A turbulent three-day meeting of the German “synodal way” ended on Saturday with the adoption of a controversial proposal to create a permanent body composed of lay people and bishops to oversee the local Church.
The synodal way is a multi-year gathering of bishops and lay people to discuss four main topics: power, the priesthood, women in the Church, and sexuality in the wake of a devastating abuse crisis and amid a mass exodus of German Catholics.
Participants at the meeting in Frankfurt — known as the fourth synodal assembly — voted on Sept. 10 for the creation of an “advisory and decision-making body,” known as the synodal council, to “advise on major developments in the Church and in society.”
It will also “take fundamental decisions of supra-diocesan significance on pastoral planning, future perspectives and budgetary issues of the Church that are not decided at the level of the dioceses.”
The vote followed a Vatican declaration in July that the synodal way has no power “to compel the bishops and the faithful to adopt new ways of governance and new approaches to doctrine and morals.”
“Prior to an agreed understanding at the level of the universal Church, it would not be permissible to initiate new official structures or doctrines in the dioceses, which would represent a wound to ecclesial communion and a threat to the unity of the Church,” it said.
The Frankfurt assembly was almost derailed on its first day, when a document calling for changes to Catholic sexual ethics failed to gain the necessary two-thirds majority among the bishops. The vote was followed by protests and walkouts. The meeting’s schedule was temporarily suspended while bishops and lay delegates attended separate crisis meetings.
Organizers changed the assembly’s rules so that votes would no longer be cast anonymously but by name. They also increased the speaking time in debates before votes from one minute to two minutes. Over the next two days, all the remaining texts were endorsed by both lay delegates and bishops.
A total of 14 texts were due to be discussed at the assembly, with nine having their second reading. But only eight texts were ultimately considered and just four passed their second reading. When endorsed at the second reading, draft documents become official resolutions of the synodal way.
⚡ How they voted: Power
✔️ Creating a permanent synodal council: Delegates endorsed a two-page document entitled “Sustainable strengthening of Synodality: A Synodal Council for the Catholic Church in Germany” on its second reading. Ninety-three percent of the more than 200 synodal way members present approved the document, including 88% of bishops.
The document has been strongly criticized by the theologian Cardinal Walter Kasper, who has said that it threatens to destroy the structure “that Christ wanted for his Church.”
⛪ How they voted: Priesthood
✔️ ‘Non-heterosexual priests’: More than 90% of participants endorsed a five-page text, currently only in German, called “Removal of taboos and normalization - votes on the situation of non-heterosexual priests.” It was facing its first reading.
“The synodal assembly is aware of the partly precarious situation of non-heterosexual priests and wants to contribute to a removal of taboos and normalization of their situation,” the document says.
“The goal is a Church in which everywhere and at all levels not the sexual orientation — whether outed or not — but the human and professional suitability determines access to and continuance in the Church office.”
♀️ How they voted: Women in the Church
✔️ Women in ministries: Participants approved a text on the role of women in the Church that challenges “the exclusion of women from the sacramental ministry.” Almost 92% of members voted in favor of a 31-page document entitled “Women in ministries and offices in the Church,” which was facing its second reading.
The text does not call directly for the ordination of women as deacons and priests. But it asserts that “for generations, many women have known that they were called by God to be deaconesses or priestesses.”
It proposes that “in future, it should no longer be gender that decides on the allocation of ministries, but the vocation, abilities, and skills that serve the proclamation of the Gospel in our time.”
✔️ Proclaiming the Gospel: A seven-page text, currently available only in German and entitled “Proclamation of the Gospel by Women in Word and Sacrament,” passed its first reading, endorsed by 93% of delegates. The text calls for greater opportunities for women to preach the Gospel, including at Masses.
⚤ How they voted: Sexuality
✔️ Gender: Almost 95% of delegates backed a four-page document, currently only available in German, entitled “Dealing with gender diversity.” The text, which was facing its first reading, challenges “normative natural law gender anthropology.”
“Catholic institutions, Church leaders, and Catholic politicians must not continue to disparage our trans and intersex … brothers and sisters in faith, especially under the blanket accusation of ‘gender ideology’ or the ‘LGBTIQ agenda,’” says the text, which was facing its first reading.
✔️ Changes to Church employment law: Delegates voted by 95% in favor of the four-page text known as “Basic Order of Church Service.” The document, which passed its second reading, calls for reform of the employment law of the German Catholic Church, the nation’s second-largest employer after the state.
It argues that the ecclesiastical labor law, set out in a document called the “Basic Order of Church Service in the Framework of Church Employment Relationships,” is “discriminatory with regard to employees who live contrary to the traditional sexual morals of the Church.”
✔️ Changing the Catechism: A four-page document calling for “a re-evaluation of homosexuality in the Magisterium” was endorsed by a total of 92% of delegates and 83% of bishops.
The text, which was facing its second reading, says that “Paragraphs 2357-2359 as well as 2396 (homosexuality and chastity), amongst others, of the Catechism of the Catholic Church should be revised as part of this re-evaluation of homosexuality.”
It adds that “the Church should confess that She has caused people suffering and violated their dignity in many places through Her teaching and practice in relation to homosexuality.”
❌ Revising sexual ethics: The assembly failed to pass a text calling for a change in the Church’s approach to sexual ethics, after the resolution did not gain enough support from bishops.
The 30-page document, entitled “Life in succeeding relationships – The principles of renewed sexual ethics,” argues that “it will not be possible to reorient pastoral care without re-defining the emphasis of the Church’s sexual teaching to a significant degree.”
The text, which was facing its second reading, adds that it is “urgently necessary to overcome some of the restrictions in questions of sexuality, for reasons of sexual science as well as theology.”
The assembly in Frankfurt will be followed by smaller meetings of members of the initiative’s four “synodal forums,” dedicated respectively to power, the priesthood, women in the Church, and sexuality.
The German bishops will make their ad limina visit to Rome in November. Bishops’ conference chairman Bishop Georg Bätzing has said that he will raise the conclusions of the rejected document on sexual ethics with Vatican officials during the trip.
All synodal way members will gather again in Frankfurt on March 9-11 for final votes on the initiative’s remaining documents, ahead of the meeting of the world’s bishops in Rome on synodality in October 2023.