As mentioned in the prior two articles in this series, many Catholics are worried about the upcoming Synod on Synodality. Some of these concerns originate from reports about the German Synodal Way. As Mike Lewis writes, “The participants in the Synodal Way have expressed views and ratified proposals that contradict Catholic doctrines and practices in areas such as the male-only priesthood, sexual morality, and authority in the Church.”
As one poignant example, the Synodal Way approved a text (in the section labeled “Motion” here) for the blessing of couples that “also applies to same-sex couples on the basis of a re-evaluation of homosexuality as a norm variant of human sexuality.” That measure passed with eighteen yes votes and only three no votes. A section of this just-quoted document, headed “Reasoning,” is disturbing to orthodox Catholics. It declares:
The refusal to bless the relationship of two people who want to live their partnership in love, commitment and responsibility to each other and to God proves to be merciless or even discriminatory in a society that has achieved human dignity and free self-determination as maxims of moral standardization. This is all the more serious because such a refusal cannot be convincingly justified in terms of the theology of grace.
The document basically insists on moral relativism and ridicules the perennial teaching of the Church’s Magisterium on sexual morality. The contemporary zeitgeist is upheld as being more in accord with God’s will than the Church’s official doctrine.
Another disturbing development is the German Synodal Way’s desire to create a permanent “Synodal Council.” The character of such a council is controversial, because it intends to create a new supra-diocesan governing body that would make decisions for the Church in Germany and would potentially include lay members as part of its governance. On this front, a dogmatic theologian, Jan-Heiner Tück, warned that “a German Synodal Council would transfer leadership authority ‘from sacramentally ordained persons to bodies, a conversion of power that shows a clear closeness to synodal practices in the Protestant Church in Germany.”
In light of these concerning developments, there is a real basis for the skepticism and fears expressed by Catholics in regard to them. A number of Catholics have been concerned that such issues could recur in the Synod on Synodality.
However, a few key points can help lessen these worries when it comes to the Synod on Synodality. First, the German Synodal Way is not part of the process of the Synod on Synodality. The former began in 2019 and was something undertaken by the German Bishops’ Conference independently of and prior to the Synod on Synodality.
Additionally, Pope Francis has already expressed his disapproval of the German Synodal Way, even with respect to its purported synodality. As Elise Ann Allen reports: “Speaking of the church in Germany’s controversial ‘Synodal Path’ process . . . the pope said ‘the German experience does not help, because it is not a Synod, it is not a serious synodal path. It is a so-called synodal path, but not one with the totality of the people of God, but one made by the elites.’” Elaborating further, “Pope Francis warned that ‘the danger is that something very, very ideological trickles in. When ideology gets involved in church processes, the Holy Spirit goes home, because ideology overcomes the Holy Spirit.’” In a somewhat cheeky comment regarding the aforementioned plans for a permanent Synodal Council, Pope Francis remarked: “To the president of the German Episcopal Conference, Bishop Bätzing, I said: ‘In Germany there is a very good Evangelical [that is, Lutheran] Church. We don’t need two.” In other words, Pope Francis shares concerns about the worldly ideology behind the German Synodal Way, and hence, it is highly unlikely that he would approve of their recommendations that contradict long-standing Catholic doctrine and structure. (Recall that the Synod on Synodality is essentially an advisory board to the pope, not a legislative or teaching body in its own right.)
Furthermore, Pope Francis is not alone in his criticism of the German Synodal Way. As AC Wimmer reports: “Concerns [about the German Synodal Way] have been publicly raised by Church leaders from Poland, the Nordic countries, and around the world.” In fact, “Over 70 bishops from four continents warn that heterodox German reform efforts risk fracturing Church unity, adversely impacting the Church globally.”1 Similarly, in reaction to the plans for the permanent Synodal Council, the Vatican issued a statement: “The ‘Synodal Way’ in Germany does not have the power to compel bishops and the faithful to adopt new forms of governance and new orientations of doctrine and morals.”2
More recently, on January 16, 2023, three Vatican officials sent a letter approved by the Pope to the President of the German Bishops’ Conference, reiterating this very point, adding further comments about the problematic nature of the proposed permanent Synodal Council. The signatories were Pietro Cardinal Parolin (Vatican Secretary of State), Luis Francisco Cardinal Ladaria Ferrer (Prefect for the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith), and Marc Cardinal Ouellet (Prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops).
In summary, if you are worried about the German Synodal Way, you are not alone. Bishops from around the world, some of the highest-ranking members of the Roman Curia and Pope Francis himself, share your concerns. It is thus extremely improbable, if not impossible, that the German Synodal Way’s radical proposals to change Church doctrine and structure will come to fruition through the Synod on Synodality.
1 Jonathan Liedl, “BREAKING: International Coalition of Bishops Offers ‘Fraternal Letter of Concern’ to German Episcopacy Over ‘Synodal Path,’” National Catholic Register (April 12, 2022).
2 Quoted from AC Wimmer, “Vatican warning: Germany’s ‘Synodal Way’ poses ‘threat to the unity of the Church,’” Catholic News Agency (July 21, 2022). See this page for the original Italian and German translation of the statement.