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Germany’s synodal way: How delegates voted and what’s next

Germany’s synodal way: How delegates voted and what’s next

The final plenary meeting of Germany’s “synodal way” ended Saturday after the approval of resolutions supporting women deacons, a re-examination of priestly celibacy, lay preaching at Masses, same-sex blessings, and “gender diversity.”

Participants in the March 9-11 meeting in Frankfurt — known as the fifth synodal assembly — discussed a total of 10 texts, adopting eight documents as official synodal way resolutions.

Nine of the texts were drafted by the forums dedicated to the synodal way’s four main topics: power, the priesthood, women in the Church, and sexuality. One text was presented by the synod’s organizing committee.

The synodal way, officially launched on Dec. 1, 2019, and subject to a series of Vatican interventions, formally ended with a service at Frankfurt Cathedral.

Here’s how the delegates voted, what participants are saying, and what’s coming next:

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Synodal way leaders speak at a press conference in Frankfurt, Germany, on March 11, 2023. © Synodal Way/Maximilian von Lachner.

⚡ How they voted: Power

Creating synodal councils in dioceses and parishes: The four-page text “Joint consultation and decision-making” was due to have its second reading March 10.

But the apostolic nuncio to Germany explicitly ruled out the creation of local synodal councils in a Feb. 27 address to the country’s bishops. Initial discussion at the synodal assembly suggested the document might not gain the necessary two-thirds majority support.

Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck and Claudia Lücking-Michel, the chairpersons of the synodal way forum on power, proposed postponing the vote. The assembly approved the motion.

The text will now be taken up by the “synodal committee,” a body of lay people and bishops that will meet over the next three years to discuss the implementation of the synodal way’s agenda.

⛪ How they voted: Priesthood

✔️  Systemic change to priestly ministry: The assembly adopted the document “Priestly existence today” March 9 by 166 votes in favor, 21 against, and 14 abstentions, with the necessary two-thirds majority among bishops.

The 20-page paper, known as a “foundational text,” calls for “substantial systemic change” to priestly ministry in Germany.

“More profound changes are needed in order to enable the Catholic theory and tradition of the priestly ministry to be truly inculturated into contemporary society, and many of these changes have universal Church dimensions,” it says.

✔️  Re-examining priestly celibacy: The assembly endorsed a second text March 9, “Celibacy of priests – encouragement and opening,” by 179 votes for, 10 against, and 16 abstentions.

The seven-page document asks Pope Francis to re-examine “the connection of the conferral of ordination with the commitment to celibacy” during the global synodal process.

✔️  Steps to prevent abuse: The assembly voted March 10 by 192 votes in favor and 4 abstentions to adopt the seven-page document “Prevention of sexualized violence, intervention and dealing with perpetrators in the Catholic Church.”

The text makes 10 proposals for preventing clerical abuse and ensuring the uniform treatment of perpetrators. These include assigning each offender a “case manager.”

♀️How they voted: Women in the Church

✔️  Women in sacramental ministry: On March 11, the assembly adopted the five-page document “Women in sacramental ministry – Perspectives for the universal church dialogue” by 177 in favor, 12 against, and 11 abstentions.

Forty-two bishops backed the document, with 10 against and 6 abstentions.

The text asks the German bishops to “advocate in Rome for the admission of women to the sacramental diaconate for all those particular Churches which desire this on the basis of their pastoral situation.”

Regarding “women’s access to the whole sacramental ministry,” it proposes that “the pastoral considerations and theological research from the context of the German local Church” be “introduced into the universal Church discourse at all levels of the international consultations.”

The ballot result was followed by a standing ovation lasting several minutes.

✔️ Lay homilies at Mass: On March 10, participants backed the text “Proclamation of the Gospel by lay people in word and Sacrament” by 169 votes for, 17 against, and 17 abstentions.

The six-page document says that “the German bishops should draw up a particular norm and obtain permission for this from the Holy See, according to which the homily can also be taken over in Eucharistic celebrations on Sundays and feast days by theologically and spiritually qualified faithful commissioned by the bishop.”

Two passages were deleted from the text before it was approved. One said that “possibilities for revitalizing lay confession in the context of spiritual guidance are also to be discussed,” and the other that “the importance of blessing and anointing the sick with regard to all pastoral carers who are active in attending the sick is also to be considered.”

✔️ Safeguarding women: The only text to receive just its first reading, “Measures against abuse of women in the Church,” passed March 10 with 192 votes in favor and 6 abstentions.

The six-page text outlines 10 proposals to help the “large numbers of adults, and adult women in particular” who are “victims of spiritual or sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.”

The measures include “establishing uniform rules of procedure in cases of sexual abuse of adults in pastoral care relationships, or in other dependent relationships (e.g. Church employees) as well as clear, comprehensible recordkeeping, including a note in offenders’ personnel files.”

How they voted: Sexuality

✔️ Same-sex blessings: The five-page document “Blessing ceremonies for couples who love each other” was adopted March 10 by 176 votes for, 14 against, and 12 abstentions.

The bishops supported the text by 38 votes in favor, 9 against, and 11 abstentions.

The document — which contradicts a 2021 Vatican declaration that “the Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex” — calls on bishops to “officially allow blessing ceremonies in their dioceses for couples who love each other but to whom sacramental marriage is not accessible or who do not see themselves at a point of entering into a sacramental marriage.”

“This also applies to same-sex couples on the basis of a re-evaluation of homosexuality as a norm variant of human sexuality,” it explains.

The text asks for the publication, in consultation with the German Liturgical Institute, of a manual containing blessing ceremonies for various kinds of couples — “remarried divorcees, same-sex couples, couples after civil marriage” — in “the context of services of the word or the Eucharist.”

✔️ Embracing ‘gender diversity’: On March 11, delegates passed the text “Dealing with gender diversity” by 170 votes in favor, 8 against, and 19 abstentions.

The bishops backed the document by 38 in favor, 7 against, and 13 abstentions.

The seven-page document argues that within the Church, “intersex and transgender individuals face a heightened risk of becoming victims of sexualized and/or spiritualized violence, since the Church’s doctrine and Her law, given the definition of binarity under natural law, do not cater to their identities at all, assigning them highly-precarious, vulnerable positions at best, whilst offender strategies target such vulnerable people.”

The text says that it “should be possible to leave the gender entry blank in the register of baptisms for intersex children (where their gender identity is unclear), or to enter it as ‘diverse,’ as is now envisaged in German law.”

The paper adds that “all ordained ministries and pastoral vocations in the Church should be open to the intersex and transgender baptized and confirmed who sense a calling for themselves.”

After the document was approved, there was sustained applause, with one delegate unfurling a Progress Pride flag.

✔️ ‘Institutional modifications’: On March 11, participants also adopted a document presented by the synodal way’s organizing committee, “The Synodal Path of the Catholic Church in Germany,” by 177 in favor and 5 against, with 10 abstentions.

Forty-two bishops backed the document, with 4 against and 8 abstentions.

The “preamble text” says: “We are convinced that the crisis of the Church, which is evident in the crimes of sexualized violence and their cover-up, is not the end of the Church, despite the heavy guilt.”

“Even in this deep crisis of faith there is the chance of conversion and a new beginning. The Catholic Church has lost credibility in many areas, which she hopes to regain. This can only happen through a change which, in addition to a changed attitude, also takes institutional modifications into consideration.”

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Synodal way participants Lukas Nusser, Vera Scheuermeyer, and Gregor Podschun at the final synodal assembly in Frankfurt, Germany, on March 10, 2023. © Synodal Way/Maximilian von Lachner.

What participants are saying

Bishop Georg Bätzing, chairman of the German bishops’ conference, expressed relief at the end of the synodal assembly, saying that “a big stone has fallen from my heart.”

“The synodal way is not a toothless tiger. The synodal way is a concretization of what Pope Francis means by synodality. Above all, it is an expression of a lively, colorful, and diverse Church,” he commented.

But fellow synodal way co-president Irme Stetter-Karp said that “without a doubt, I would have liked more.”

“Overall, the synodal way shows a great change that cannot be appreciated highly enough: It is a great success that all the major decision-making issues are now openly on the table,” said the president of the powerful lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK).

ZdK vice-president Thomas Söding argued that the synodal way had achieved results, even if they were “not enough by a long shot.”

“We have shown: Discrimination against women in the Catholic Church is an outrage,” he reflected, “And we have identified the Church’s traditional sexual teachings as a major problem. That is why we have said that homosexual and queer persons also belong entirely and that the Catholic Church must find forms to welcome and bless them. The Church is no longer interested in what happens in bedrooms if these are really couples who love each other.”

Gregor Podschun, president of the Federation of German Catholic Youth (BDKJ), described the same-sex blessings vote as “a big step forward,” but questioned whether the initiative had done enough to tackle abuse within the Church, as highlighted by a landmark 2018 document known as the MHG Study.  

“The synodal way has made visible to a broad public how people think of their Church and how they want to shape it,” he said. “However, we failed in the key area where the synodal way began, namely after the study on abuse, which showed the systemic causes of sexualized violence.”

“It is precisely the risk factor of a lack of division of power and authority in the Church that we have not dealt with and eliminated. This leaves us as Catholic youth associations at a loss as to what we can do on this point with a view to coming to terms with abuse.”

Eichstätt’s Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke, one of the minority of German bishops critical of the initiative, said that dissenters from the majority opinion had been “verbally slapped” during the assembly’s discussions.

“I take away many questions from Frankfurt that leave me pondering and also perplexed,” he wrote on his diocesan website. “The excessive euphoria after the adoption of various papers, for example on the diaconate of women, seemed to me as if the synodal assembly could introduce these changes in the Church (whereas the diaconate could anyway only be the first step towards opening up all ministries, as was formulated) …”

“In my opinion, the Roman-world Church objections have not been sufficiently considered, let alone clarified. It seems as if Rome does not play a role. I still do not know which concrete participation model, which competencies, are to be connected with this path. I am curious to see how everything will be brought into the global synodal path."

The synodal way cross. © Synodal Way/Maximilian von Lachner.

What’s next

All the synodal way’s documents will be taken up by a synodal committee consisting of 27 diocesan bishops, 27 members chosen by the ZdK, and 20 members elected at the final plenary assembly. The date and location of the committee’s first meeting are yet to be announced.

The initiative’s resolutions will be promoted by the German delegation at October’s synod on synodality in Rome. At their spring plenary assembly, the German bishops chose three delegates (subject to papal confirmation) for the gathering of the world’s bishops. They are Bishop Bätzing, Augsburg’s Bishop Bertram Meier, and Essen’s Bishop Overbeck.

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