In the beginning, it seemed that Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich didn’t have a bad word to say about Germany’s “synodal way.”
In a September 2020 interview, the Archbishop of Luxembourg expressed “great respect” for the initiative bringing together bishops and lay people to discuss sweeping changes to Church teaching and practice against the backdrop of a devastating abuse crisis.
Hollerich said he appreciated the participants’ willingness “to ask very big questions.”
But in interview after interview this year, the cardinal has criticized the project, which formally ended in March with the endorsement of women deacons, married priests, lay preaching at Masses, and same-sex blessings.
How has Hollerich’s view of the synodal way evolved? And what might be the reasons for the change?
From respect to reservations
Hollerich’s initial expression of respect for the synodal way did not seem surprising. He had, after all, emerged from the German theological world.
He grew up in Vianden in northeastern Luxembourg, on the frontier with Germany. After joining the Jesuits, he spent a couple of years studying theology in the German city of Frankfurt. Following his priestly ordination, he took a postgraduate course in German language and literature at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.
When he returned from a long stint in Japan to lead the Archdiocese of Luxembourg in 2011, Hollerich would have quickly become aware of what was brewing across the border in Germany.
His activities in three European Catholic bodies — the Conference of European Justice and Peace Commissions, the Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Europe, and the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union — would have brought him into contact with German Church leaders. Speaking fluent German would have enabled him to build a rapid rapport.
In 2021, Hollerich received a life-changing papal appointment: He was named general rapporteur of the synod on synodality. Almost overnight, he went from being a well-connected European bishop to a major figure on the global Catholic stage.
With his newfound prominence came greater scrutiny. In a February 2022 interview with Germany’s KNA, Hollerich ignited a firestorm when he suggested that the “sociological-scientific foundation” of Church teaching on homosexuality was “no longer correct.”
The cardinal’s comments were widely seen as aligning him with the synodal way, which around that time endorsed a draft text calling for “a re-evaluation of homosexuality as a normal variant of human sexuality.”
In a sign of how closely Hollerich and the German bishops were identified, Cardinal George Pell urged the Vatican’s doctrinal dicastery “to intervene and pronounce judgment on the wholesale and explicit rejection of the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexual ethics by Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, S.J., of Luxembourg, and Bishop George Bätzing, president of the German bishops’ conference.”
But while the KNA interview was seen as Hollerich’s moment of maximum identification with the synodal way, there is a nuance. In the course of the interview, he also expressed doubt about the synodal way’s single-minded pursuit of its goals.
He lamented the stark divisions in the German Church, saying: “You can have different opinions and still belong to the same family. But if you have a strong opinion every day, it’s hard. I believe that we should rather hold back a bit and stay together on the path.”
“If we want to walk a synodal path, there are people who walk on the right and people who walk on the left, but the important thing is that we stay together on the same path.”
Hollerich developed this thought in another February 2022 interview. He told the German magazine Herder Korrespondenz that he would have nothing against the introduction of women deacons.
“But reforms need a stable foundation,” he said. “If the pope were now simply to allow viri probati [the ordination of mature, married men as priests] and deaconesses, the danger of schism would be great.”
“After all, it’s not just about the German situation, where perhaps only a small part would break away. In Africa or in countries like France, many bishops would possibly not go along with it.”
This year, Hollerich has moved from nuanced reflections on Church unity to an outright critique of the German path.
In a January interview with the French Catholic television channel KTO, he endorsed Pope Francis’ analysis of the synodal way as a top-down venture that brought together the bishops and a lay elite while failing to consult the whole People of God in Germany (whom the pope addressed in a carefully crafted 2019 letter).
Hollerich also accused the synodal way of failing to focus on the Church’s mission.
That same month, the Spanish newspaper El Debate asked the cardinal what he thought of a Vatican declaration that the synodal way had no power “to compel the bishops and the faithful to adopt new ways of governance and new approaches to doctrine and morals.”
“The note also states that the German Church is to deliver the result of its synodal journey to the global synod,” Hollerich observed. “This is one contribution among many others. What is important in this note is the reminder that all particular Churches and all episcopal conferences must know how to walk together.”
Asked if this was not currently the case, Hollerich replied: “When the German synodal way began, I regretted that the neighboring countries were not invited to participate together in this process. If it had been done, it would have been less radical.”
He added: “I understand the German bishops: The sexual abuse cases are doing enormous damage in Germany. The credibility of the Church has been lost and I see that the bishops want to react.”
In an interview this week with Italy’s Corriere della Sera, Hollerich was asked if Vatican interventions in the synodal way underlined the point that “a ‘national’ Church cannot go its own way.”
“Yes. A national Church does not exist,” the cardinal said. “We have to walk together, as a Catholic Church, and not say ‘we do this and then you see what you will do,’ no. This is not the sense of communion of Churches and between Churches.”
“We [the global synodal process] really started from the people; in Germany, it started right from the top. They talk about how to divide power between clergy and laity. But if we talk about power in the Church, we have to correct our way of doing things. Because it is not about power, it is about ministry and service.”
“If service becomes perverted into power, we have a problem. The question is not how to divide power, but how to return to ministry, to service.”
Why the change?
It’s too neat to say that Hollerich went from being a starry-eyed enthusiast for the synodal way to a clear-sighted critic.
Even in the 2020 interview where he expressed “great respect” for the project, he wondered aloud if Catholics in a single country could resolve divisive issues without reference to the wider Church.
Catholics “often think too nationally, based on the situation in their respective countries,” he said, insisting that “we need to exchange more.”
So, even when Hollerich was at his most positive about the synodal way, he feared the emergence of a “national Church” that would lurch off in a different direction from the rest of the Catholic world.
It’s possible to argue, therefore, that his view of the synodal way has remained largely consistent, but that when his fears were realized, he began to express himself more forcefully. Let’s call this the steady evolution theory.
An alternative explanation is that Hollerich’s tone changed following his appointment as general rapporteur. When his comments on homosexuality caused uproar, this argument goes, the cardinal began to weigh his words more carefully, aware he was now seen as a spokesman for the global synodal process.
According to this explanation — let’s call it the public relations theory — Hollerich recognized that if his avant-garde theological opinions were assumed to be driving the global synod process, then large parts of the Catholic world would reject it.
That would explain why he insisted at a Vatican press conference last August that he had “no personal agenda” for the synodal process. Referring to his earlier remarks about homosexuality, Hollerich said he was “not in favor of changing any doctrine,” but simply wished to see “a Church where really everybody can feel welcome.”
The controversy over his personal theological views, this theory suggests, brought home to Hollerich the peril of aligning himself (and thus the global process) with Germany’s synodal way.
After all, several bishops’ conferences had expressed alarm about the German initiative. How could they be expected to engage with the global process if they thought it was just an international version of the synodal way?
The task then became for Hollerich to put as much distance as possible between the two processes. Hence his assurance that they are fundamentally different, given that the global initiative began with a consultation of the whole People of God, while the German one was launched by an ecclesial elite.
A third explanation is that Hollerich has been pulled out of the German theological world and into the Vatican’s orbit since his appointment as general rapporteur.
According to this idea, which could be called the Vatican inculturation theory, the cardinal has gone from seeing the Church through the eyes of a Central European archbishop to viewing it from a Roman perspective.
This theory suggests that, while Hollerich thought at first that the German initiative was bold and daring, when he saw the fallout in the wider Church, he developed deep reservations. His frequent meetings with the pope made him more attuned to Francis’ critique of the initiative.
The cardinal has now fully adopted a universal perspective, this theory goes, seeing the German contribution to the global synod simply as one “among many others.”
Will Hollerich’s change of tune be enough to convince synod skeptics?
It’s probably too late for that. In critics’ minds, the cardinal is indelibly associated with the German project, and even if he celebrated the Traditional Latin Mass in a cappa magna, he would not convince them otherwise. Skeptics will suspect that he remains true to his earlier theological convictions, even if he is now more circumspect about them.
But Hollerich’s repositioning may prompt Catholics who are undecided about the global synodal process, but open to the idea that it could be a healthy development, to take a fresh look.
His evolution may perhaps have the greatest impact in Germany. Synodal way organizers once saw Hollerich as a fellow traveler. They would have been greatly encouraged by his appointment as general rapporteur. But now they can no longer assume that the man who will guide this October’s gathering of the world’s bishops is on their side.