The German Synodal Path: a revolutionary process
Towards a Church as a plural democratic society

Par l'abbé Jean-Marie Perrot

Français, italiano

On 1st December 2019, a Synodal Path started in Germany. The decision for this had been taken in the spring by the Conference of the German Bishops, supported by the collaboration of the influent and powerful central Comity of German Catholics [1]. The latter though only giving his agreement if the process and the results were “obligatory”.

Why such a decision? Public statements and documents indicate the source or at least the occasion of the convocation of the Synodal Path finds itself in the MHG report [2], given in the fall 2018 by an independent commission, in regards to abuse on minors by ecclesiastics. Power in the Church, celibacy in priestly life and sexual moral in the Church, all were called into question; as many elements, according to the final document, relating not to circumstances or to individuals but to the structure of the Church: in short, “specifically Catholic factors”, according to the same report. To this indictment of the Church as institution, the Conference of Bishops decided it ought to give an institutional response in its functioning and its results: a synodal process, leading to obligatory resolutions.

Four preparatory forums worked these last months, each on a theme: the three factors underlined by the report, to which an other was later added relating to women. A document gathering contributions of these groups was produced towards the first assembly of the Synodal Path, on 30 January and 1 February 2020 [3].

Of unequal length and of relatively different form, the four contributions present nonetheless a coherent ensemble, at least in two ways. The first one is the indigence of the sources produced in regards to categorical affirmations which put into question points the magisterium recognizes as already decided (such as the ordination of women), in pretending a unanimity of Theology and contemporary exegesis. In this way, there are no footnotes and the quotations or references in the body of the document – most referring to the Vatican II Council – ring more like incantations or manifestation of a certain mind (the one of the Gospel, the one of the Council) rather than arguments or demonstrations.

The second aspect common to the four documents is the serene affirmation, almost as a claim to the synodal process as a revolutionary process, a term used here in its technical sense and not only in relations to important changes. Let us point out five particular features forming this coherent program.

1- To introduce in the Church the standards of a plural democratic society

Because this one (which is it? we don’t know) is in crisis, in such a way it cannot no longer play its role: “The Catholic Church is in a profound crisis. She will only be able to accomplish her mission if she takes on the crisis and works seriously a solution. This crisis does not come from outside the Church but its origin is within the Church.” More precisely, continues the document from the forum on the power in the Church, the spotlight must be put on two heavyweight contestants: strong “forces” (contradictions, is to be understood here) between the doctrine and the practice, but also between the exercise of power in the Church and the “standards of the plural society in a democratic State, which many Catholics expect to be an example to follow for their own Church.” The dramatic sexual abuse on minors – the events themselves and the incapacity of an internal resolution – brought this to light. This tragic events are not the crisis in itself, but came as a powerful indicator. And, if a misfortune can have unexpected benefit, being almost cynical, one should not miss the opportunity given by the MHG.

Our reader, here, could be surprised that in the documents sent to the first synodal assembly no analysis are presented, when one would not deny they should have been at least mentioned: we think firstly of the text written by pope emeritus Benedict XVI, published 11 April 2019 and of the demonstration of the causes of the abuse: social context of the sexual revolution, destruction of the teaching of moral theology, rejection of the magisterium; which lead to grave defects and ruptures in the formation in the seminaries, the choice of bishops and canonical legislation. Nothing is said either about the analysis and the denunciations over the reactions of the ecclesial authorities who did not use the judicial, disciplinary and punitive tools at their disposal.

2- To denounce the responsability of the Potestas sacra

For there is a responsible entity, the “model of a Church as found in Germany, characterized by an excessive accentuation over the ordained ministry as “sacred power” (potestas sacra), those of a hierarchy within which faithful are considered, in a one-sided manner, as dependent of the priests”. But “the concentration of sacramental power, legislative, executive, administrative and judicial is a development of the nineteenth century.” What is to be understood here is that there is nothing traditional in the potestas sacra. To the contrary – as we follow the document itself -, the Gospel, the Vatican II Council and “the unanimous argumentation of the scientific theology” describe a very different figure of a Church, characterized by the fundamental equality of the baptized (men and women indifferently). There is a ministry, but it is only a service and when we speak of hierarchy it must be understood only in the internal relation between three degrees of the ordained ministry and of their common submission to Jesus Christ head, but certainly not of their relation to the People of God. Otherwise, the fidelity to Jesus Christ and the credibility of the evangelization are compromised. Worst… that is to become becomes: that is “a sacralization of the power which claims it is from God in order to avoid being under the control of the People of God, contradicts the holiness of the Church and leads to sin.” How daring…

The remarks that are to be made on this statement are many; but, as we indicated previously, the documents are lacking any types of critical apparatus. We then do not know to what intellectual background we are to respond… nor even whether there is one! We will thus limit our remarks in these pages to one aspect, looking at the omnipresent call to the Vatican II Council. Actually the potestas sacra was put forward by the Council, in order to – we will not go into the deep theological question – bypass the duo “power of order” and “power of jurisdiction” which were considered non-satisfactory. The common post-conciliary interpretation says there is only one sacred power, received at ordination, but needing, in order to be exercised, a canonical determination, judicial. This is also the present common opinion – and, even more, the classic position of both powers of order and jurisdiction – which is criticized and even put upside down. Unless, and we doubt that, the expression potestas sacra is only a slogan. In any case, because of its association with the abuse, it has become an absolute deterrent.

3- To take the place of power or to take a seat next to it, before it disappears

The rather coherent position which comes out of this is in fact the one of a power coming from Christ through the People of God who is, on this earth, the depositary and principal agent. The conception of the hierarchy as mentioned earlier, goes along this line. Moreover, what is developed in terms of strict equality of the baptized in a re-appropriation of the three powers or munera which are those of the hierarchical Church, of the ordained ministries (teaching, sanctification and government) expresses very clearly the theory of a popular power.

In regards to teaching, the documents are under the double patronage of traditional formulas that reappeared in the ecclesiastic news at the instigation of Pope Francis: on one side the sensus fidelium or sensus Ecclesiæ which has a “theological fundamental value”, though “there are no adequate procedure through which he could assert is rights” – which is sad. On the other side, there is this idea that all ideas are worth being heard if they are cum Petro et sub Petro [4] – but there too, we might have to wait a while before getting an explanation.

For the sanctification, everything is about the relativization of the degree of authority of the texts reserving the ordained ministry to celibate men, in the affirmation of a pretended unanimity of the theological research and in the unbearable tension between the two (magisterium and theology).

For what concerns governing, it is in the logic of the baptismal equality and the ministry as a service that the modalities of government take a democratic form, elective in regards to the designation of those who govern (including the bishops), and deliberative in regards to its exercise and its control. One excerpt from the document will suffice – it concerns the second of the priority decisions that would have to be taken: “dioceses and parishes will develop the advisory and decision making entities, each very different depending of the diocese, in such a way that regarding the outline of pastoral care, of persons and finances, nothing may be decided, put in practice, then evaluated, without the consultation and the agreement of the competent entities, composed of lay persons and clerics elected in an independent manner.”[ 5]

What will become of this? A very interesting question, for these claims are nothing new. What might be new, though, is the fact that they might soon find an institutional tangible translation, since, let us recall, the conference of bishops committed to ensure that the decisions of the Synodal Path be obligatory. The proceedings of the first synodal assembly does not give any indication, it seems, of whether it would go one way or the other. The “Conference of French speaking baptized persons” [6] gave account of it on its internet website in two articles: in the second one, written at the end of the assembly, the concerns appear that “the four themes retained for the Synodal Path be only a mean to win back this reputation” lost recently with the crisis of the sexual abuse. To go further, “without a doubt it will require clear positions.” But the opening of the sessions allows also the expression of clear positions in the opposite way: “Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne particularly… has, notably, declared that his greatest fear had been justified, that the hierarchical constitution of the Church was in question, that numerous arguments put forward were not compatible with the faith and the universal teaching of the Church, that this assembly was, in truth, like a protestant ecclesial parliament… The response made to him was that being protestant was no offense!” Recently, Mgr Bätzing, President of the German Episcopal Conference, declared himself “very favorable to that the ideas and decisions of the synodal path, included those concerning women and the ministry, be carried to Rome” (Publik-Forum, 29 May 2020).

4- To act in the manner of an active minority

The first article of the “French Speaking Conference of baptized persons”, dated from the eve of the assembly, noticed with honesty the little apparent impact in the catholic population of the Synodal Path: The questionnaire proposed on the internet website had only been filled by 3000 participants. “The number is low” in itself, but also in comparison to other initiatives of the same kind which did not though even have the same official character and the subsequent means at their disposal.

But this is not as important in a revolutionary process. The determined action carried during the Synod reveals, so they think, a deeper movement and inscribes itself in the long term. Supposing even that the number of claims carried by the Synodal Path does not reach its goal, that is finding an institutional transcription, the action must still be carried out, in the same way others were carried out before [7]: “The process must indicate with precision what are the possible and necessary reforms within the frame of existing Canonical law, on the basis of the teaching of the Church; but it must also indicate that, furthermore, deep changes are necessary and in what way they could be achieved. In this regard, it is necessary to take account of the specificities of the processes of the tradition of the Church and to put them to good use for their later development: consideration of the fundamental sensus Ecclesiæ, dynamic of development, plurality, context and interpretative perspective of the processes, as well as the consideration of the alternative paths of the tradition, which have found themselves put to the back, but which have been able to be rediscovered.” Clearly and in a manner somewhat informal, in the end this will pay, all must be considered as possible, even if it is not going to happen just tomorrow…

5- To anticipate the mechanism that is to come

Out of this radical movement, the Synodal Path is the indicator and the matrix: “The process of dialog and decision need an atmosphere of mental openness. There must be no taboo, no fear of alternative options, no sanction.” In this way, far from being in a neutral process [8], the Synodal Path, as a good revolutionary process, develops “structuring practices in relation to a social system to come and which the onset must be provoked”[ 9]. This is the trap set by the synods and that John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger had tried to control from above…

What is this radical movement about? Here, very explicitly, it is about the ideal of a democratic plural society. Largely, it is the ideal that the Church, institutionally since Pope John and the Vatican II Council, thinks of discovering in the world: the day before yesterday with the movements of decolonization and women’s liberation, yesterday with the ideology of Human Rights, today with ecology. A vital force manifested by the signs of time, as they believe they are recognizing the work of the Spirit. In fact, a form of immanentism which is very well in harmony with the ecclesial figure seeking to impose itself and which, even only because of the complicity of the one who presently holds the potestas sacra, meets hardly any obstacle.

Father Jean-Marie Perrot

[1] Its origin can be found in the struggle of German Catholics to see recognized their place in society. The first meeting of the Katholikentag took place in October 1848, an initiative of a network of Piusvereine (Pius associations), taking on the name of Pope Pius IX. The Central Committee was formally born in 1868. During 100 years, it worked “supported by the authority of the bishops”, according to its statutes of 1952. IN 1967, the Central Committee won its autonomy and quickly became the center of more liberal and progressist positions in a variety of domains. It remains an important and recognized actor in the social and political life in Germany.

[2] MHG: after the name of the three universities of Mannheim, Heidelberg and Grieβen, where the members of the interdisciplinary group of study on abuse on minors by clerics are from.

[3] This report was translated in Italian and published in its entirety in Il Regno, Documenti 5, March 2020, n. 1319, pp. 158-192. It is this version we have used.

[4] Pope Francis had justified the diversity of the talks held during the synodal assembly in regards to the family by the fact that he had allowed them, that they were cum Petro et sub Petro, therefore legitimate, whatever their content.

[5] In the text of the preparatory forum on priestly life, we find a more moderated formulation: “As to welcome the Spirit, a synodal process must also be distinguished of a process of a parliamentary type.” This text, shorter, goes more through questions and invitation to debating rather than by peremptory affirmations. It carries a more balanced general tone.

[6] Conférence des baptisé-e-s francophones: This conference is only the Alter ego of the German Catholic Central Committee in the ideas, certainly not in the organization and even less in the historic and institutional weight on the Church and society.

[7] Here we find mentioned “winds of reform”: the synod of Würsburg (1971-1975) and its equivalent in GDR, the process of dialog “To believe today” (2011-2015) and numerous synods or diocesan assemblies…

[8] It is a recurrent question about the modern forms of democracy.

[9] Michel Meffesoli, “Le processus de récurrence dans les phénomènes révolutionnaires” (The process of recurrence in revolutionary phenomenas), in: L’homme et la société, 1977, n. 43-44. While we are waiting for the reactivation of the enthusiasm and the persuasion by the festive finale which now fits every synod: “In this way, in the revolution there is a periodic and nutritive re-activation of the myth of social dynamic (force), to which the feast participate, and the founding violence, the chaos, the hubris, the rupture…” (id.)