The final assembly of the German Synodal Way took place in Frankfurt March 9-11, where 230 bishops and lay representatives discussed issues such as blessings for homosexual couples, the ordination of women, a relaxation of mandatory celibacy and greater church involvement for lay people.
The agenda, with 10 resolution texts, reflected the will of the local church to "arrive at visible changes," the president of the German Bishops' Conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing, said in Frankfurt March 9. "This church deserves that we do not leave it as it is," the German news agency KNA reported him saying.
The president of the Central Committee of German Catholics, Irme Stetter-Karp, said that looking back on the process so far, "there were phases of disappointment, of anger and of despair, but also phases of euphoria and of successful cooperation. Now we have to prove that we were worthy of the trust so many people placed in us."
On March 10, KNA reported, the assembly decided that in the near future, there will be blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples in the Catholic Church in Germany. It also said people who have divorced and then remarried in a civil partnership also should be able to have their relationships blessed in the Catholic Church.
Following a controversial debate, KNA wrote, the Synodal Path reform project adopted a corresponding text in Frankfurt on March 10, with a majority of over 90%. The paper recommends developing and introducing appropriate liturgical celebrations and ceremonies.
Of the 58 bishops who voted, 38 voted in favor, nine voted against and 11 abstained. Since abstentions in the vote on the Synodal Path are counted as votes not cast, the result was counted as a majority of just under 81% in favor. Twenty votes against would have been enough to reject the text, since according to the statutes, the bishops must approve decisions with a two-thirds majority.
Manuals for blessing ceremonies for different types of couples will now be developed. Pastors will not be forced to perform such blessings. The paper, titled "Blessing Celebrations for Couples who Love Each Other," emphasizes that a refusal to bless the relationship of two people "who want to live their partnership in love, commitment and responsibility to each other and to God" shows a lack of compassion.
One of the first decisions on March 10, reported by KNA from the synodal assembly, was one allowing women to preach at Mass.
After what KNA reported has been a "long struggle," a paper to this effect was adopted by the Synodal Assembly in Frankfurt on the morning of March 10, with a majority of about 90%.
The paper calls for a general permission that would allow qualified and commissioned women and men to preach at Masses in Germany. Up to now, only ordained clergy have been allowed to do so, KNA wrote.
The text originally contained demands that were even more far-reaching. According to KNA, it included the possibility of non-ordained persons being able to baptize and assist at church weddings, but also the proposal to examine "lay confession" and the participation of laypeople in the anointing of the sick. Whether or not non-priests can be involved in the leadership of parishes also should be looked at, it said.
KNA reported that, at the request of Auxiliary Bishop Matthaeus Karrer of Stuttgart, these questions will now be discussed in a further consultation process in which religious orders and lay associations also will participate.
In the course of a "lively debate," KNA reported, bishops expressed different views on the question of what role laypeople should have in administering sacraments. While some, such as Bishop Michael Gerber of Fulda, advocated new roles for laypeople, others, such as Auxiliary Bishop Ansgar Puff of Cologne, expressed concern that this would establish a kind of "sacraments in a light version."
Bishop Bertram Meier of Augsburg said he did not want clerics to be pushed aside "in order to then actually ask the question: 'Why do we still need ordained people?'" Katharina Ganz, a Franciscan sister, replied that it was not clerics who were being pushed aside, but women who were repeatedly excluded from church life.
The question of opening up the priesthood to women in the church is not explicitly addressed in the text, KNA reported.
Another issue for the German Synodal Way was the Vatican's concern against the establishment of a permanent "Synodal Council" in Germany, but for Bishop Peter Kohlgraf of Mainz, this does not represent an insurmountable obstacle, KNA reported.
At a Synodal Path press conference March 10 in Frankfurt, Bishop Kohlgraf said that the project was not about the concept of the Synodal Council, but about the principle of "strengthening synodality in a permanent way."
He argued that the project does not weaken the bishops' authority when bishops involve laypeople in deliberative and decision-making processes, underlining that laypeople are already involved in church deliberations and decisions.
The meeting comes amid mounting tension after the Vatican recently restricted the scope for change. It is uncertain whether the Synodal Path will have the necessary two-thirds majority of bishops present to pass far-reaching decisions seen as more and more liberal by observers.
The Synodal Path had suffered "losses," Stetter-Karp said, as reported by KNA, pointing out that individual delegates had resigned their mandates in the reform project. "Obviously, the will to integrate and the ability to integrate have limits," she said.
Overall, she hoped for a successful outcome, but said, "We also need confidence in ourselves that we are able to change things together." For this to happen, there also must be a will to compromise, she added.
During the bishops' springtime assembly in Dresden, Feb. 27-March 2, Bishop Bätzing said that a majority of bishops were sticking to the Synodal Way, despite opposition from Rome. The aim, he said, was to involve church people more in decision-making. A minority of the bishops, however, is skeptical of the proposed reforms.
The Vatican recently further restricted the scope for internal church reforms in Germany: The planned establishment of a joint governing body of laypeople and clergy is not permissible, according to a letter by Vatican officials that was published Jan. 23. Such a Synodal Council would limit the authority of each individual bishop, as reported by KNA.
"We must and we want to remain in dialogue with Rome, that is the express wish that has come out of the German Bishops’ Conference," Bishop Bätzing said March 2. The broad majority of the bishops, he said, stood behind the Synodal Path's reform proposals and wanted lasting changes.
On March 10, the delegates of the Synodal Way in Frankfurt heard a final address from the leader of the Taizé ecumenical brotherhood, Brother Alois, KNA wrote.
At the end of September, the prior of Taize will lead an evening of prayer with representatives of various churches in St. Peter's Square in Rome to mark the beginning of the next phase of the Catholic Church’s world Synod of Bishops.
The German Bishops' Conference and the Central Committee of German Catholics launched the Synodal Path in 2019, in part to help restore lost trust in the church in the wake of the abuse scandal. In three years, a sixth Synodal Assembly is to evaluate what the initiative has achieved.