The sexual scandals faced by the Church nowadays have catalyzed many discussions about its internal structure. Some of the considerations focused on clericalism and the role of laymen in the Church. One of the proponents of such an approach is Pope Francis himself, who calls for more activity of the laity and promoting the slogan of synodality. It was in this atmosphere that the Church in Germany entered its Synodal Path. But what is all this synodality about? Do Francis and German Catholics understand it the same?
Synodality is not Francis’ invention
We have already dealt with the first assembly of apostles to settle matters of faith in the pages of the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistle to the Galatians. Paul and Barnabas arrive in Jerusalem to consult the Apostles about the circumcision of newly baptized Gentiles. Why does Paul address them instead of deciding by himself, with the help of the Holy Spirit? The answer is the community; it is there that we are to seek God and answer our questions (Mt 18:20). The original meaning of the word synodos, which means „traveling companion”, refers to this.
The second, equally important reason for calling the assembly, is to show the unity of the Church because the goal is not only to make the right decision. It is equally important „that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (Jn 17:21). The communion of the faithful with their local Church, and further the local Churches with the universal Church, is an expression of the unity of the Mystical Body of Christ.
After its establishment, the Church grows in faith according to Jesus’ teachings: “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.” (J 16, 12-14). Following the example of the assembly in Jerusalem, the most important issues of the universal Church and local Churches were resolved at general councils and local synods. Doubts regarding the Canon of Scripture, the Nature of Christ, and other heresies were resolved by Councils, and disciplinary or local matters were raised at synods.
Of course, there were various misunderstandings and disputes. The basis for resolving differences of opinion was the sense of unity. Despite the autonomy of local Churches and individual bishops or patriarchs, they are all part of the one Body of Christ. Hence such practices as inviting representatives of neighboring churches to local synods or sending synod resolutions to other communities. This also results in the possibility to verify or even reject the decisions of the local council by the wider assembly of the Church. The primacy of the Pope as the successor of Saint Peter, who is primus inter pares, also remains crucial. He leads the Church that acts Cum Petro et sub Petro (with Peter and under Peter). Synodality, then, means common companionship on the journey of life that is the Christ.
However, the guidance of the Holy Spirit is not limited to priests and bishops. All baptized Christians participate in Christ’s royal, priestly and prophetic functions. Through one’s living faith and adherence to the Savior, the Holy Spirit can give one a kind of sense of faith – sensus fidei.
As the Church developed, it would time and time again refer to the sense of the faith of the entire People of God as sensus fidelium, as was the case, for example, in the case of Arianism rejected by the People despite the support from part of the hierarchy. This communal sense in the Church takes the form of universal consent, or consensus fidelium.
However, one should remember not to confuse the sensus fidelium with a sort of public opinion of the Church. This sense, by its very nature, cannot contradict Revelation or the teachings of the Church. The Holy Spirit „blows where it wills,” but never contradicts itself. If an issue raises a general stir among Catholics, it is still not enough to be considered a sensus fidelium. This turmoil must be rationally worked out by the whole Church.
Neither Church collegiality nor synodality as such has anything to do with democracy and majority decision-making. It is by no means a sign of the sovereignty of the People of God. On the contrary; it is an expression of unity in the Church led by the Holy Spirit. The starting point for decisions made at assemblies are not the participants’ opinions, but the reading of the Revelation.
However, just as the local synod does not represent itself, the authority or opinions of a single bishop can only be considered as a service and participation in the apostolic college, and thus in the Mystical Body of Christ. No bishop can say “I am the Church”; on the contrary, he must subordinate his individuality to the community. Synodality serves to protect the Church from the errors and despotism of individuals and larger groups of the faithful. Bishops should not be ministerial princes, but servants of the People of God within the apostolic college. On the other hand, the People of God have no sovereignty, which is solely and exclusively in God’s hands. It is revealed to us through the Holy Spirit.
A question arises here: if the concept of synodality can be derived from Holy Scripture and the first centuries of the Church, why the accusations that Pope Francis was revolutionary in this regard? As is usually the case with the current successor of St. Peter – nihil novi sub sole. The whole issue can be reduced to the dispute regarding the universalist nature of the Church. Until the Second Vatican Council, the dominant vision was a centralized structure with the dominant role of the Roman curia – ultramontanism, Roma locuta, causa finita. The last council made some adjustments by recalling the vision of the Church as communion. This is what references to the People of God, local Churches, inculturation and ecumenism serve.
The restoration of synodality was Paul VI’s goal, who established the Synod of Bishops as an advisory body of the Pope modeled on solutions known from the Orthodox Church. The pontificate of John Paul II was a period of freezing in terms of synodality. For a variety of reasons, the Polish Pope „led Peter’s boat” in a centralized manner with the help of the Roman Curia.
Francis wants to return to the intuitions worded in Vaticannum II. It is not about a revolution, then, but about the correction of the course following the provisions of the Council. He lectures his vision, among others during the speech on October 17, 2015, during the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Synod of Bishops. There, he says among others: “Since the very beginning of my ministry as Bishop of Rome, I wanted to give value to the Synod, which is one of the most precious legacies of the last Conciliar assembly. (…) What the Lord is asking of us is, in a sense, already fully contained in the word „synod”. To walk together – the faithful, pastors, the Bishop of Rome – (…) A synodal Church is a Church that listens, knowing that listening „is more than just hearing”. It is mutual listening through which everyone can learn something. The faithful people, the college of bishops, the Bishop of Rome: one hears the others; and everyone hears the Holy Spirit (…) The Synodal Path begins with listening to the people who „also share in Christ’s prophetic function (…) The Synodal Path continues by listening to the shepherds. (…) Finally, the Synodal Path culminates in listening to the Bishop of Rome, called to speak as „Shepherd and Teacher of all Christians” – not based on his convictions, but as the supreme witness of fides totius Ecclesiae, „the guarantor of the Church’s obedience and compliance with God’s will, the Gospel of Christ and the Tradition of the Church”.
From the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has been consistently striving to break up the fossilized and immobile structure within the Church, which distorts its meaning. Although his way of fighting clericalism can be accused of quite a lot, no one seems to doubt that this fight has been undertaken. In essence, clericalism divides the Church into two impenetrable groups separated by a wall. However, this sort of airing is intended to strengthen the communion of the Church; it is not only a purely administrative solution. Apart from the obvious advantages, such as reducing distrust through the exchange of information or increasing the situational awareness of hierarchs and the faithful, the goal of synodality is to detach bishops and priests from their desks, drive them from warm parishes and Curias to the People they are to serve.
This consequence can be seen in the activities related to the Synod of Bishops. Little by little, Pope Francis changes this cyclical and formal convention of cardinals into a form of faithful’s participation in the life of the Church. The first step was the innovation in preparation for the 3rd extraordinary session of the Synod of Bishops devoted to family in 2014. Rather than sending formal Lineamenta with inquiries to local churches, all church structures were asked to consult extensively. The next step was the constitution Episcopalis communio, announced just before the 15th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in 2018. It changes the way the Synod of Bishops operates from a regular meeting into a three-stage process: preparation, celebration and implementation.
During the first of them, local Churches are to conduct extensive consultations among themselves, thus referring to the sensum fidei of the People of God. The results of these consultations are then to be discussed during the celebration of the Synod in Rome, and the results of these talks and decisions are to flow back to the People of God as part of their implementation. The first synod to be conducted according to the new procedure is to be the next Ordinary General Assembly. On May 21, 2021, Pope Francis inaugurated the preparatory stage of the synod, which is to be celebrated in 2023.
It is difficult to say what the result of these changes will be. The involvement of the People of God may vary, also due to the difficult relationship with the clergy. The decision itself is also somewhat paradoxical. After all, it introduces the principle of imposing greater decentralization from the top. One must also be careful of the dynamics of this process to not get out of hand and that wishful thinking to listen to the voice of a larger number of the People does not turn into a secular understanding of democracy governed by particular interests. After all, such particularity is shown by the German episcopate, which would like to see itself as the avant-garde of change, also when it comes to synodality itself.
The church in Germany was hit by a wave of sexual scandals earlier than in Poland. The symbolic turning point was on January 14, 2010, when the rector of the Jesuit school Canisius-Kolleg in Berlin was visited by three adult graduates, telling about the abuses of the 1970s and 1980s. That pebble has precipitated an avalanche. According to a special report commissioned by the episcopate, in the years 1946–2014, 3,677 cases of sexual harassment were reported, committed by a total of 1,670 German clergymen. Most of the victims were underage boys. The scale of abuse and neglect shocked German society and caused a wave of apostasy. In the face of these events, in 2018 the German Episcopate, in cooperation with the Central Committee of Catholics in Germany (ZdK), began a process known as the Synodal Path.
This has aroused a lot of controversy from the very beginning. First of all, the format in which it operates has no foundation in canon law. According to some, this is an experiment that could serve as a model for a future pan-European synod, while others say it is a recipe for failure since formally the final agreement will not be binding on anyone. Another controversy is related to the strong position of ZdK within the Synodal Path; the largest association of German Catholics has long been known for calling the Church to radical liberalization of teaching, e.g. on sexual ethics. The latter issue is perfectly reflected in the program of the Synodal Path, which was divided into four thematic working forums: the division of powers in the Church, the possibility of female priesthood, the point of celibacy and the possibility of changes in Catholic sexual ethics.
The out-of-canon form and radically controversial content caused concern to the Vatican. The dangers posed by the German Synod Path are best explained by Pope Francis in his letter To the Pilgrim People of God in Germany on June 29, 2018. He begins by expressing his admiration for the degree of organization of the laity in Germany and their social work but quickly moves on to a warning against the temptations of Pelagianism and secularization. And this is essentially what reducing solutions to structural change and organizational repair is all about. It is the pride of a man who wants to correct reality himself, without looking back at God and His grace.
Further, the Pope shows the gratuity of Grace and that it is a mistake to think only in terms of action. Moreover, he points out that the mission of the Church goes far beyond organization and work of mercy, and its core is evangelization, bringing the Good News. Therefore, apart from institutional matters, the reflection of the synod should focus on evangelization. So one need not look for consolation in one’s actions and ideas, but in being part of the community. The Pope ends with a warning against divisions that result from the scheming of the father of lies.
A certain negative verification of the Letter’s effect was the vote in August 2019. Then the executive committee of the German Bishops’ Conference, with 21 votes against 3, rejected the alternative vision of the Synodal Path proposed by Cardinal Rainer Woelky and Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg, modified following the recommendations of said Letter.
Another disturbing phenomenon is the approach of the German Church to the blessing of same-sex couples. Contrary to the official document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Responsum ad dubium of February 22, 2021 clearly stating the impossibility of blessing same-sex marriages in Church, a mass blessing campaign of such unions took place in Germany on May 10. Nearly 100 parishes were involved in the activities carried out under the hashtag „#Liebegewinnt” (#lovewins), mainly from north-west Germany [coincidence? I think not]. 2600 catechists also expressed their support for the initiative.
The uncompromising approach of the German faithful and bishops inspires concern about the unity of the Church and a possible schism. Before the work on the German Synodal Path is complete, it is difficult to fully predict its effects. One can only hope that its participants will open themselves to the action of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, it may turn out that when a sort of reality check arrives, some German Catholics may de facto find themselves outside the Church.
Polish version is available here. Publication (excluding figures and illustrations) is available under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International. Any use of the work is allowed, provided that the licensing information, about rights holders and about the contest "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" (below) is mentioned. The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2020 – nowy wymiar”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.
Publication (excluding figures and illustrations) is available under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International. Any use of the work is allowed, provided that the licensing information, about rights holders and about the contest "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" (below) is mentioned.
The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2020 – nowy wymiar”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.