The Synodal Path of the Catholic Church in Germany
by Michael Brinkschröder
The Catholic Church in Germany is going through a deep crisis that was caused by incredibly many cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests and the cover-up of them by bishops, vicar general and others. In 2018, a nation-wide research report, called the MHG-Study, was published which laid open some of the structural causes of sexual abuse in church. Based on this analysis, a handful of bishops suggested to hold a national synod. But this suggestion didn’t find the necessary support among the bishops, partly because a national synod would give priests and bishops a structural majority according to canonical law. Instead, it was agreed that a new format should be developed together with the Zentralkomitee der deutschen Katholiken (Central Committee of German Catholics, ZdK), the umbrella organisation of the Catholic laity. The bishops had agreed to put the decisions of the Synodal Path into effect, if they reach 2/3 of the votes not only among the delegates, but also among the bishops.
This has become the Synodal Path that started with its first plenary session in February 2019 with approx. 230 delegates. The continuous work is organised in 4 thematic fora whose members have been partly nominated according to various quora and partly elected by the plenary:
1. Power and division of power in church — common participation in the mission task
2. Priestly existence today
3. Women in ministries and offices in the church
4. Life in felicitous relationships — living love in sexuality and partnership
All fora are led by a bishop and a lay person. Originally, a forum on the role of women in church wasn’t planned, but was accepted after pressure from the membership of the ZdK. The first plenary meeting had two important moments: One was the statement from a young trans man who not only came out as trans, but also reminded everybody of the purpose of the Synodal Path, when he shared that he was a survivor of sexual abuse, too. This intervention made visible that survivors of clerical abuse had not been invited as delegates or members of the fora. It took the presidency of the Synodal Path a full year to overcome this grave ignorance and to give three survivors a platform to share their stories until the 2nd (online) plenary on 4 February 2021. The second moment was after a bishop had declared that he felt uncomfortable in his situation and pre-judged by the MHG-Study, when a young non-binary student said how uncomfortable they felt as a non-man, non-woman, young non-binary person in the midst of a plenary assembly that represents all the structures that were responsible for the sexual abuse.
The work in the fora was complicated by the Corona situation that only allowed for video-conferences. A 2nd plenary was originally planned after 6 months, but only five regional meetings of the delegates were possible at that time. This caused a lot of delay and required a constant re-invention of the organisation of the Synodal Path. However, the 2nd plenary has now revealed the direction of the discussions in the fora and shared interim reports and preliminary documents for further feedback. Several of its meetings were livestreamed.
What can be expected for LGBT Catholics from the Synodal Path? The forum “Priestly existence today” seems to avoid the issue of homosexuality. The issue was partly addressed during the 2nd plenary when one delegate identified homosexuality among priests as cause of sexual abuse. At least three other delegates rejected this explanation as simply wrong. But my impression is that nobody wants to find a deeper understanding of how the moral condemnation of homosexuality (before, during and after seminary education) has prevented gay seminarians to build their sexual identity. It seems that they don’t want to know how this has negatively impacted their own lives and may have been one of the reasons why sexual abuse took place in such horribly big numbers (5% of clergy have abused minors, most of them male).
The fora on women and on sexuality have gone through tough controversies between conservatives on the one hand and moderates and progressives on the other. It seems clear now that the conservatives will not set the tone as they are a minority of perhaps 20% among the delegates and in the fora. The forum on women has the difficult task to find new ways to think about sacramental office for women. Key issue during the 2nd plenary was the theological understanding of the representation of Christ. Which ontological meaning has the sexual difference between men and women has and which should it have in the representation of Christ in the Eucharist? Must a priest be male? While there is also the relatively simple goal to improve the role of women in leading positions in church administration, the debate about women as deacons and priests promises to re-open a field of discussion in the Catholic Church that presumably was closed by the last Popes — simply because it is unstoppable in a social context of gender equality norms in which everybody recognizes the current injustice.
Most important for LGBTI people is the forum on sexuality and partnership. It discusses a revision of the Catholic doctrine (since Humanae vitae) that every sexual act has to be open to procreation and replacing it by an understanding of sexuality as multi-dimensional. The applied ethical framework is the ethics of relationship which leaves natural law approaches behind and allows for an inclusion of same-sex partnerships. Among the members of the forum are a lesbian teacher, a gay doctoral student and a non-binary student. They have collected testimonies that give evidence of how church doctrine has hurt LGBTI Catholics. Several members of this forum (including bishops) have declared how much the personal encounter with LGBT people has changed their way of thinking.
I expect from this forum (and the Synodal Path) the recommendations to implement blessing liturgies for same-sex couples in German dioceses and to institutionalize pastoral work with LGBTI people in each diocese (currently responsible ministers for LGBTI*Pastoral exist in half of them, but most of them started only very recently). Blessing liturgies for same-sex couples are a core goal of the ZdK and have been broadly discussed during the past 6 years, but as only 1/3 of the bishops have publicly expressed support for them, this recommendation may fail to get the final approval of 2/3 in the “chamber of bishops”. The treatment of trans and intersex people by the church is also on the agenda of this forum, but which outcome this may take is unpredictable as there was no preparational theological discussion before the Synodal Path.
A surprise of the opening address of the Chair of the German Bishops Conference to the 2nd plenary council was the announcement that an apology to all sexual minorities should be a separate document of the Synodal Path. However, how this shall be prepared appropriately is not yet clear.
Michael Brinkschröder is the Co-Chair of the Catholic LGBT+ Committee in Germany and Chair of the RCC Working Group of the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups)