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The Synodal Way of the German Catholic Church


The Synodal Way in Germany            Gerry OShea

 The two countries with the most affluent Catholic churches, Germany and the United States, are both dealing with serious ecclesiastical crises. Last year over 400,000 members left the church in Germany while the numbers departing in the United States are estimated at double that figure.

The main reason for this mass exodus centers on the church’s failure over many years to deal with an epidemic of clerical sex abuse in many schools and parishes in both countries. Thousands of boys and girls were molested by priests and brothers who were trusted by parents to care for their children. This horrific betrayal by church authorities is the main cause of the Catholic crisis.

By 2016, the American church had paid out over 3.8 billion dollars in settlements to survivors, and, in July of this year, Norwich, Connecticut, became the 26th diocese to plead bankruptcy as they face court cases from dozens of alleged abuse victims.

Most of the U.S. bishops are determined to keep the focus on the legal implications of their bete noire, the Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973. They act as if they haven’t learned a basic theological insight, that focusing on changing laws instead of hearts is placing the cart before the horse.

Official reports about widespread sex abuse by the German Catholic clergy have shocked the people there. With the help of diocesan records, we know that about 3700 victims have been identified with 4.4% of priests and monastics pinpointed as abusers. Significantly, almost no deacons were marked as predators.

Instead of responding to this awful situation with strong effective measures, including reporting the illegal behavior to the appropriate civil authorities, the German hierarchy failed completely to confront the dastardly situation. Despite the destructive behavior of many priests, the church leaders all over Germany fudged and prevaricated to avoid upsetting the clericalist power apparatus.

Shocking reports emerged of physical and sexual abuse of minors.  Over 500 cases of maltreatment were documented in Catholic schools in Regensburg where Pope Benedict’s brother, Fr. Georg Ratzinger, was the choirmaster for thirty years. While he strongly asserts that he never heard of any accusations of sexual abuse during his time in leadership there, it surely raises serious questions about church accountability.

Since retiring from the papacy, Benedict pointed the finger of blame for the crisis on the sexual revolution of the sixties and on modernizing trends in theology after the Second Vatican Council. Many commentators view these rationalizations as excuses for his critical failure to deal forcefully with the awful suffering endured by children during his years in office. It should be pointed out that in the last two years of his papacy he initiated strong ecclesiastical proceedings that led to defrocking 328 priests.

The Synodal Way emerged because enough German Catholics– lay and clerical – cried stop. They sympathized with the thousands who had disaffiliated from the church because of its dismal failure to protect  young members from predator priests and brothers.

Reflecting on the sorry story of silence by the hierarchy when faced by awful immorality, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich, recently submitted his resignation to Pope Francis, acknowledging the damage done by his own complicit silence in dealing with the abuse of children. Francis refused to accept his resignation but he did not disagree with Marx’s contention about the moral culpability of leadership inaction in the face of evil.

When Francis heard of the plans for the root and branch assessment of the causes of the predation crisis proposed by the German synodal planners, he urged that they concentrate instead on improving evangelization programs, especially among the young. This advice was rejected by the synod leaders on the basis that there could be no credible progress without confronting the causes of the sickness.

In 2018 the German bishops commissioned a study to report on the core systemic reasons for the crisis. That group went far beyond pointing the finger of blame at the moral lassitude of individual priests, and focused instead on the negative consequences of the clericalist power structures in the church and the attendant damning culture of secrecy. Within a year the bishops set up the Synodal Way to deal with these deep problems.

The approach involves 230 participants including all the bishops and leaders of religious orders as well as wide lay participation. Interestingly, the seating arrangement at the inaugural meeting was done alphabetically and not in order of clerical importance where places at the top would predictably be assigned to the hierarchy – a clear symbolic message to the established clerical culture.

There are four powerful committees focusing on the main synodal themes – the exercise of power in the church with the clerical caste making all decisions, priestly ministry, including consideration of celibacy, human relationships with a focus on sexuality, and, last but certainly not least, the appropriate roles for women in the church.

Cardinal Ouellet, one of the most powerful dignitaries in the Vatican, looking at the documentation emanating from Germany, declared it was not “ecclesiologically valid,” and while Pope Francis encourages the synod process, he casts a cold eye on the proceedings in Germany.

Georg Batzing, bishop of the Limburg diocese and president of the German Bishops’ Conference, believes that resolutions of the Synod with clear majority support will include a strong recommendation to allow a church blessing for homosexual couples. This runs counter to the official Vatican position which disparages gay sexual love as “intrinsically evil.”

Batzing also favors ending mandatory celibacy for priests – hardly a revolutionary idea but one that is frowned on by the present pope. The German leader has also spoken about allowing women priests which Pope John Paul was close to forbidding, wearing his infallible hat. Wiser minds prevailed on him to steer clear of a Galileo-size blunder.

The final report of the Synodal Path is likely to be published late in 2022. It will be a radical document but not challenging any traditional Catholic dogma. No word against the divinity of Christ, his resurrection after Calvary, the seven sacraments or the indissolubility of marriage.

Instead, the report will ask why a divorced person in a loving relationship should be cut off from the eucharist. They will point out that the church’s attitude to women throughout the centuries reflected the backward popular culture of those days. The Spirit has led us into more enlightened attitudes today. The wisdom of our time strongly endorses opening up all leadership positions in the church to females.

A thousand or so years ago priestly celibacy was introduced mainly to protect the ownership of church property. No need for that today and most psychologists agree that compulsory virginity is a disaster for any human organization.

Marx, Batzing and most church leaders in Germany want another plenary  council, Vatican 3, to deliberate on the massive problems the institution faces and with major changes in their sights, especially in the four areas identified by the Synodal Path.  We wish them well.

Gerry OShea blogs at


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