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🎈5 luftballons: What happened in Frankfurt

The delegates of Germany’s “synodal path” met in Frankfurt last week for a three-day meeting that aimed to set the agenda for future meetings, while signaling support for several controversial proposals connected to the synodal project.

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

The agenda of the meeting was simple: to debate and vote on topics for future discussion, based upon draft position papers developed by synod working groups.

Those papers could eventually form the basis for a final set of proposals from the synodal delegates — a group which includes both Germany’s bishops, and lay representatives from the Zdk — a quasi-official association of German lay Catholics.

There will be a lot of debate before final synod votes in 2023 — the papers drafted thus far are thought to represent starting points in the debate, not final outcomes.

By many accounts, the procedural rules governing last week’s meeting were confusing — with the results of some votes not always clear, even to the delegates in the room.

The assembly ended by running out of steam — a vote on the final agenda item under deliberation on Saturday could not be held, because so many people left the assembly, it was without a quorum.

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To explain the latest from the German synod, here’s 5 luftballons:

🎈 ‘New evangelization’ call accepted — but barely

Delegates to the synod voted on Thursday on a raft of proposed amendments to a proposed “preamble” for the eventual final document of the “synodal path.”

One proposed amendment called for the Church’s mission of evangelization to be placed at the center of the synod’s deliberations, texts, and implementation. 

The assembly hall of the German synodal path meeting in Frankfurt. Credit: Synodaler Weg/Maximilian von Lachner.

Ninety-four participants voted for the “evangelization amendment,” 86 voted against, and there were 15 abstentions. Synod organizers announced Thursday that the amendment, which needed a simple majority had passed. But after a few minutes, a moderator took the floor, announcing that the meeting’s rules required abstentions to count against the motion, which meant it had failed.

That decision was reportedly met with frustration by delegates — both those who had voted for the motion, and those frustrated by ambiguity in the rules. It was not until the next morning — Oct. 1 — that synod officials announced they should not have counted abstentions as “no” votes, and that the motion, which called for a stronger focus on evangelization at the synod, had passed — even with a minority of total voters supporting it.


🎈 Let’s talk about sex, synod

Nearly 80% of synod delegates voted to approve a text that would call for a “re-examination” of the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, and include a call for the liturgical blessings of same-sex couples. 

The vote was on an initial reading of the text — effectively, delegates voted to approve it for further discussion and deliberation in later stages of the synod process, not to give it final approval in its current form. But the number of delegates who voted in favor of the proposal, 168 of 214, suggests that the majority of voters next year might approve the proposal.

If that happens, the synod would find itself in direct confrontation with a March instruction from the CDF which directly prohibits such blessings. Some delegates say that confrontation is exactly what they’re looking for.

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🎈 Invisible bishops

Bishop Georg Batzing concelebrates Holy Mass at the German’s synod gathering Oct. 1. Credit: Synodaler Weg/Maximilian von Lachner.

Ultimately, the synod rules require that proposals receive a two-thirds majority of votes among the German bishops to be passed as norms for the Church in Germany.

The documents being discussed right now are effectively non-binding resolutions, and will remain that way unless they are passed, in one form or another, by two-thirds of the German bishops during the final session of the synod, which has been pushed back to 2023.

But for now it’s not possible to know whether bishops are voting along with the majority on controversial proposals. As tabulated in Frankfurt, votes did not indicate who they came from — whether, for example, the majority of bishops were among those voting to support the proposal for liturgical blessings of same-sex couples.

While some bishops have spoken out in favor of such proposals, it won’t be unil the end that a clear picture of what all the bishops think actually emerges.

During the Frankfurt assembly, there was some movement to see the votes take place by roll call, in order to know how bishops voted, but a proposal to that effect was defeated 163 to 28.

If the bishops do end up supporting proposals which contravene Catholic doctrine, or reject the direction and guidance of the Holy See, the possibility that the synod could lead to some formal schism or separation between Rome and Germany would be heightened, as the Vatican would almost certainly have to respond to a formal vote of bishops to oppose Catholic teaching. Pope Francis has already cautioned bishops to uphold doctrine, and urged them to focus the synod on evangelization.

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🎈 A priest forever?

German media reported Saturday that the assembly had voted to approve a document calling for the abolition of the sacramental priesthood in the life of the Church. 

Church officials, including German bishops’ conference president Bishop Georg Batzing, said after the meeting ended on Saturday that was a misunderstanding. Batzing said the discussion is about reimagining what the priesthood might look like, and how it would fit into a theology supportive of the universal priesthood of believers. 

The bishop said many delegates are concerned about abuse of power and office, and wanted to discuss new approaches to sacramental ministry. 

Some delegates have called for a kind of deprofessionalization of the clerical state, or one in which priests are not regarded as distinct from the lay communities they serve, as a way of addressing “structural power imbalances.” Others have called for an even more radical reimagining of the sacramental order, while numerous delegates have called for the ordination of women to the priesthood, which the Church says it does not have the power to do.

Bishop George Batzing Oct. 2. Credit: Synodaler Weg/Maximilian von Lachner.

A document addressing those issues was narrowly passed, by only one vote, during the meeting, and will be the subject of further debate. But Batzing, for his part, disputed the notion that such ideas could be called “abolishing the priesthood.”

🎈 What’s next?

The meeting on Saturday petered out during deliberations over a final agenda item; there was not a quorum to vote upon it because many delegates had already left the meeting. While officials say the meeting was a good step in the process, it also revealed deepening fault lines between Germany and Rome, and ambiguities in the procedural rules that will likely be discussed before the meeting’s next sessions.

There will be several sessions of the synod in 2022, and the final session of the assembly is now set for 2023. 

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