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'Synodal way' architect says political tactics built pressure for change

An architect of Germany’s “synodal way” has explained how organizers used tactics employed successfully in politics to build pressure for change in the Church.

Thomas Sternberg at a synodal way press conference in Frankfurt, Germany, on Jan. 30, 2020. © 2022 Deutsche Bischofskonferenz und ZdK/Synodaler Weg.

An architect of Germany’s “synodal way” has explained how organizers used tactics employed successfully in politics to build pressure for change in the Catholic Church.

Thomas Sternberg said in a Dec. 2 interview that issues such as married clergy, women priests, and homosexuality were “opened up” by the initiative and were now being “discussed internationally, not only in Germany.”

Sternberg was co-president of the synodal way when it was officially launched on Dec. 1, 2019, until he stood down as president of the influential Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) in 2021.

He told the Cologne-based Catholic news website Domradio.de that the multi-year process — which brings together Germany’s bishops and select lay people to discuss power, the priesthood, women in the Church, and sexuality — was “running much more successfully” than he had first imagined.

He noted that Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishops, had “wanted to stop the whole thing” three years ago.

Ouellet, who unsuccessfully called for a moratorium on the synodal way during the German bishops’ ad limina visit last month, wrote in September 2019 to the then bishops’ conference chairman Cardinal Reinhard Marx, saying that plans for the synodal way’s resolutions to be “binding” were “not ecclesiologically valid.”

Noting that the synodal way was not a synod in terms of Church law, Sternberg said: “I think it turns out that it was right not to use a synodal form that would have been sanctioned by canon law and would have given the opportunity to forbid something like this under canon law.”

“What is now happening here in Germany is a non-binding discussion process from the perspective of canon law. The Münster canon lawyer [Thomas] Schüller speaks of a nullum. But only with such a nullum can one actually operate freely. Even the prefabricated critical objections that have been raised in Rome come to nothing.”

Sternberg, a politician belonging to Germany’s CDU political party, added that “what remains and always has been very important” is Pope Francis’ June 2019 letter.

“I think it’s worth reading this and realizing that we can’t decide the question of women’s ordination or the question of the abolition of celibacy in Germany,” he said. “By the way, you can’t just decide that in Rome, that’s quite clear.”

“But I am a politician to the extent that I know that it takes processes and developments to make topics worthy of discussion in the first place. When I look at the texts we have now adopted for the synodal way, the foundational text on the subject of women, for example. We have the questions about homosexuality in the Church, we have important questions about clericalism. Basically, these questions have only really been opened up by this synodal way, and they are now being discussed internationally, not only in Germany.”

Sternberg said that many synodal way resolutions could be implemented by German bishops in their dioceses. But several proposals required Rome’s approval.

“The question of women’s ordination to the priesthood is not a question that can be dealt with just like that. But it needs to be discussed, it needs to be on the table urgently. We must in no case avoid the debates about it,” he said.

“In my opinion, it is also a great mistake to believe that the synodal way would decide that women should be ordained priests. When you read the texts, there is something completely different in them. But the discussion must be had. We have to talk about it and we have to make demands. Only through pressure does real change occur.”

Sternberg’s upbeat assessment of the initiative’s progress does not appear to be shared by many German bishops returning from their ad limina visit to Rome.

Bishop Peter Kohlgraf, a strong supporter of the synodal way, told his flock in the Diocese of Mainz that he felt “more disillusionment than hope for small steps of change.”

He said that theological reports presented to the German bishops by Cardinal Ouellet and Vatican doctrinal czar Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer “made it clear that there were topics that should not be up for discussion, such as the question of the ordination of women and the assessment of homosexuality.”

He added that the bishops were awaiting a letter from Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin ahead of the synodal way’s final scheduled meeting in spring 2023.

In an interview published Dec. 1, Cologne Auxiliary Bishop Ansgar Puff said that the synodal way’s processes felt more like “the work of a parliament than a form of synodality.”

He told Domradio.de that when Germany’s bishops initially discussed the synodal way three years ago, he had proposed that it take the form of a “particular council” in canon law.

“Unfortunately, this was rejected by the majority of the bishops at that time, because the topics would have had to be discussed with Rome beforehand. They didn’t want that. Of course, I ask myself today whether that would not have been wiser,” he said.

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