What the Holy See Didn’t Critique About Germany’s Synodal Way

National Catholic Register - EWTN [Irondale AL]

July 22, 2022

By Jonathan Liedl

By criticizing the procedure — but not the substance — of the Church in Germany’s push for radical departures from Catholic teaching, this week’s Vatican statement left deeper concerns unaddressed.

A clear and decisive rebuke of the German Church’s “Synodal Way” is perhaps needed now more than ever, as the process continues to hurtle toward the point of schism.  

The Synodal Way has been exposed as little more than a bald-faced attempt to subvert Church teaching in order to keep with the times — in fact, its leadership has explicitly said as much, describing it as “a conscious statement against the current Catholic catechism” that “still reproaches homosexual activity as sin.” And with the head of the German bishops’ conference publicly expressing his disappointment in Pope Francis over the Holy Father’s reticence to endorse the Synodal Way’s proposals, what’s happening in Germany also threatens to undermine the very concept of synodality that undergirds the Holy Father’s signature initiative, the so-called Synod on Synodality. 

But is a “clear and decisive rebuke” what the Holy See delivered yesterday with its brief, unattributed statement on the Synodal Way? 

The statement emphasizes that what’s unfolding in Germany “does not have the power to compel bishops and the faithful to adopt new forms of governance and new orientations of doctrine and morals.” The Holy See added that it seemed “necessary to clarify this,” in order to “safeguard the freedom of the People of God and the exercise of the episcopal ministry,” and also warned that the Synodal Way’s attempt to push doctrinal changes at the diocesan level would “constitute a violation of ecclesial communion and a threat to the unity of the Church.”  

The statement also included a dramatic excerpt from Pope Francis’ 2019 letter to the German Catholic Church at the start of the Synodal Way: “If particular Churches find themselves separated from the entire ecclesial body, they weaken, rot, and die.” 

On some level, then, the statement certainly is a strong rebuke of the Synodal Way, and that’s how it has been characterized in several media accounts.  

But it’s important to note what exactly the Holy See is criticizing — and notably, what it is not. 

The Holy See’s criticism of the Synodal Way is entirely a procedural critique, not a substantive one. At no point in the text does the Holy See state that the Synodal Way’s signature proposals — including changing Church teaching on homosexuality, marriage, and priestly ordination — are incompatible with the Catholic faith as it has been received, understood, and taught throughout the centuries. These proposals, in and of themselves, are not the issue at hand, according to the Holy See. Instead, the statement attributes the Synodal Way’s schismatic trajectory to a misstep in ecclesial protocol. 

As the Holy See wrote, “It would not be permissible to introduce new official structures or doctrines in dioceses before an agreement had been reached at the level of the universal Church.” Pushing these heterodoxical changes ahead unilaterally, and not simply advocating for heterodoxical positions in the first place, is what the Holy See warns “would constitute a violation of ecclesial communion and a threat to the unity of the Church.” 

In fact, instead of calling a spade a spade and reupdating the most problematic demands for reform emanating from Germany, the Holy See statement instructs that such proposals should “flow into the synodal process of the Universal Church” — as if there hasn’t already been enough of the Rhine flowing into the Tiber — “in order to contribute to mutual enrichment and to give witness to the unity with which the Body of the Church manifests its fidelity to Christ the Lord.” 

Of course, the Holy See could be taking this limited approach as a way to restrain the German Church without pushing it over the edge of outright schism — the same way someone might negotiate with a gunman who’s taken hostages. By telling the Germans their demands are off on procedural grounds instead of involving the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith — the Vatican’s SWAT Team — the Holy See may be hoping that the “Synodal Way” holds off on implementing its radical revisions and joins in with the larger Synod on Synodality, where the blow of rejecting its heterodoxical demands could be softened by pointing out their inconsistency with the wider Church. 

But it’s also possible that the Holy See chose not to repudiate the Synodal Way’s heterodoxical demands on doctrinal grounds because it does not view them as inherently problematic, automatic non-starters. In fact, this interpretation aligns with deeper concerns that have been expressed regarding the universal Church’s Synod on Synodality and the way it seems to be approaching doctrinal development — as a secular parliament, where anything goes so long as it follows bureaucratic protocol. 

Pope Francis has insisted that synodality is not a matter of treating the Church as some kind of democratic bureaucracy. But when the Holy See is only able to muster up a critique of the German Synodal Way along the lines that it effectively risks violating parliamentary procedure, and encourages its proponents to bring their calls for radical revision to “the synodal process of the Universal Church,” it’s unlikely that concerns about the underlying ecclesiology of the Synod on Synodality will be lessened. True unity in the Church, after all, is not simply a matter of shared procedural timelines or mutual bureaucratic belonging. It requires unity of faith, shared assent to what God has revealed and the Church has authoritatively taught, only possible through Christ’s gift of grace.  

But the Synod on Synodality hasn’t emphasized this dimension of ecclesial union. Its organizers have been willing to platform and promote perspectives at odds with established Church teaching. In fact, in a truly shocking instance, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, relator general of the entire Synod, has publicly declared the Church’s teaching on homosexuality is “false” and must undergo a grundrevision. That the Holy See was unwilling to repudiate the German Synodal Path heterodoxical views on doctrinal grounds is unsurprising, considering such a central figure in the Synod on Synodality shares at least some of them, and has yet to be repudiated himself. 

Those concerned with Germany’s Synodal Way and — by extension — the Synod on Synodality, may have hoped for a stronger intervention from the Holy See, one that repudiated what’s going on in Germany not just along procedural lines, but doctrinal ones as well.  

But given that German-backers of the Synodal Way are already downplaying the Holy See’s intervention, the Vatican may soon feel the need to weigh in with stronger medicine. When and if it does, it will be a moment to not only call out the doctrinal errors in Germany, but to clarify for the Universal Church that there can be no synodality without shared fidelity to the teachings of the Catholic faith.