mainline churches are today. If the Synod wants to take empirical data into account, here they are.
Yet, while many of the majority positions at the Synod may not be totally at odds with how most Catholics feel in Germany, the Synod’s composition is mirroring the actual Catholic base much less than we are led to believe. The four topics (or rather the two, power and sex) are mostly elite, clerical concerns, pushed by clerics, Church employees, high-level volunteers and other functionaries. In Germany, this intra-ecclesial world is so big, and so well connected to power in politics and society, and Church employees are so numerous, that it is actually possible to confound that world with the actual world. This is an elite bubble, but a very big one. Only in Germany would the defence minister and the leader of the governing party publicly demand the abolition of celibacy.
A recommitment to Christ
In any case, a synod cannot simply be about democratic decision making; a synod is not supposed to seek majority decision but consensus, and not even consensus of participants only, but consensus as recommitment to Christ and his Gospel, assenting to the truth revealed to, and preserved in, His Church. That language you will hear rarely at the Synod. Instead, you will hear many references to the “the base” from people actually speaking for the elite, for themselves. On the other hand, this elite has an authentic concern for Church members; in Germany, however, this group is very different from those who go to Mass. Church members in Germany are principally those registered as Catholics with the state, those who pay the infamous church tax. Those 28% of the total population fund the life of the church, but less than 10% of them(!) attend Mass on Sunday. It is understandable that the Church is interested in not alienating its donor base, which largely mirrors a general population that has abandoned central convictions of Christianity like faith in the resurrection, the need for salvation and grace, the reality of sin, not to mention the sacraments and many commandments. Debating celibacy in a room where faith in resurrection to eternal life is not a given will not really work.
At the Synod, as in the Church generally, concern for victims of abuse is strong, and concern for prevention is real. One young synod participant even called the Church an association of abusers: that is problematic, and it could backfire. It also begs the question whether the participant wants to be seen as church member only when it fits. The above-mentioned study itself, besides all its tendentious analyses, affirms that, when it comes to abuse prevention, by now the Church is a model institution. Should we not be amazed that this was accomplished by a hierarchical, clerical, allegedly sexually repressed Church, while other groups and institutions, that have none of these defects, have not come so far. Again, the concern for victims is real, but clearly other interests are in play here, and they are dominant.
What does the Synod want?
The crucial question is: what does the Synod want? A popular answer is: connect to people “today”, redefine Christian and priestly lives for “today”. This answer can be understood in an evangelistic sense, but interestingly that is not obvious, and not necessarily the case. In order to connect, are we moving ourselves and others, are we adjusting our methods and approaches, or are we adapting the faith? What the Synod has said up to now sounds more like accommodation than evangelisation.
After the decision to launch this Synod had been taken, Pope Francis surprised the German bishops with his letter to Catholics in Germany reminding them that evangelism must be the main goal. As the Synod starts, this seems largely forgotten. Instead, one participant said in no uncertain terms that the Synod “at least” has to introduce female deacons. Despite the desire to be “theologically strong”, the Synod actually is dominated by political thinking: at the outset, demands are being formulated, bargaining positions are being occupied. How is this different from Trumpian deal-making strategies? How is such a strategy adequate to the Synod’s own topics? As one bishop correctly observed: the question of power is crucial – he is not wrong: certainly, and sadly, the question of power is central in what the Synod has as its topics. And you could turn this around: if the Synod is going to succeed, it will recognise the supreme and life-giving authority of Scripture and Tradition, instead of looking for ways of mitigating and accommodating that authority to “where we are today”.
Truth and fidelity?
This means, of course, that the deeper issue is about truth and fidelity. Power in the Church, starting with the Magisterium of the pope and the bishops, is about fidelity to the Apostolic faith and to its continued proclamation, not to maintaining the Church’s institutional hardware and societal position. When it comes to efforts of evangelisation, the track record of German dioceses is abysmal, despite all their financial and theological resources. The Synod is set on continuing the hermeneutics of discontinuity. The mantra is ever the same: we need to discontinue practices and teachings of old for the sake of connecting to people today, for being able to accompany them through their lives and work for peace and unity in the world. These are good goals, of course, and working for the survival of the Church as institution is not a bad thing either. But the
focus is far off: without concrete fidelity to Christ, connection building “would bring about the union of all, but only to their destruction” (Pius XII). Evangelism without doctrinal fidelity is not evangelism. Synods disconnected from Sacred Tradition and biblical truth do not connect us to the real Jesus, but to one made to our measure. Let us be very clear: anyone demanding categorically “at least female deacons” is careless about Apostolic succession and faith.
If the Church in Germany wants to have a future, it needs to get over its dependency on perceived social relevance, on institutional continuity and its connection to societal power. None of that is a primary goal for evangelisation; instead they all depend on actually doing the work of evangelisation, in every generation, and certainly in 2020. It is remarkable how Pope Francis has spared the Germans, holding back from criticising a rich church.
The shock of clerical abuse of minors has affected the whole Church, and some German bishops in particular. The shocking aspect of abuse always is that something very good is being abused for evil purposes. That means, the abuse is evil, not the thing or the relationship that is being exploited, most certainly not the person. The Synod needs to remember that this applies to the hierarchical structure of the Church, and to other things that have been abused. The sins of the disciples are no proof for the need to change doctrine or discipline.
If the Synod continues to believe that the teaching and tradition of the Church cannot be binding for its decisions, it will mean that the pope’s authority will not, either. This position is coherent, of course, and this coherence is typically German, but it makes the underlying errors and the foreseeable erroneous results even more devastating.
For the Church in Germany and beyond, the repentant king David would be a good model to imitate (2 Sam 11–12): Once the prophet Nathan had him confront his sin, David is moved to contrition and repentance, ready to face the consequences. He does not seek exceptions from, or adaptations of, the divine commands to his royal misdeeds. Instead David relies on God’s mercy, and accepts the divine punishments. Forgiveness and renewal are always possible. Reform of the Church today has to follow a penitential logic, one that does not seek accommodation but that makes its discipline tendentially more demanding. Such a reform may at first widen the divide between Church and world, but doing so it will attract people to the light of the gospel which is more purifying, more liberating, more forgiving and more comforting than any human endeavour and experience ever can be. This alone will authorise and motivate for mission. Unless the Synodal Way goes in that direction, it is doing the opposite.
Healing and conversion
Immense pressure still is applied to make sure that all bishops participate in the Synod, and on how they participate, pressure from both outside and inside the church, most of all peer pressure from the episcopal conference and its ultra-political opinion makers. In many respects, however, the Church in Germany lives an outdated and broken system. How much good can be reached inside this particular structure? The needed healing and conversion will require much disruption, unwanted as that always is. The Synodal Way is the culmination of a long history of German alienation from authentic church renewal, going back to before Vatican II. As the Synod displays with shocking clarity, the Germans, well-funded and theologically supercharged, have immunised themselves against inspiration from other churches, against direction from Rome, and against reforming impetuses from within. Not by chance some of those who have warned against where this leads, have also been Germans, e.g. Cardinals +Scheffczyk, +Meisner, Brandmüller, Müller and Cordes, along with Benedict XVI.
The real question
The Synod has begun by continuing what the Church in Germany has done for decades: it talks about itself, and it is looking for ways to be less different from its surroundings. As the Synod unfolds, we must take to heart what Pope Francis once said about himself: we cannot be afraid of schism, not afraid of whether it comes or when it comes. Unless the Synod finds its way to doctrinal fidelity, schism will be the result. Maybe some bishops and delegates will be able to inspire and redirect the Synod, or else the time will come to walk away and let the whole thing implode. The question really is the one Jesus put to his disciples (John 6:66–68): “Do you also wish to go away?” In Germany and elsewhere, we all, faithful, priests, bishops and the pope, need to answer unconditionally with Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Msgr. Hans Feichtinger is the pastor of St Albertus and St George's and Adjunct Professor at St. Paul University in Ottawa.