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Sub Petro? Marx, Hollerich, and the 'synodal path'

Delegates to the German “synodal way” voted last week in favor of a document calling for liturgical blessings of same-sex couples and the sacramental ordination of women. The day before, a Luxembourg cardinal called for a “fundamental revision of doctrine” on homosexuality. And Germany’s most prominent cardinal, on the same day, gave the controversial view that permitting married men to become priests might ameliorate the sexual abuse crisis.

Of course, it seems certain that the Church will not adopt the positions called for by the synodal path and the cardinals in question. 

That reality puts German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Luxembourg Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, and the German synodal path in something of a corner. Each has directly challenged established positions of the Church - doctrines and disciplines Pope Francis has repeatedly affirmed - and as such, put the credibility of their leadership at stake.

In short, Marx, Hollerich, and German synod organizers this month have taken positions at odds with the pope, while claiming to operate under the mantle of his leadership. And in each case, the game seems to be nearing its end. 

Pope Francis, Marx, Hollerich, and synod organizers may soon face the same questions: How long can voices at odds with the pope continue to claim the mantle of his leadership? What is the cost for making a set of long-simmering breaks all the more explicit, and what are the consequences of maintaining the status quo?

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The organizers of the German synodal path have long claimed to represent the positions of ordinary practicing Catholics in Germany, and the positions of their pastors and bishops. The synod is mostly organized by the ZdK, a kind of semi-official lay organization in Germany. ZdK leaders say their efforts reflect the sentiments of most lay Catholics, and are aimed at addressing the culture of clericalism that facilitated the sexual abuse crisis in the Church.

In principle, unraveling an intransigent clericalist culture is the kind of the thing that Holy See has urged, amid the pope’s emphasis on synodality and the Church’s overall response to clerical sexual abuse in recent years. But the synodal path has not proven to be about lay consultation on governance or administrative issues — it has instead proven to be, repeatedly, a set of challenges to the sacramental and ecclesiological doctrine of the Catholic Church, some of which have been directly censured by the Vatican. 

Officials and participants of Germany’s “synodal path” assembly Oct. 2, 2021. Credit: Synodaler Weg/Maximilian von Lachner

When it began in 2019, some bishops and Catholic commentators called for the Holy See to shut down the synodal path completely. One American bishop has even published a lengthy theological response to the German synod’s deliberations

But while Pope Francis has made a series of interventions into the affair, he has stopped short of calling it to a close. 

Nevertheless, it has also become obvious that the non-Catholic doctrinal pronouncements of the synodal path are not actually going to change anything in the Church. The CDF and other Vatican bodies have shut down the most extreme, or responded to them with doctrinal statements that run counter the synodal path’s advocacy. 

The consequence is that growing numbers of both practicing Catholics and German bishops have begun to lose interest in the whole affair. Some German Catholics decided early on that the process has little to do with them and their faith, and others — even those calling for radical doctrinal shifts — have seemingly begun to realize that much of their caucusing will amount to nothing.

As a result, a growing number of delegates has taken to skipping sessions and absenting themselves from votes. The assemblies have had difficulty, in some cases, even getting a quorum. 

The texts passed last week are draft texts, and would have to be approved by Germany’s bishops, sometime in 2023, to become official documents of the synodal path. While some of the most vocal German bishops have kept up support for the synodal process, most are pragmatic enough to avoid pitching a losing battle with Rome — even those who’d like to see a path of doctrinal “development.” 

In short, three years into the German synodal process, and with more than a year before the final and deliberative votes on the process, it seems most likely that the synodal path is going to run out of steam, or collapse under its own weight — losing any support from practicing Catholics it might have mustered, and failing to get votes of approval from enough German bishops for its documents to have any actual force. 

Rome does not seem likely to intervene every time synod participants pass non-binding documents that still must go before the bishops. Until 2023, the synod will probably carry on with little or no Vatican intervention — Rome will probably allow the thing to take its course, unless it seems that bishops with actual authority are on the edge of actual votes that might constitute a schism. 

And in Frankfurt, where meetings are taking place, the synod has taken on so many issues, and has pushed them so far, it now seems plausible the synodal path will fail to achieve even the modest disciplinary and transparency agenda that its most moderate participants hoped to see passed. As that becomes more clearly the case, with little to lose or gain, the ZdK agenda-setters are likely to push harder for doctrinal changes, hoping to prompt enough pushback from Rome to position themselves as a persecuted voice of the faithful. If the Vatican doesn’t take the bait, the synod may well remembered as a quixotic band of activists pushing an agenda that few Massgoing Catholics actually wanted.

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Luxembourg’s Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich is president of the confederation of European bishops’ conferences. The cardinal is no stranger to controversy - he has previously expressed openness to the priestly ordination of women and to the liturgical blessings of same-sex couples. 

Last week, the cardinal took a step further, telling the German Church-owned news agency KNA that Catholic teaching on the morality of homosexual acts needs a “fundamental revision,” because the “sociological-scientific foundation of this teaching is no longer correct.”

Of course, moralists have responded that Catholic moral doctrine is derived from the Church’s understanding of divine revelation in Scripture and Tradition, rather than from sociological reflection. But while Hollerich’s remarks have prompted both international headlines and theological pushback, they have not yet seen a Vatican response.

The cardinal is well-known, and apparently much beloved, by Pope Francis, his confrere in the Society of Jesus. The pontiff in 2019 made Hollerich the Church’s first cardinal from Luxembourg. And last year, even after Hollerich had called into question Catholic doctrine on holy orders, Pope Francis named him the “relator general” of the Church’s synod on synodality — the final report of the “synod on synodality” will be drafted with Hollerich’s supervision.

While Francis has said he wants to encourage open dialogue among Church leaders, it’s worth asking whether Hollerich’s most recent comments will begin to test the pope’s commitment. 

Since the Vatican has tried to emphasize that the “synod on synodality” will not challenge Catholic doctrine, it will no doubt represent a problem for Francis among many of the world’s bishops that one of his top synodal officials has effectively repudiated Catholic sexual morality.

The cardinal’s goal might be simply to move the “Overton window” on issues of sexual morality — in which case, he can call it a win that he “started a conversation” even if the Vatican shuts it down. 

But the cardinal might have leveraged his leadership portfolio on that prospect more than he expected. 

If the Vatican intends seriously to shut down the movement toward same-sex liturgical blessings in Europe, and to keep conservative African and American bishops participative in the synod — the pontiff’s magnum opus — Francis will almost certainly need to take the wind out of Hollerich’s sails.

And Hollerich knows that Francis has taken pains to affirm Catholic doctrine on sexuality, even while calling for more engaged pastoral ministry. As a matter of practical pastoral care, if the Vatican hopes to engage meaningfully in pastoral and evangelical work among people who identify as gay, Pope Francis will have to decide whether Hollerich’s advocacy is presenting a set of false expectations that will cause real damage when they’re dashed. 

Still, as long as Hollerich continues to expressly reject Catholic doctrine, while remaining the synod’s relator general and president of European bishops’ confederation, he can claim that the Church is undergoing a doctrinal development on sexual morality, and claim that his continuance in office is an implicit seal of Francis’ approval.

As long as Hollerich continues to lead, he can claim a win. The pontiff faces the prospect of deciding how long the unity among the world’s bishops can endure that situation — and deciding whether Hollerich’s advocacy is both a source of scandal among the kind of practicing Catholics who expect doctrinal fidelity from the pope’s closest collaborators, and a source of potential harm for gay Catholics, who want at least honesty, rather than false promises, about what the Church teaches, and what it doesn’t.  

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Cardinal Marx’s situation is not the same as Hollerich’s. While Marx has certainly dabbled in doctrinal criticism in the past, his most recent headlines come from calling into a question a purely disciplinary matter in the life of the Church — priestly celibacy. 

But the cardinal framed that issue in connection to the Church’s sexual abuse crisis, in a way that will likely provoke frustration among some victims’ advocates. 

Talking about the sexual abuse crisis, Marx said that priestly celibacy should become optional, rather than mandatory, because some priests are “lonely,” and that, for many priests, marriage “would be better for their life.”

In recent years, some Catholics have argued that pitching an end to celibacy in response to the sexual abuse crisis is disrespectful both to victims, and to women. 

The argument says that sexual abuse doesn’t happen because a person isn’t having sex — that abuse has to do with power, manipulation, and control, not sexual urges. Moreover, the argument says, the notion that having a wife would resolve the impulses to abuse instrumentalizes woman, and marriage itself, disrespectfully and inaccurately. A wife is not a remedy to abusive tendencies, or to the vices and psychological maladies which occasion them.

Whether Marx’s remarks are ultimately taken as a gaffe along those lines remains to be seen. But it is sure that the cardinal has now made several pushes to see an end to clerical celibacy, and Pope Francis has not taken the bait on any of them. It seems clear by now that if Francis was planning to initiate an experiment with more married Latin Catholic priests, he would have done it already. 

Cardinal Reinhard Marx. Credit: Wolfgang Roucka, Erzbischöfliches Ordinariat München/CC BY-SA 3.0

If Marx continues the push, with no practical or meaningful response from Francis, he runs the risk of demonstrating that his much-vaunted influence on Francis is actually limited. This puts Marx in an interesting position — eventually, and probably soon, he will likely have to decide whether it is better to toe the line a bit more, and allow the perception of his influence to remain intact, or if he prefers to continue pushing on issues proven to be non-starters, and become perceived as increasingly irrelevant to Francis.

Francis has traditionally given Marx a long leash, and will almost certainly continue doing so. But Marx himself has to decide why exactly the pontiff has given him so much rope, and what exactly he ought to do with it. 


Hollerich, Marx, and the German synodal assembly’s leadership have all taken pains to frame themselves as “Pope Francis Catholics,” even when their issues and viewpoints are out of step with the pope’s leadership in the Vatican. For the most part, they’ve managed to be outspoken against Catholic doctrine or discipline without losing voice, influence, or at least attention. 

While the pontiff has brought down few hammers, his Vatican has made enough steps that it’s clear what Francis will and won’t do with the rest of his papacy. And the idea that Hollerich, Marx, and German synod leaders are aligned with Pope Francis is wearing thin. 

As a result, each is getting closer to a moment of choice: actually align with Francis, or make a deliberative break, consequences be damned. The ZdK seem likely to go with the break, and with it the German synodal path. For Marx and Hollerich though, the path they’ll choose seems still unclear.

And is often the case, the pope’s next move on those fronts is really anybody’s guess.

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