In a new report summarizing the conclusions of a national consultation process among German Catholics, the country’s bishops state a desire for greater inclusion in the church of women and laypeople generally, as well as those who disagree on certain moral teachings.
Titled “For a synodal Church – community, participation and mission,” the report summarizes the conclusions of the German bishops’ conference’s “Synodal Path” sent to the Synod of Bishops in Rome, ahead of a Synod of Bishops on Synodality at the Vatican next year.
The 13-page report is divided into two sections, the first of which reflects on Germany’s own experiences with synodal consultations carried out at the diocesan and archdiocesan level, as well as the national level of the bishops’ conference.
The second part summarizes feedback from this consultation on 10 topics that were listed in the official manual for consultations in local churches, called the ”Vademecum for the Synod on Synodality.”
Among other things, the report notes that women, youth, and faithful who belong to the church, but who share different views on matters such as same-sex marriage, contraception, and abortion, often feel “marginalized” by their church communities, and that more space should be allowed for hearing their voices.
The report also advocates for laypeople generally, especially women, to have a greater role in certain liturgical celebrations, such as baptisms and funerals, which they said would allow women, and laypeople broadly, more space to interpret the scriptures.
It was also suggested that laypeople be given a greater role in the administration of their parishes, as well as a say in who their pastor is.
Germany’s bishops cite dwindling Mass attendance, falling participation in parochial councils as well as other Catholic associations, and a subsequent decline in revenue from Germany’s church tax system, as among the primary reasons for organizing their synodal path.
Launched in a bid to revitalize the Catholic Church in Germany and restore trust following the publication of a September 2018 church-commissioned report detailing thousands of cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests over a span of six decades, the synodal path has largely been aimed at giving laypeople a more prominent role in running the church.
Much of the discussion has taken place in a series of large assemblies drawing both laypeople and bishops alike.
In their report, the German bishops insisted that the main scope of the process was “to address the systemic causes of abuse and its concealment, so that the Gospel can be credibly proclaimed once more in the future.”
They stressed that “the continuity of teaching and the communion of the universal church must be preserved in this process.”
However, the synodal path has become increasingly controversial for the inclusion of outspoken theologians and experts who advocate for the opposite of certain universal teaching, calling for women to be ordained priests and for priests to administer blessings to same sex couples.
There have also been votes in their synodal path in favor of eliminating mandatory priestly celibacy and allowing clergy to marry, and to declare that same-sex marriage is not sinful. The process has also insisted that laity have a greater say in the election of bishops.
Germany’s 22-million strong Catholic Church has an outsized influence on ecclesial affairs given its wealth, derived largely from funds collected as part of Germany’s church tax system.
The Vatican last month issued an unsigned statement warning that Germany’s synodal path risks undermining church unity, and that the undertaking lacks the authority to compel bishops to make changes on doctrine or morality.
In response to the Vatican’s statement, organizers of the synodal path, including German Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, president of the German bishops’ conference, said they were “astonished” at the rebuke, but reaffirmed a bishop’s authority to make pastoral decisions in his own territory, and voiced hope that in the future, contentious matters could be discussed in a more formal setting.
Bätzing also said the proposed reforms of the synodal path would be submitted to the global Synod of Bishops on Synodality, which is currently unfolding in three stages, and which will culminate with a large gathering of bishops in Rome in 2023.
In their summary, the German bishops said reports from dioceses indicated that those who have left the church and those “who are excluded from church offices or ministries,” including women and married men, also feel marginalized, as well as those who “do not belong to the educated middle class,” such as migrants and those impacted by poverty.
They report stressed the importance of listening, even to criticism, saying that listening to the faithful, “as well as to the signs of the times, is seen as the foundation of a synodal process.”
According to the report, faithful also want the church to be more engaged on hot-button topics such as social justice, poverty, climate change, migration, peace issues, and to be more active on social media.
From an outside perspective, the church is seen in the media “as encrusted, overly hierarchical, and old-fashioned,” the report said, saying laypeople – women, young people and volunteers in particular – “want to make themselves heard in the media as the voice of the church in the same way as their bishops.”
Faithful also voiced a desire to have a sincere and open discussion with their leaders “that is free of anxiety,” on topics related to sexuality that are widely considered to be “taboo,” such as contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage.
“Theologians are afraid of having their teaching licenses revoked if they make nuanced, open statements,” while laypeople often “feel inferior to, and frequently not understood by, clerics and other people with a theological background in their ability to speak out and have their say,” the report said.
The bishops said the feedback they received indicated that “high-quality liturgy” is being celebrated in all German dioceses, but given the decline in Mass attendance and the number of priests, there is a disconnect between daily life and Sunday Mass.
“There is a need for an interpretation of the rites, for a concrete, understandable language, for them to be implemented in a manner that relates to the reality of people’s lives, in order to counteract the widespread ‘liturgical illiteracy,’” the bishops said.
To this end, they said several proposals were made to create “a ministry of preaching carried out by laypeople,” as well as “a reform of the lectionary, services in simple language, a culture of welcome, a closing of the gap between the chancel and the congregation.”
Requests were made, the bishops said, for liturgical celebrations led by “appropriately trained women, young people and volunteers.” These liturgical celebrations, they said, include Word of God celebrations, the Liturgy of the Hours, funerals, and digital services.
“The experience from the dioceses suggests that these forms of service allow for more active participation (than in a Eucharist that is perceived as being centered on a priest). They also allow the charism of, for instance, women to be brought to bear in the proclamation and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures,” the report said.
Such liturgical celebrations, it said, “are to be expanded because they keep the worship life alive in places where it is no longer possible for a priest to be in attendance.”
The bishops said there were also explicit requests for marriage support and baptisms to be carried out by laypeople, and said, “Greater diversity overall is called for in both alternative and traditional forms of worship in order to appeal to different groups of faithful.”
On a general level, the report said the church’s “top-down” approach to decision making was criticized by faithful, who called for more responsibility sharing, and suggested that the role of the deacon be expanded.
Women, young people, and volunteers especially took issue with their lack of participation in church life, the report said, and quoted one person as saying, “We don’t want decisions to be made only about us, but with us.”
They suggested a change in attitude, as well as structural changes regarding participation, transparency, and in the selection of bishops and in the appointment of the local parish priests, as well as the time limits for offices and tasks, the control of power and exercise of power, and the detection and punishments for abuses of power when they happen.
The report also called for women to fully participate in next year’s Vatican gathering of the Synod of Bishops on Synodality, and to be given voting rights in that context.
Germany’s bishops in the report said multiple requests were made for priests “to be relieved of the leadership of the parish” at an administrative level, allowing them to focus on the sacraments and their role as pastors, allowing competent laypeople to step into administrative roles.
The report closes with a quotation from someone who provided feedback, and who said that if church leaders wish to restore trust, “the bishops need to take up a clear position on the pressing issues of our time, such as equal access for all baptized people to church offices, a reassessment of sexual morality, and a non-discriminatory approach to homosexual and queer people.”
“Taking up a clear position also means speaking a language that people can understand and that does not hide behind convoluted wording,” the person said.
Regarding the abuse scandals, the person said, “there needs to be an unambiguous acceptance of responsibility; power needs to be taken under control, and an attempt made to make amends to the victims of sexual and spiritual abuse.”
A synodal church, they said, “can only be successful if it is possible for all faithful to assume responsibility and partake in decisions at parish and diocesan levels.”