What do the German synodal way’s documents actually say?

The Pillar [Washington DC]

July 18, 2022

By Luke Coppen

Participants in Germany’s controversial “synodal way” will gather in Frankfurt in early September for the initiative’s next plenary session.

The meeting follows one in February that saw votes in favor of draft texts endorsing women priests, married priests, same-sex blessings, and the revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on sexuality.

The “synodal way” is a consultative process — its decisions do not make policy change in Germany, but, given the participation of bishops in the process, they are seen as setting a path forward for the Church in Germany.

At the fourth synodal assembly – as the event in September is known – some texts will be presented for a first reading, and then further revision, and others for a second reading and adoption as resolutions of the synodal way. 

But what do the welter of texts being considered by synodal way members actually say? Take a look.

The ‘orientation text’

The “orientation text,” formally adopted as a resolution of the synodal way in February, sets out the theological basis of the initiative – a multi-year gathering of bishops and lay people to discuss four topics: power, the priesthood, women in the Church, and sexuality.

The 18-page document defines the synodal way as “a dialogue carried out in an attitude of faith, leading to listening and seeing, to judging and acting.” It explains that the process draws upon sources including the “Holy Scriptures and tradition, the signs of the time, and the sense of faith of the people of God, as well as the Magisterium and theology.”

🧭 It says that “any reform of the Church worthy of its name is measured against the Holy Scripture.”

🧭 It describes tradition as “a living thing,” contrasting it with traditionalism, which, it says, only recognizes “the penultimate phase of Church history as binding in most cases, thus curtailing the richness of tradition or forcing it into the corset of a system.” It insists that “reforms are an integral part of tradition: Worship changes; doctrine develops; caritas unfolds.”

🧭 The text calls on the Church to examine “the signs of the time for traces of God’s salvific and liberating presence.” These signs include the abuse crisis, which has had a devastating impact on the Church in Germany.

🧭 It links the sexual abuse crisis to the synodal way’s four main topics, saying that abuse “brings into focus other questions of the life of the Church that in some cases have been open for a long time: the question of power and the desire for the separation of powers; the sustainability of priestly ways of life; the desire for equal access to the ministries and offices of the Church for all genders; the lack of reception of the Church’s sexual morals today.”

The orientation text says that “the sense of faith of the faithful” (sensus fidei fidelium) can emerge “when a Church doctrine is not taken on board by a major section of the people of God despite many clarifications and explanations.” But it acknowledges that “ongoing dissent by no means automatically negates the truth of a theological insight or of a doctrine that is presented.” 

🧭 The document describes the Magisterium and theology as “dynamic variables.” It says that the Magisterium not only seeks to preserve unity but also to enable and protect “the legitimate diversity of faith and doctrine that has always belonged to the life of the Church and to the working of the Spirit.”

The text argues that in the Middle Ages, the Magisterium had “held back” in theological disputes. But in the 19th century, the papacy was strengthened, creating “a centralism the consequences of which are still felt today.”

“The consequence of the First Vatican Council was that the Papal Magisterium, for apologetic reasons, increasingly claimed the task of and competence for theology for itself, and understood itself as a faith-defining defensive instance in the face of a modernity which it perceived as a threat to faith,” it suggests.

“This hindered the reception of knowledge from the humanities and natural sciences, and thus also prevented attempts by theology to open up new paths of faith in dialogue with contemporary thinking, and to make faith in God understandable to the people of that time.”

Vatican II marked the start of a new epoch and “led to a new flourishing of theology,” it argues.

“The Synodal Path notes that the Roman Magisterium also intervenes in our time in ongoing clarification processes and discussions, and insists on doctrinal positions that many faithful, including deacons, priests, and bishops, far beyond Germany, no longer find comprehensible,” the text says. 

“The alienation between the Church’s teachings and people’s ever more complex lives that was noted by Pope Francis and the [2014-2015] Family Synod is also becoming a massive problem in the proclamation of the Gospel for the local churches in Germany.”

Texts on power 

The first of the synodal way’s four forums is dedicated to reflecting on “Power and separation of powers in the Church – Joint participation and involvement in the mission.”

 The first words of the 23-page foundational text, formally passed as a resolution of the synodal way in February, are: “The Catholic Church is in a serious crisis.” It asserts that “a change of the Church’s power structures is necessary in the interest of successful inculturation into a free, democratic society based on the rule of law.”

The text examines how power is exercised in the Church, including from the perspective of canon law. It calls for changes to Church law so that “a system of separation of powers, participation in decision-making, and independent scrutiny of power, is established which is appropriate for the Church and which is based on the independent dignity of each baptized person.”

 There is also an implementation text, a three-page document entitled “Involvement of the faithful in the appointment of the diocesan bishop.” It discusses the variety of ways in which bishops are selected in Germany due to regional historical differences. The text, formally adopted as a resolution of the synodal way in February, recommends that cathedral chapters, which have a role in recommending candidates, should work with an elected body representing “the entire people of God in the diocese” to determine the list of suitable candidates that the chapter sends to the Vatican.

 The action text “Joint consultation and decision-making,” which runs to four pages, commits each German bishop to establishing “binding structures of participation and co-determination of the faithful in the diocese that he leads on the basis of their responsibility in all essential questions of the Church’s life and of the Church’s mission,” as well as to “make decisions in binding interaction with the synodal bodies of the diocese.” 

Each bishop is called on to establish a “synodal council” in their diocese. The text says that a synodal council “can modify draft decisions of the bishop, or make its own decisions on matters of diocesan significance.” Synodal councils should also be set up in parishes. Members will be able to “contradict the vote of the parish priest with a two-thirds majority.”

 The three-page action text “Ombudsperson’s Office for the prevention and reappraisal of abuse of power by persons of authority in the Church” calls for the creation and funding of “a cross-diocesan ombudsperson’s office” with a mandate “to prevent and resolve abuses of power on the part of individuals holding responsibility in the Church.”

 The three-page action text “Sermon regulation” commits the German bishops to revising their 1988 “Sermon Code,” in light of “changed pastoral conditions,” to give a greater role to lay people, especially women. The bishops are asked to “obtain permission (indult) from the Holy See to amend the sermon regulation in force today in such a way that the preparation and delivery of the sermon can also be taken on in Eucharistic celebrations on Sundays and feast days by faithful who are both theologically and spiritually qualified, and who are commissioned by the bishop.”

 The action text “Framework regulation for diocesan finances,” which is four pages long, seeks “a binding framework regulation” on “the financial constitution of the German dioceses.” It says that tighter controls are needed to avoid a repetition of the “poor decisions” that have “sparked scandals” in recent years.

 The three-page action text “Framework regulation for accountability” sets out plans for “regular accountability procedures” to “promote trust and transparency.” It says: “In the pursuit of accountability, a commission appointed by the German bishops’ conference and by the Central Committee of German Catholics [ZdK] is to draw up a framework regulation in 24 months after the adoption of this resolution which ensures minimum standards.”

 The action text “Guarantee of legal recourse” is a two-page paper seeking to harmonize the “complaints codes” of German dioceses. It outlines a three-tier “complaints management system,” featuring independently operating complaints units, diocesan arbitration boards, and Church administrative courts.

 The action text “Sustainable strengthening of Synodality: A Synodal Council for the Catholic Church in Germany” appeals for a permanent nationwide “advisory and decision-making body” consisting of both bishops and lay people. A revised version of the text, currently only available in German, seeks an intermediary body known as a “synodal committee” to lay the groundwork for the creation of a national synodal council, while making “fundamental decisions” on budgetary issues.

Texts on priesthood

The synodal way’s second forum focuses on “Priestly existence today.”

 The basic text, stretching to 11 pages, reflects on Germany’s clerical abuse crisis. It says: “There is a consensus that exaltation and sacralization of the priesthood have helped make abuse possible, led to victims’ voices being ignored, perpetrators being transferred to other parishes, and sexualized violence being actively hushed up in order to protect the institution.” It adds that “this consensus motivates drastic systemic changes that frighten and unsettle some.”

It goes on: “It is about nothing less than questions of turning away from the patriarchal system with its male-orientated structures, and about a new approach to the priesthood of ministry within the common priesthood of all the faithful; about questions of turning away from exaggerated and sacralized priestly roles, and about reflections on the involvement of women at different levels of the Church; about questions of turning away from a purely masculine, celibate approach to the priesthood.”

The text then offers an extended reflection on priests’ role in a synodal Church.

⛪ The four-page implementation text “Prevention and dealing with perpetrators” makes 10 specific proposals for preventing clerical abuse and ensuring the uniform treatment of perpetrators. These include assigning each offender a “case manager.” 

⛪ The implementation text “Personality development and professionalization” is a nine-page document calling for the German bishops and ZdK to create a working group to produce “a supra-diocesan framework regulation for the personality development of priests and pastoral workers.” Bishops are asked to mandate “attendance at training courses in order to enable lifelong learning and to communicate that faith needs a historical dimension so that it does not become an ideology.”

⛪ The seven-page implementation text “The vow of celibacy in the priestly ministry” affirms that priestly celibacy is “of value” but urges the pope to permit the ordination of married men in the Latin Rite Church, following Eastern Catholic practice. “If, for reasons of prudence, the preceding vote is deemed too far-reaching, the synodal assembly asks the Holy Father to consider individual extensions of the existing practice,” it says.

Texts on women in the Church

The third synodal way forum concerns “Women in ministries and offices in the Church.”

♀️ The 32-page foundational text, currently only available in German, argues that “gender justice in the Church is an essential touchstone of a credible and effective proclamation of the Gospel to all people.”

“A distinction between the diaconate and the other forms of sacramental ministry is historically demonstrable. A look at the universal Church shows that the vast majority of women are pastorally committed and willing to take on leadership responsibility,” says the document, “Women in ministries and offices in the Church.”

“There is no unbroken line of tradition for the exclusion of women from the official proclamation of the Gospel. In addition to supposedly unambiguous statements in the mainstream of the theological tradition to the disadvantage of women, there have always been contrary developments. They brought new perspectives and answers to the demands of the respective time and culture. Women were significantly involved in this.”

“The new look at the offices in the biblical texts and the approach to the fundamental equality of all believers means placing the question of women’s access to the sacramental office in the context of the fundamental renewal of the theology of the offices.”

♀️ The implementation text “Women in sacramental ministry” considers the role of women from the early Church to the present day. It says that “due to a re-evaluation of cultic purity, the repression and removal of female members from the public sphere of the Church began at the latest from the 2nd century onwards.”

“The Church thus took a path in which the charisms and vocations of women were increasingly ignored and could not be used to build up the Christian community,” it says. “This is also linked to a history of pain that has led to experiences of discrimination, misogynistic polemics and a lack of recognition for women with a vocation in previous centuries and up to the present day.”

The four-page document says that justifications for “the exclusion of women from the sacramental ministry” should be scrutinized by a new commission with a “high international profile” that will “periodically present its findings to the public.” 

It calls on the German bishops’ conference “to ensure that the commission’s activities are received by the universal Church.”

♀️ The six-page implementation text “Diaconate of women” calls for the creation of “the office of deaconess,” noting a longstanding movement in Germany in favor of female deacons.

♀️ The action text “Management of parishes, congregations and pastoral spaces,” another six-page document, laments as “hurtful and unjust” the “exclusion of women from ordained ministry.” It says that “greater participation by women in offices and ministries of the Church can currently only be made possible by expanding the competences of qualified lay women.” It calls on all German dioceses to “promote different models of leadership in shared responsibility in congregations, parishes, and deaneries, enabling the competences and charisms of women and men to be effective together.” 

♀️ The three-page action text “Women at Theological Faculties, Institutes and Church Universities” seeks the creation of a bishops’ conference commission, supported by the ZdK, to report annually “on gender equality measures and the representation of women” in theological faculties and Church institutes. 

It asks both the conference and the ZdK to “bring about a significant increase in the share of female scholars on their advisory bodies and commissions.” It also urges dioceses to “consciously include women’s studies and feminist theology in the study and further training programs of pastoral staff (including training for priests and training in religious communities).”

♀️ The five-page action text “Exchange of theological argumentation in universal church contexts” calls on the German bishops to advocate for “the thematic aspects of gender equality, gender perspectives, participation by women in the Church’s leadership ministries, and in the three forms of sacramental office” throughout the two-year global synod process that ends with the synod on synodality in Rome.

♀️The seven-page action text “Presence and Leadership – Women in Church and Theology,” currently only in German, says that “the goal of becoming a gender equitable Church requires the increased presence of women in leadership positions, in theology, research and teaching, and in decision-making and advisory bodies.” It recommends ways to achieve these goals.

Texts on sexual morality

The fourth synodal way forum is devoted to “Life in succeeding relationships – Living love in sexuality and partnership”

⚤ The 28-page basic text says that although the Church’s teaching on sexuality is not “the direct cause” of abuse, it nevertheless “forms a normative background that has evidently been able to facilitate such offenses.”

“The synodal assembly is convinced that it will not be possible to reorient pastoral care without re-defining the emphasis of the Church’s sexual teaching to a significant degree,” the text says. “The synodal assembly therefore suggests a major re-emphasis in the Church’s doctrine, and considers an urgent need to exist to overcome some of the restrictions in questions of sexuality, for reasons of sexual science as well as theology.” 

“In particular, the teaching that sexual intercourse is only ethically legitimate in the context of a lawful marriage, and only with a permanent openness to the transmission of life, has caused a wide rift to open up between the Magisterium and the faithful. This threatens to completely obscure other important accents of God’s Good News which could have a liberating effect on shaping dignified sexuality.”

The document notes that sexual morality falls “within the doctrinal competence of the Bishop of Rome” and says that its proposals are therefore directed to the pope “as the local church’s expression of the shared responsibility of all who are baptized and confirmed for the good of the Church of Christ.”

It presents 10 motions, including one affirming that “the principles and criteria of sexuality lived out in Christianity – respect for self-determination and responsible sexuality, as well as fidelity, permanence, exclusivity and responsibility for one another in relationships – also apply to homosexual people” and denouncing “so-called conversion treatments.” 

Another motion says that “it is the task of sex education, as of Christian education and upbringing as a whole, to promote the life-serving and thus mindful and dignified formation of sexual lust over the whole span of human life, to sensitize it for its moments of pleasing, and thus to protect it from trivializing degeneration.”

⚤ The implementation text “Basic Order of Church Service,” running to four pages, addresses the employment law of the German Catholic Church, the nation’s second-largest employer after the state. It argues that the ecclesiastical labor law, set out in a text called the “Basic Order of Church Service in the Framework of Church Employment Relationships,” is “discriminatory with regard to employees who live contrary to the traditional sexual morals of the Church.”

It calls for a change in the law so that it will “in future no longer allow decisions for a legally regulated or non-prohibited form of partnership to be taken as violations of obligations of loyalty and accordingly prevent employment in church service or bring about the termination of an existing employment relationship.”

It adds: “Personal marital status shall have no relevance to employment or continued employment in the service of the Church.”

⚤ The four-page implementation text “Blessing ceremonies for couples who love each other” asks Germany’s bishops “to officially allow blessing ceremonies in their dioceses for couples who love each other and want to commit themselves, but to whom sacramental marriage is not accessible or who do not want to enter into it.” It underlines that “this also applies to same-sex couples on the basis of a re-evaluation of homosexuality as a normal variant of human sexuality.”

⚤ The three-page implementation text “Magisterial statements on conjugal love’’ appeals to the pope to offer “a magisterial clarification and re-evaluation of conjugal love.” The document asks for changes to the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s teaching on conjugal fecundity (sections 2366 and 23672396) and the regulation of procreation (236823702399).

It says: “The Church’s recommendation of responsible parenthood is not in fundamental conflict with a married couple’s openness to children. Nor does the free and responsible choice of the method of family planning have to lead to a fundamental rejection of procreation and conception.” 

It argues that the Church’s attention to methods of contraception “created the image of a one-sided fixation of the Church on genitality.”

It concludes that “a detailed standardization of sexual acts by the Magisterium of the Church contradicts the freedom of God’s children, who as married couples are to shape their lives and their relationship in mutual responsibility.”

⚤ The four-page text “Magisterial reassessment of homosexuality,” currently available only in German, says that “passages 2357-2359 and 2396 (homosexuality and chastity) of the Catechism should be revised” as part of a “re-evaluation of homosexuality.”

“It follows from this reassessment that the Church should acknowledge that in many places it has caused suffering and violated the dignity of people through its teaching and practice in relation to homosexuality,” it asserts.

It says that it also follows “that no person should be denied the assumption of ecclesiastical offices and the reception of priestly ordination, and that no person who is in the service of the Church may suffer professional disadvantages, because they are homosexually oriented.”