A German Catholic bishop on Friday proposed an alternative text for the country’s controversial “Synodal Way.”
In an introduction to the website, the bishop wrote: “We are joining in the Synodal Way, but we are increasingly convinced that [this process] will not reach its goal if it continues along the path it has taken so far.”
“We are convinced that only a Synodal Way that is undertaken alongside and by the whole Church can be sound and achieve its goal. The whole Church is not only the worldwide Church, but also the early Church and the Church of the saints who have already arrived at their destination.”
“Its foundation is the God-man Jesus Christ, who is truly present in the Eucharist and from it builds up the Church.”
The Synodal Way is a multi-year process bringing together bishops and lay people to discuss four main topics: the way power is exercised in the Church; sexual morality; the priesthood; and the role of women.
The German bishops’ conference initially said that the process would end with a series of “binding” votes -- raising concerns at the Vatican that the resolutions might challenge the Church’s teaching and discipline.
The new website appears as participants prepare to attend a plenary session of the Synodal Way in Frankfurt, southwestern Germany, on Sept. 30-Oct. 2. The event will be the second meeting of the Synodal Assembly, the supreme decision-making body of the Synodal Way.
Explaining the rationale for the new website, Voderholzer, a professor of dogmatics, wrote: “On this site you will find, among other things, alternative texts, commentaries and Vatican statements on the themes and forums of the Synodal Way, in which we make our view known.”
“We rely on arguments and on ‘sound doctrine.’ As best we could, the arguments presented here were brought into the process of the Synodal Way. However, because of the prevailing majority there, they have not been and are not being taken into account so far.”
The website includes a 45-page document, called “Authority and responsibility,” that offers an alternative to the text endorsed by members of the Synodal Way’s Forum I, dedicated to the way power is exercised in the Church.
The document is the first in a series that will also address the topics of the other three synodal forums. It was co-authored by Fr. Wolfgang Picken, dean of the city of Bonn, Marianne Schlosser, a theology professor in Vienna, Austria, journalist Alina Oehler, and Augsburg auxiliary Bishop Florian Wörner.
The authors expressed concern about the direction of the Synodal Way.
“In the current debate on Church renewal, the necessity of which has become obvious through the abuse crisis, positions are often put forward whose contents have no secure connection with the reappraisal or prevention of abuse of power within the Church,” they wrote.
“Thus, the calls for the introduction of women’s ordination or the desire for a comprehensive adaptation of Church structures to the standards of modern democracies (especially with regard to the separation of powers), as well as doubts about the spiritual authority of the ordained ministry, the plea for its consistent desacralization, or a far-reaching reorganization of the Church’s sexual morality, are components of a reform agenda whose origins lie far before the abuse crisis and have only been secondarily associated with it.”
They continued: “Such a conflation of interests does not serve the serious concern with which the Synodal Path was begun and brings with it the danger of new divisions within the German Church as well as in its relationship with the Vatican and the universal Church…”
“If the hope is raised that majority votes of a German synodal assembly could lead to changes in official Church doctrine and universal canon law, or at least legitimize a German Sonderweg (special path) in questions of the doctrine of faith and morals, the end result threatens to be a potentiation of the energy-sapping frustration that has already been associated for decades with the struggle for radical reforms in the Catholic Church.”
“The German Synodal Path would be well advised to avoid such disappointments by setting the right priorities in advance. Only then will it be possible to dovetail fruitfully with the synodal process for the whole Church, which Pope Francis initiated in the spring of 2021.”
The document proposed 14 “theses” on “a changed approach to power and abuse of power in the Church.”
Bishop Voderholzer, who was appointed to Regensburg in 2012, is a longstanding critic of aspects of the Synodal Way.
With Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, he drafted alternative statutes to guide the process. The proposal was voted down by the German bishops’ permanent council in August 2019.
“In a many-hour debate, some improvements were achieved in detail,” he said. “But I have made it clear on several occasions that the thematic orientation of the forums seems to pass by the reality of the crisis of faith in our country.”
In February 2020, he said that he detected an “authoritarian despotism” in the procedures of the Synodal Way and in September of the same year, he sharply criticized a text produced by the forum on the role of women.
Pope Francis addressed concerns about the trajectory of the Synodal Way in an interview with the Spanish radio station COPE aired on Sept. 1.
Asked if the initiative gave him sleepless nights, the pope recalled that he wrote an extensive letter that expressed “everything I feel about the German synod.”
Responding to the interviewer’s comment that the Church had faced similar challenges in the past, he said: “Yes, but I wouldn’t get too tragic either. There is no ill will in many bishops with whom I spoke.”
“It is a pastoral desire, but one that perhaps does not take into account some things that I explain in the letter that need to be taken into account.”
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.”
“Every time an ecclesial community has tried to get out of its problems alone, relying solely on its own strengths, methods, and intelligence, it has ended up multiplying and nurturing the evils it wanted to overcome,” he wrote.