German Catholic leaders urged participants in Europe’s synodal continental assembly Monday to consider adopting the goals of the country’s controversial “synodal way.”
Bishop Georg Bätzing, chairman of the German bishops’ conference, and Irme Stetter-Karp, president of the lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), told delegates at the meeting in Prague Feb. 6 that the Church needed structural changes in response to systemic abuse.
Speaking on the first full day of the meeting, they insisted that the Church in Germany wanted to pursue reforms in unity with Catholics in other European countries, rather than taking a “special path” (Sonderweg) that critics say could lead to schism.
Bishop Bätzing said: “We started a synodal way in 2019 because a scientific investigation into abuse in our Church showed us: There is serious individual guilt; far too many clergy have abused their power and those responsible, not least bishops, have covered up the misdeeds. But there are also systemic causes of the abuse of power. We cannot deny them. We are determined to draw consequences: spiritual and structural.”
“The situations in which we live in Europe are different. We need convincing answers about how we can rediscover and proclaim the Gospel in these situations. But we must not take special paths. Together we walk the path that God’s Spirit leads our Church: in many places, with many people, in many forms. It is a kairos [opportune moment] of the Church to discover and shape its synodality.”
Bätzing then outlined six priorities, in response to a question in the Document for the Continental Stage (DCS), the working text for the current stage of the global synodal process, which asks “which intuitions resonate most strongly with the lived experiences and realities” of the local Church.
The German bishop said: “We hear that women expect more participation and involvement — and that this is a concern of the whole Church. We hear that the faithful want to have a voice when their affairs are deliberated and decided. We hear that new forms are being sought to shape the priestly office.”
“We hear that strengthening ecumenism is a heartfelt concern of the whole Catholic Church. We hear that the Church should be open to people whose lifestyles do not conform to the Catechism’s norms, including queer persons.”
He added: “We hear and understand these concerns. I share them personally. I see my task as president of the German bishops’ conference as bringing them into the worldwide process that is meant to renew the Church.”
In her address, Irme Stetter-Karp noted that a “murderous war” is raging in Europe.
“We need here in Prague a sign of solidarity with the victims of wars, a sign of hope for peace. We need it not only in the form of declarations. We need it in the way we are Church,” she said.
“We need ways to sincerely confess our guilt and strengthen our unity. We need ways to achieve gender equality. We need ways to welcome people. Our goal is to overcome clericalism and strengthen our shared responsibility to proclaim the Gospel. We do not need uniformity. We need unity in diversity. Let us search together for the best answers.”
Urging Catholics to acknowledge systemic abuse, she said: “Pope Francis has made clear: Synodality must begin ‘from below,’ always anew; only then will there be ‘synodality from above.’ The bishops bear the responsibility for leadership: not alone, but together, united with the whole people of God.”
The Vatican has repeatedly intervened in Germany’s synodal way, a multi-year initiative bringing together bishops and select lay people to discuss four topics — power, the priesthood, women in the Church, and sexuality — in the wake of a devastating abuse crisis.
In the latest intervention last month, senior Vatican cardinals told synodal way organizers they had no authority to establish a permanent body of lay people and bishops to oversee the Church in Germany.
The synodal way has also been criticized by bishops in other European nations, including Poland and the Nordic countries, some of whom are also attending the Prague meeting.
Around 200 delegates from more than 40 countries — including Ukraine and Russia — are taking part in person in the Feb. 5-9 gathering, alongside 390 online participants.
The meeting is divided into two parts: an ecclesial assembly, involving “the entire People of God,” followed by an episcopal assembly consisting of the presidents of Europe’s bishops’ conferences.
The week-long discussions will be summed up in a final document, created with the help of a six-person redaction committee. Bishops’ conference presidents will publish a separate commentary on the final document.
Monday’s session began with a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, general rapporteur of October’s synod on synodality.
The assembly then heard speeches from host Archbishop Jan Graubner of Prague, Archbishop Gintaras Grušas, president of the Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Europe (CCEE), and Cardinal Mario Grech, general secretary of the Synod.
Cardinal Grech defended the synodal process against accusations that it undermines bishops, the subject of a recent letter from synod organizers.
He said: “I understand that there are interpretations of synodality that set the People of God against the hierarchy, the sensus fidei against the Magisterium; in the same way that there are interpretations of collegiality that oppose it to the primacy. These are visions that strongly conditioned the first post-conciliar period, when the category of the People of God was used in ideological terms, as a banner of a Church ‘from below.’”
“This is not the way the Synod is going. On the contrary, the choice to bind the consultation to the People of God in the particular Churches responds to the desire not only to promote the People of God as the subject of the synodal process, but to guard the proper function of the bishops. One thing is certain: there cannot be a constitutively synodal Church that is not also and always a Church that is constitutively hierarchical.”
Mauricio López Oropeza, the coordinator of the Synod Secretariat’s task force for the continental stage, spoke about the assembly’s methodology and the Czech philosopher Msgr. Tomáš Halík offered a “spiritual introduction.”
This was followed by 13 addresses from national delegations, in alphabetical order, beginning with Albania.
The next to speak was the Austrian delegation, led by bishops’ conference president Archbishop Franz Lackner, who underlined that the Church was both essentially synodal and essentially hierarchical, and there should be no winners and losers in the decision-making process.
The Austrian delegation’s “position paper” noted tensions in the Church.
“There are clear continental and regional differences, especially between the local churches in Western and Eastern Europe,” it said. “The desire for an ‘inclusive’ Church is in tension with the desire to hold unchanged to Church structures and doctrines. Tensions are evident between clergy and laity.”
“The interpretation of the ‘signs of the times’ is heterogeneous: Some express concern about adapting to the ‘Zeitgeist’ and detect a ‘circling of the Church around itself,’ while for others the ‘aggiornamento’ is going too slowly.”
After lunch, participants split into 14 discussion groups of 12 delegates according to “language, nation, and marital status,” before returning to the main assembly to share their reflections.
Preaching at the assembly’s opening Mass in Prague’s Premonstratensian Church on Feb. 5, Archbishop Graubner offered a critical assessment of the unfolding synodal process in Europe.
“For months we have been trying, following the invitation of Pope Francis, to meet in an atmosphere open to the Holy Spirit, learning to listen to each other,” the Prague archbishop said. “We can say that we have understood everything that oppresses or hurts many people, what they need and want within the Church community, and what they would like to change.”
“However, we failed to discover the sensus fidei of the faithful. It is clear that many people, while working actively in the Church, are familiar neither with the Bible, nor with the teachings of the Church, and this does not really come out in favor of our work.”
He added that it was “now paramount to listen to God’s voice and ask ourselves: what is Jesus, who founded the Church community and invited us to join it, telling us?”
Swiss Catholic media reported that police visited the lobby of the hotel where the assembly is taking place Feb. 6 and ejected LGBT activist and abuse survivor Ladislav Koubek, who had been handing out an open letter to participants.