One pope, two meetings, and two synodal visions

Analysis

As dioceses around the world kick off the local phase of the Synod on Synodality, in Rome, Pope Francis met Monday with two bishops from Germany, where the local “synodal” process is already far advanced. 

The two bishops he received on Monday, papal nuncio to Germany Archbishop Nikola Eterović and Bishop Heiner Wilmer of Hildesheim, will have likely presented the pope with contrasting views on the German “synodal way.” And while how Francis chooses to handle the results of the German process remains anyone’s guess, his response on that issue will likely set the tone for the conclusion of the global synod in two years’ time.

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Since the German bishops convened their synodal process more than two years ago, their initiative has caused repeated clashes with Rome over its sweeping agenda for Church reform, and has courted criticism from among the bishops’ own ranks.

The plans for revisions along four key themes —  Church authority, sexual morality, priestly life, and the role of women in Church —  were deemed “ecclesiologically invalid” by the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops in 2019. S ince then the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has had to issue clarifications ruling out German plans for Church blessings for same-sex unions and for inter-communion with Protestants. 

Despite all that, the German process has pressed ahead with its agenda, voting Oct. 4 in favor of preliminary document which endorsed liturgical same-sex blessings and questioned the need for a sacramental priesthood at all. Those votee came along with a vote to extend the German process until 2023, in line with the global synod now underway.

Archbishop Eterović, who has been the pope’s nuncio to Germany since 2013, no doubt, updated the pope on all of that in their Monday meeting, while likely also discussing the ongoing German resistance to Francis’ own priorities.

In 2019, the pope wrote the entire Church in Germany ahead of the opening of the synodal way. In his letter, Francis warned the bishops to preserve unity with the universal Church, and to place the evangelization at the heart of their discussions. Several bishops then drafted a document for the synodal way which would have incorporated the pope’s call into the heart of the process - it was rejected by the bishops’ conference.

Just two weeks ago, another synodal amendment was offered, again seeking to put the pope’s priority for evangelization at the center of the synodal documents and discussion. It was first declared rejected, then adopted, but failed to attract majority support from participants.

Bishop Wilmer, meanwhile, will probably have sought to reassure the pope that, appearances and votes to one side, the German bishops remain committed to the pope’s agenda, and that the German synodal process is right in line with Francis’ desire for a global exercise in listening and discernment.

Wilmer himself has previously praised the pressure group Maria 2.0, which has mounted “church strikes” and liturgical boycotts to further their demands for the Church to ordain women. Last year, after meeting with members of the group, Wilmer said that while the synodal process “certainly will not be easy”, he looked forward to “a different Church” emerging in Germany that is “more participatory and more feminine.”

The kind of resolutions that eventually emerge from the German synod appear fairly easy to chart — in addition to calls for the blessing of same-sex unions, and the revisitng of the nature of sacramental orders, there will also be a push for a more democratized and lay-empowered model of Church governance and teaching authority. 

Far less certain is how these eventual conclusions will be greeted in Rome, and folded into the final meeting of the Synod on Syondality in two years’ time. 

Indeed, it’s a legitimate question to ask: how synodal is the German process, and how much actual “listening” is being done?

Dioceses in the United States are kicking off a round of local synodal sessions, even down to the parish level in some places, and seem at pains to take seriously the pope’s call for maximum dialogue and mutual encounter during the process. In contrast, the German synodal process was convened from the beginning as a purely national affair, and a fifty-fifty partnership with the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), a lay-lobby group which has long championed opposition to Church teaching across a range of issues.

Critics of the process, including from within the bishops’ conference, have warned that the German synod is, effectively, a closed shop, run by professional campaigners and lobbyists, which has instrumentalized the sexual abuse crisis to advance a particular agenda. 

In a lecture last month, Cardinal Walter Kasper, widely regarded as something of a mentor figure to Francis and leading liberal light in German Catholicism, said the German synodal agenda had “clearly deviated from the basic concerns of Vatican II.” 

“In the end, many wonder whether all this is still entirely Catholic,” Kasper concluded.

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If, in the final Roman reckoning, the heavily managed German conclusions are ushered to the top of the agenda, ahead of what is produced from the grassroots and unagendad sessions being undertaken elsewhere, it will fuel criticism and suspicion that the entire concept of a “global listening exercise” is a procedural mask for a minority agenda. Certainly there will be bishops attending the 2023 session with an eye on that suspicion.

Only the other hand, while Francis has repeatedly said he presumes no malice on the part of the German bishops, it is also possible he may decide their “synodal way,” with its repeated challenges to Vatican authority and rebuffs to his own priorities, are a drag on the authentic synodal process he wants to see. 

Enthusiasts of the world-wide synod on synodality insist it will prove to be an epoch-defining moment of change in the life of the Church, ushering in a new way of “being Church,” whatever that means. Those claims, and the ambitions they appear to represent, are, to borrow a phrase, big — if true.

True already, though, is that the Germans are currently modelling a new way of “being Church,” one which seems at odds with the kind of organic and evangelization-focused synodal mentality called for by Francis. The questions for the pope would seem to be: Is that a problem? If so, what will be the pontiff’s next response?