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Behind the bold discussions of the German Synod


Recently I attended the fifth and final Assembly of the German Synodal Way (GSW) at the invitation of co-chairs of the German Synod, Bishop Georg Baetzing, Chair of the German Bishops' Conference, and Dr Irme Stetter-Karp, President of the Central Committee of German Catholics. The formal opening emphasised the necessity for a prophetic voice which while this comes as disruptive, ‘take(s) us … into the reality of the world’ whereby ‘we get touched by the Gospel and find ever new ways how to live the Gospel’. Service of mission was clearly articulated in the Assembly documents: ‘The Church must find the way of the people and not determine the ways of the people. She is needed where fractures and wounds mark people's lives. She must be of service to people’. 

As the debates unfolded, I was intrigued by the candidness of the bishops, their willingness to openly name hard issues and be honest about what is really happening in the church. On the issue of obligatory celibacy for instance, rather than hiding behind a veil that ‘we have enough priests, and we can manage the challenges’, there was a refreshing honesty that the present situation is unsustainable.

The obvious engagement, activism and confidence of the non-clerical participants was also impressive. The issues around sexuality were confronted frankly and directly, and grounded in sound, thorough scientific research. These reflect issues articulated in Australia, but yet to be met with such a compassionate, practical and inclusive response. It was astonishing and humbling to listen to the interventions of people who identify as transgender and gay addressing the assembly in a confident and unapologetic way. The success of motions approving blessings for same-sex couples, divorced and remarried Catholics and couples choosing to not marry, prompted a very emotional outbreak of exuberant, sustained celebration.

Throughout the Assembly, I held two key questions. How has the German Church achieved such a contemporary and cogent perspective on issues facing the Church today? And how has it reached such courageous and pastorally sensitive responses? My observations, confirmed through conversations with delegates and others in attendance, led me to conclude that the long-established status, power and access to bishops of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) is a significant factor. It has been vital in nurturing an educated, confident laity experienced in the ways of the Church.

The formal engagement between the lay and clerical ‘arms’ of Church life has clearly delivered vibrant and respectful exchange on matters of human life and society and their relationship to the mission of the Church in an ever-changing world. It appears to have contributed to reducing the risk of insularity and associated irrelevance of the Church hierarchy. 


Unity or schism?

The German Synod has provoked considerable controversy around concerns about the risk of schism. I returned home convinced that ‘unity in diversity’ is central to the success of synodality. The Assembly texts recognised that Church teachings and practices must be enculturated into the realities of the local church: ‘this means allowing and encouraging the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel to be preached ‘in categories proper to each culture, creating a new synthesis with that particular culture’.

There were a number of concrete examples of the Assembly wrestling with the art of compromise in order to preserve unity. The importance of the GSW voice being heard in the wider Church was also articulated as a factor. ‘In a synodal Church, a balance is struck between necessary unity and legitimate diversity so that the universal Church can hear our voice’, a delegate commented.

The text on priestly celibacy was modified to recommend the Vatican re-examine rather than rescind obligatory celibacy, a significant moderation in tone. Texts relating to women in ministry ultimately chose to advocate for diaconate rather priestly ordination. When time constraints prevented divergent views being adequately aired, the debate on joint consultation and decision-making was referred to the Synodal Committee for further consideration post-Assembly.

As the formal Assembly opening urged on Day One, synodality is not a super-human process. Striving for consensus necessarily draws on our deepest human instincts, light and shadow, and challenges us all to the spiritual discipline of letting go into a new way of seeing, and a new way of being.

Ultimately the Church hierarchy must wrestle with the relationship between universality and the principle of subsidiarity, especially as it intersects with the necessity to ‘proclaim the message of the Gospel in such a way that we do justice to the people in their respective life worlds’ and ‘listen anew to the Gospel of liberation’ (Assembly text).

The German Synodal Path was explicitly a response to the findings of what is known as the MHG study on sexual abuse. Four themes arising from the study focused the Synod:

  • Power and separation of powers – Joint participation and involvement in mission
  • Priestly existence today
  • Women in ministries and offices in the Church
  • Living love in sexuality and partnership

Unsurprisingly these themes are consistent with those arising from the consultations leading up to the Australian Plenary Council.

It was a privilege to experience the German Synod, and its attempts to forge a new path for a Church undermined by scandal, in a world beset by so many crises. The Lenten Scriptures were a valuable companion, especially those featuring experiences of exile and time in the desert. These texts evoke the experience of confusion, disorientation, and loss of certainty. Exile undoubtedly captures the experience of those who feel abandoned by the Church. It also suggests the experience of those who lament the Church they love and treasure.

Neither exile nor homecoming is ever a final destination for those faithful to the mission and the quest for the divine. On this synodal path as we commit to the call and demands of mission, we remain pilgrims. We alternate between exile and home, yet always confident we are accompanied by fellow travellers, held and propelled by the mystery of a loving, energising God.




Susan Sullivan BA Dip Ed MRE (Chicago) is a member of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn. She attended the final session of the GSW March 6-9 2023.

Main image: Synod members sing and pray during the final day of the 'Synadoler Weg' Catholic Reform Movement Congress in Frankfurt, Germany. (Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Susan Sullivan, Germany, Catholic, Church, Synod



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Existing comments

The German Synod seems to be going down the well-trodden path of the Church of England and the mainstream Protestant Churches of Europe and the USA. These are all Churches in rapid numerical decline. The Churches that seem to be growing are the Orthodox, Evangelical and Pentecostal ones. You almost raise a very important issue: do we want a Church which genuinely transforms society, or do we want one that conforms with the current political and societal norms? I would say that Jesus was profoundly transformative, as were his disciples and followers such as St Paul. I can see the seeds of what are happening in the Catholic Church in Germany today in what was coming out of postwar Cambridge, Union Theological Seminary, Heidelberg et sim. Don't forget that the German Churches, bar a few brave individuals who often died for their faith, by and large supported Hitler and all the evils of National Socialism. This is not a good foundation on which to build.

Edward Fido | 25 May 2023  

The author's enthusiastic account of her attendance at the final Assembly of the German Synodal Way opens with an affirmation by its co-chairs that aligns the German project's cause and proposals with "a prophetic voice" - one that "us takes into the reality of the world" whereby "we get touched by the Gospel and find ever new ways how to live the Gospel."
I confess to being mystified as to how accommodation of a secular zeitgeist increasingly enshrined in 'woke' ideology, corporate marketing strategy, media promotion and the legal system itself is a manifestation of a prophetic calling that originates in and is authorized by God; and how it can be compatible with the formation and mission of the People of God evident in the Old and New Testaments, and the teachings and practices of Christ who called the world to conversion.

The faith of the Church, as all post-Vatican II Popes have had reason to remind us, is "ever ancient and ever new" a reflection of Christ "yesterday, today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8) - not a construction fitted to contemporary ideologies that are calculated to replace a sacred vision of life with a secular one by displacing the accessible sources of sacred Scripture and apostolic tradition in the process of discerning the Church's identity and mission.

John RD | 26 May 2023  

“Central Committee of German Catholics” Can you imagine such a committee in Australia? Or a Church which benefits from a 8/9% Church Tax collected from every documented (Baptised) Catholic, whether practising or not? Or a fantastic universal free education system, so good there are only four Catholic secondary schools (Jesuit, of course)? I believe we have to see the German Synodal Way as a reflection of the German way of doing things. Frankly I think the Curia , despite Pope Francis’s efforts, are too culture-bound by the Imperial Roman way of giving orders. For the Vatican elite their bible is Canon Law. They like Bishops to be lawmen not shepherds who stay with their sheep - no matter how stroppy they might behave.

Joseph Quigley | 26 May 2023  

Thank you, Susan. It's so helpful to get an account of the German Assembly from someone who both reflect on the universal issues involved and can relate it so well to the Australian experience.

Denis Fitzgerald | 27 May 2023  

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