An influential Catholic theologian has said that the German Synodal Way’s “original sin” was setting aside Pope Francis’ call to focus on evangelization.

Cardinal Walter Kasper has repeatedly expressed concern about the multi-year process bringing together Germany’s bishops and laypeople to discuss the way power is exercised in the Church, sexual morality, the priesthood, and the role of women.

The former president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity renewed his critique on Nov. 7 during an online study day organized by the Arbeitskreis Christliche Anthropologie (Christian Anthropology Working Group), reported CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner.

In June 2019, Pope Francis sent a 19-page letter to German Catholics urging them to focus on evangelization in the face of a “growing erosion and deterioration of faith.”

“It was the original sin of the Synodal Way that it put aside Pope Francis’ invitation to start from the basic mission of evangelization and thus in fact brought subordinate criteria to the fore,” Kasper said in his live-streamed talk.

“In purely formal terms, it has not abandoned the episcopate, but it has gutted it in its essence. On the whole, according to the synodal text, the bishop is not much different from a chairman of a supervisory board who is elected for a fixed term and can be voted out at any time.”

In his address, the 88-year-old German cardinal reflected on the role of the bishop within Catholic tradition, exploring which responsibilities a bishop can delegate.

Kasper asked whether the Synodal Way’s text on “Power and separation of powers in the Church” made the mistake of putting secondary matters such as “sociology, political science, and the humanities” in first place.

He noted that “today’s bishops are not new apostles; they exercise an apostolic ministry as successors.” The bishop’s mission to witness to and faithfully transmit the Gospel is not a temporary calling, he said.

He suggested that the Synodal Way was attempting to establish a kind of democratic check on power in the Church. He said that the Church could indeed learn from the democratic order, but only to the extent that its own order allows it.

Kasper noted that the early Church contained synodal elements. In the Acts of the Apostles, he observed, Christians came together to discern God’s will for the community.

But a synod should not be confused with a parliament where decisions are passed by a majority, he said. Instead, it should seek consensus, which is understood as a sign of the Holy Spirit.

“A synod should therefore not vote down and shoot down a minority without a serious exchange of arguments, as happened at the last meeting of the Synodal Way,” he commented.

“In doing so, the Synodal Way has made itself a farce of a synod.”

The most recent gathering of the Synodal Way took place in Frankfurt, southwestern Germany, on Sept. 30-Oct. 2.

The event was the second meeting of the Synodal Assembly, the supreme decision-making body of the Synodal Way.

The assembly consists of the German bishops, 69 members of the powerful lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), and representatives of other parts of the German Church.

The meeting ended abruptly following votes in favor of a text endorsing same-sex blessings and a discussion of whether the priesthood is necessary.

Kasper said in June that he was “very worried” about the direction of the Synodal Way, which is not a synod in the traditional sense but rather “a sui generis [unique] process,” according to the German Cardinal Reinhard Marx.

“I have not yet given up hope that the prayers of many faithful Catholics will help to steer the Synodal Way in Germany on Catholic tracks,” Kasper remarked.

In September, he praised a text presenting an alternative to the document dedicated to the way power is exercised in the Church endorsed by members of the Synodal Way.

In his address at the online study day, Kasper said that the root meaning of the word “hierarchy” pointed to the rule of the Holy Spirit, rather than that of hierarchs.

“Power does not emanate from the people, nor is the bishop master of the synod,” he said.

Christian leadership does not consist of commanding others, he added. Leaders are instead called “to inspire, to motivate, to exemplify the spirit of the Gospel.”

“At the diocesan level, the establishment of synodal structures is already possible today. In some dioceses there have been good approaches to this for a long time, without a Roman cock ever crowing,” he concluded.

“The Synodal Way should therefore concentrate on what is already possible and also necessary in Germany today, instead of dealing with projects that can only lead to new frustrations.”