On a level playing field? The German synodal experiment

Bernd Hagenkord, a German Jesuit priest (1968 – 2021), was appointed as one of two spiritual guides to the Synodaler Weg, the two-year synodal process begun by the German Bishops in association with the laity in 2019. The German Synodal Way was triggered by the findings of a report that looked into sexual abuse within the Church, and seeks to address a wide range of questions on authority, structure and faith. Here he documents his beliefs on the ensuing German Synodal Path.

It all began with us staring into the abyss. After a decade of having to deal with sexual violence in the church, the so-called MHG study was published in 2018 and in response to its findings the Church commissioned a five-year period of investigation into the topic of sexual abuse by priests, deacons and male religious in Germany. A long list of crimes and failures emerged, as well as an insight into the systemic causes that had enabled abuse and cover-up. The bishops and the representatives of the laity in the Church came to the conclusion that the problems of the Church must now be investigated in full. 

That was the opening shot for what the Church in Germany has been undertaking as the “Synodal Way” since 2019, a very broad debate on many topics without any predetermined outcomes. Of course no one is under the illusion that everything will be fine again afterwards. The debate about abuse in the Church has led to massive formal resignations from the Church faithful as well several expressions of deep-seated frustration. Even the most loyal of the faithful are leaving the Church because they see too many contradictions in it to the message of Jesus 

For the sake of proclaiming the Gospel we must speak about what are at times deeply-rooted problems that stand in the way. In his letter the Pope speaks of a ‘change of epoch’ that both ‘justifies and necessitates’ engagement with questions both new and ancient. In the original text here by Pope Francis there is a play on words: we are living through not just an epoch of change but a change of epoch. That reflects well the drama of the situation. 

What is the “Synodal Way”? 

The Synodal Way is a ‘successful model’, as the President of the Central Committee of German Catholics (the official lay committee), Prof. Thomas Sternberg, put it in April 2021. The question arises as to what exactly this model is. For, strictly speaking, there is no canonical form for a ‘Synodal Way’ in the Church. 

The synodal assembly is at the centre of the synodal path. Its 230 members include all bishops, as well as representatives of all Church groups: lay people, priests, those in pastoral ministries, religious orders and communities, theologians. The life of the Church is intended to be represented as broadly as possible. 

However, the assembly is not a parliament; as with a synod, it is also advisory in nature. The implementation of resolutions lies with the bishops in their dioceses. This ensures compliance with canonical regulations as well as unity with the world Church. 

The plan was to work for two years, with four plenary assemblies and meetings of working groups in between. Covid-19 thwarted all of this and so digital meetings not originally provided for in the statutes had to be inserted, and this has led to the whole process being extended by at least a year. The flexible format of the process has proven to be useful here as it enabled new formats and processes to be tried out. The process lends itself to adaptation. 

But as already indicated: canon law does not recognise this way of proceeding, nor, for example, does the ‘Synodal Way’ meet the requirements of a synod in a particular Church. Canonically, the Synodal Way is therefore a nullum, that is, has no standing in canon law and does not follow any clear guidelines. The decision to proceed in this way was consciously taken. The bishops and the laity wanted an approach that was deliberately being kept open-ended. The disadvantage of this was, and is, that every single step has to be negotiated anew. The Synodal Way cannot rely on canonical specifications and when concluded cannot claim canonical validity. That makes the process flexible and adaptable.  

A form of synodality 

From the beginning, the one great question facing the ‘Synodal Way’ was that of the binding nature of its decisions. The committee works in an advisory capacity, but at the same time when outlining its responsibilities the bishops had set out from the beginning that the decisions arrived at should be ‘binding’. So, on the one hand, there are complex voting methods and procedures, and, on the other hand, the final decision, as already indicated, remains with the bishops. 

What looks from the outside like a contradiction feels in practice like the emergence of new forms of synodality. The Church is undergoing transformation and requires new forms of authority and unity. Those who lead and those who advise must find a new way of relating to one another. Diversity and unity in the Church have to be recalibrated. These are all formulations that point to a central theme that now preoccupies the Church worldwide and also the Pope: synodality. The Synodal Way sees itself here as an experiment. 


One of the most visible features of the Synodal Way is the sometimes massive criticism that is unleashed against it. Initially, this has been from within the Church in Germany, but it is now becoming increasingly shrill from outside as well. In media circles that call themselves Catholic, we hear ‘apostasy’ and ‘heresy’ bandied about thoughtlessly and without any proper understanding of what these concepts mean.  

The basis for this fundamental criticism is the understanding of authority. Groups that presuppose allegedly never-changing Church teaching and consider the Church’s social form to be characterised above all by hierarchy and obedience also consider their inner-ecclesial dominance to be endangered by synodal processes. The Synodal Way is not the only target for criticism here; Pope Francis also has had to face alleged dubia, that is, a formal doubt expressed by some cardinals, concerning his doctrinal statements. Ultimately, this was nothing more than a questioning of his authority. The particular ecclesial structure of the Church in Germany, which is characterised by a strong sense of independence when it comes to theology and the role of the laity, leaves the Synodal Way particularly attractive when it comes to fundamental criticism. 

The critics overlook or do not want to recognise that reform of the Church aimed at restoration is no longer possible.  

What the critics also overlook or do not want to acknowledge is the fact that there have been very different and contradicting convictions on certain matters in the Church for quite a long time. The Church has long been stretched to breaking point on some issues.  

A break-up would mean people saying goodbye to each other and going their own way. The Synodal Way, however, brings together people who invest great passion in the Church, which they love. This cannot be denied of anyone who is participating! Reservations, questions, reproaches and wounds need to be acknowledged so that you can even begin a conversation. We cannot pretend that these deep, contradictory positions and disputes do not exist just because they have too often been hidden or have only covertly entered into conversation on a smaller scale. 

The Synodal Way does not create these disputes and contradictory positions; it only renders them visible. And more importantly, these different points of view are put together in one room, so to speak, and get to talk to one another not about one another. 

Understood in this way, the Synodal Way touches a sore point that goes way beyond Germany. The  fact that the German form of synodality has also been criticised in Asia and the USA, and that heavy weapons like ‘schism’ and ‘heresy’ have been deployed, show that the problems Germany is facing exist outside Germany as well. 

Strengths and weaknesses 

There are also problems and weaknesses in the process. It would be negligent not to face up to this. 

The greatest weakness results from the structure: precisely because the process is open and flexible, it is not yet possible to foresee what the outcomes will be. Not even the shape of the outcomes is foreseeable, because some matters can certainly only be decided on a global Church level, matters that are clearly urgent and pressing.  

This is a risk that the Synodal Way is aware of and recognises as a vulnerability. In addition, there are other concerns, or to put it in the language of the Pope, there are temptations. The first temptation, for example, is to see reform exclusively in structural terms.  

The second temptation is [not accepting] the reality that we belong to a worldwide Church which seems to prevent easy local solutions. Here the Pope rightly warns that solutions will never come from relying solely upon one’s own strengths. Synodality always has to do with thinking outside the box; this is a specifically Catholic insight. 

What has happened so far 

When the Synodal Way began, four subject areas were identified that were to be debated in separate forums. One related to authority and how it is regulated in the Church, another to the role of women, yet another was to address forms of priestly ministry, and the final one, the proclamation of the Church’s teaching on sexuality. 

These topics were not randomly selected. They bring a focus to bear upon debates that have existed for a long time and which address fundamental problems.  

How exactly these are approached and what comes out of them cannot be reported here as the debates are ongoing.  

A Spiritual Way 

From the beginning, the Synodal Way was intended to be what secular, democratic processes for forming opinions are not: a spiritual way.  

It is important to deal wisely with problems; statistics, analyses, forecasts and all of that are, of course, important. One can also in this way recognise the signs of the times. The Church should not stand still; however, there is more to being a believer than just this. A synodal approach should not try merely to reform or rescue the status quo, or merely to rescue the dwindling strength and significance of the Church in Germany. What matters is to distinguish spiritually where God wants to lead God’s Church. 

One of the first hurdles was to get used to the routine: it was customary to pray before and after meetings and to celebrate Mass together, but something really important happened in between, i.e., the debate and the work on jointly formulated texts. 

It is not uncommon for the term ‘spiritual process’ to be met with a certain mistrust. It is sometimes wrongfully assumed that to raise matters to a spiritual level is to play them down and render them harmless. However, the opposite is the case: when things get spiritual they become really serious because now God is in play. 

It is and remains difficult to connect this spiritual dimension with the debates and discussions. Yet the spiritual reveals itself in very simple things: in respect and in listening and in basically acknowledging that behind the contributions of others is a fellow believer. 

Above all else, to differentiate spiritually where God is leading God’s Church is not to fall back on general principles or convictions. Nor is it an exercise in applying general norms, whether human, Christian or ecclesial, to an individual case; it is not about the individual realisation of what is general. God’s presence always stretches well beyond general norms.  

It is about personal responsibility for one’s own faith and for the transmission and preaching of faith to others. It is about distinguishing what is needed in terms of care; and prayer, over and over again. It is about nuances and inner freedom, and the action of God in my own life; it is about experiencing and perceiving. This is all the opposite of ambiguity. And so, this can be a source of fear because there are no automatic or quick-fix solutions to problems. 

Finally, the spiritual dimension is itself just as important as the other points to be discussed. A spiritual awakening is needed in the Church, on the Synodal Way, and beyond. This awakening must face up to the problems in the Church and learn how to deal with them. 

In its conflict and in its prayer, in its debate and spiritual discernment, the Synodal Way is the necessary and urgent first step leading to forms of communication, decision-making and structures for the Church in Germany that are more appropriate to the proclamation of the Gospel. 

This article was edited for space.  The full text can be found in The Synodal Pathway – When Rhetoric Meets Reality published by Columba Books and reused here with permission. 


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