Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising has announced that the Catholic Church in Germany is embarking on a "binding synodal process" to tackle what he says are the three key issues arising from the clerical abuse crisis: priestly celibacy, the Church's teaching on sexual morality, and a reduction of clerical power.
Speaking at the conclusion of the plenary session of the German bishops’ conference on Thursday, Marx told reporters that the bishops had unanimously decided these three topics would be subject to a process of "synodal progression" that could lead to a binding, but as yet undetermined, outcome.
"The Church needs synodal progress," the president of the German bishops' conference asserted. "Pope Francis encourages this."
The German bishops held their plenary session in the German town of Lingen from March 11 to 14.
Addressing journalists on the final day, Marx said the Church's teaching on sexual morality has yet to account for significant recent discoveries from theology and the humanities. Also, he said, the significance of sexuality to personhood has not yet received sufficient attention from the Church.
Bishops “feel we often are unable to speak on questions of present-day sexual behavior," Marx said.
The cardinal also said that the German bishops appreciate priestly celibacy as an "expression of the religious bond to God" and do not simply want to give up on it. But to what extent celibacy should always be an element of priestly witness is a question "we will determine" through the "synodal process," Marx told the press.
Furthermore, Marx said clerical abuse of power constitutes a betrayal of the trust of people in need of stability and religious orientation. Therefore, the "synodal process" would be charged with identifying what measures must be taken to achieve "the necessary reduction of [clerical] power."
The establishment of ecclesiastical administrative courts is one such step for which the bishops will in the near future draft a proposal.
As a first step on the proposed synodal path, Marx announced that the German bishops have decided to set up three preparatory working groups. The working group on "clerical power" is headed by Bishop Karl-Heinz Wiesemann of Speyer, the working group on "sexual morality" will be headed by Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück. The working group on "the priest's way of life," which will focus on celibacy, will be moderated by Bishop Felix Genn of Münster.
Interim reports are expected from all three by Sept. 13.
Referring to the German bishops' four year "Würzburg Synod" from 1971 to 1975, which was charged with an implementation of the decisions of the Second Vatican Council, Marx affirmed that the Church in Germany is "not starting at zero" in a synodal process, given the Würzburg experience, and various consultation processes undertaken by the German bishops in recent years.
The "synodal process" will involve consultations with the "Central Committee of German Catholics," a lay organization that closely cooperates with the bishops' conference, and will draw on outside experts.