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Between Disappointment and Relief: The German Church on the Synodal Path

Around 360,000 people left the Catholic Church in Germany last year. A record high, but not only that: for the first time, citizens in Germany who belong to a Christian church are no longer in the majority. The abuse crisis has extremely intensified the motives that have been responsible for rising numbers of people leaving the church for years. The church finds itself in an unparalleled credibility crisis. There is talk of nothing less than a millennium crisis.

The process of coming to terms with the sexual and spiritual abuse perpetrated by priests and religious is making progress, but for many it is far too slow, too hesitant, too half-hearted. A few weeks after the publication of the abuse report in the diocese of Münster, the authors complain that they cannot see that their study has shaken anyone awake. And even though a number of dioceses have published reports in the meantime: The story of guilt is far from being told. On the contrary. A look at the Archdiocese of Cologne reveals the distortions that the loss of trust can lead to when people have to gain the impression that it is not about finally bringing some justice to those affected, but rather about continuing to cover up and refusing to come to terms with it in a transparent way.

Since 2019, bishops and laity in Germany have been deliberating together on the future of the Church in what is known as the Synodal Path. As in many other countries of the world, the question of the division of power and authority, the role of women in the church, the priestly way of life and an appropriate relationship and sexual ethic are also being wrestled with in this country.

The fourth and thus penultimate meeting of this Synodal Path took place in Frankfurt in September. For the first time, said Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, a local Church with a two-thirds majority of the Bishops’ Conference had cast a clear vote not to close the question of admitting women to ordained ministry and to ask the Pope to examine corresponding reform ideas at the world level. The fact that 92 percent of all delegates and 82 percent of the bishops supported this document was received with great relief. However, in the debate before the vote, it was also very much emphasised that this was only a request to the Pope to consider the matter.

The relief among the 230 delegates about the adoption of this text was also so great because on the previous day another text had received the majority of the delegates as a whole, but had fallen short of the two-thirds majority of bishops required by the statutes. The text, which had advocated a renewal of church sexual morality, was thus not adopted. A drumbeat. The shock this caused was palpable, even for those who only followed the meeting digitally and did not see the weeping Synod members in the foyer or those affected by sexual abuse who initially left the meeting place in protest. Those who wanted reform were deeply disappointed. The main criticism was that in the previous debate only three of the 21 bishops who had rejected the text had outed themselves as opponents of reform. They were accused of not having participated in the synodal processes in the run-up and of turning out to be “conservative snipers” in the end.

But despite this bitter disappointment, at the end of the Synodal Assembly there was also relief that the Synodal Path had not failed at this critical point. One of the things that contributed to the relief was the fact that although the basic text, which laid down milestones for a renewed sexual morality, was not adopted, bishops and lay people spoke out in favour of a re-evaluation of homosexuality in the Catholic Church. Homosexuality is not a disease and the Church must acknowledge that it has caused and continues to cause suffering to homosexual people through its teaching and practice, they said. The majority of delegates also spoke out in favour of liberalising the Church’s labour law. Whether someone is remarried, divorced, gay or lesbian should not have any effect on their professional activity in church service.

However, all this cannot hide the fact that more than a third of the German bishops, by refusing to agree to the basic text, reject a renewal of the Church’s sexual teachings. The 30-page paper, which was not adopted, articulates the need for reform in questions concerning sexuality in a rather restrained way. For example, the Pope is urged to change the question of contraception so that not all sexual intercourse has to be open to procreation. In addition, the Church’s position on homosexuality, as set out in the Catechism, is to be reconsidered. Homosexual partnerships are to be recognised as equal partnerships. These are theologically well-founded concerns that have long been lived and advocated by the vast majority of the population and also by Catholics.

In the run-up to the conference, moral theologians had praised the document for its density, but also criticised it for being too overloaded. There were successful and appealing sections, but the text also tried to reconcile too much. It was also criticised that the text could give the impression that the conflicting positions had equal support in the discipline. Overall, it was not courageous enough, according to Thomas Weißer, who summed up: “In the end – certainly also for reasons of internal church strategy – there is a lack of courage to think about relationships beyond the norm.” (www.feinschwarz.net/erneuerung-der-sexuamoral/)

The fourth Synodal Assembly has shown that there are still a number of bishops who believe that they can prevent the change in norms and the pressure to reform by saying ‘no’. They do not want to accept that a church that adheres to rigid moral rules is moving further and further away from the lives and needs of the people. There is a wide gap between the reality of life and doctrine, which was also reflected in the result of the vote on the Synodal Path: the President of the Bishops’ Conference explained that if something finds the overwhelming vote of the entire assembly, but not a two-thirds majority of the bishops, then something is falling apart that should not fall apart.

The resistance of the opponents of reform to the basic paper was perceived as a demonstration of power that caused bitterness and disappointment. But this disappointment should not obscure the fact that the power demonstrated here is fleeting. Not only an institution like the Church as a whole, which claims to be taken seriously as a moral authority and at the same time disregards its own moral standards, inevitably loses its credibility. This also applies to the bishops, as expressed by religious sister Philippa Rath: “I fear that the division between bishops and faithful is deepening. That those who said no will continue to lose authority and credibility and that many people will turn away from the core of our Church because they don’t feel understood and because the bishops are no longer with them.”

Whoever gambles away credibility loses his authority. Those who no longer have authority lose their power. Thus, the vote in Frankfurt was not a demonstration of power by a minority unwilling to reform, but an expression of its progressive loss of power. The signs are irrevocably pointing to renewal.