Jonathan Liedl is a senior editor for the Register. His background includes state Catholic conference work, three years of seminary formation, and tutoring at a university Christian study center. Liedl holds a B.A. in Political Science and Arabic Studies (Univ. of Notre Dame), an M.A. in Catholic Studies (Univ. of St. Thomas), and is currently completing an M.A. in Theology at the Saint Paul Seminary. He lives in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Follow him on Twitter at @JLLiedl.
COMMENTARY: The problems with the Synodal Way go far deeper than the controversial proposals it’s advanced.
From a distance, the main problems of the German Synodal Way seem clear enough. They take the form of controversial resolutions, the process, which concluded its initial phase March 9-11 with an assembly in Frankfurt, has advanced with overwhelming majorities: blessings for same-sex couples, incorporation of transgender ideology into Church practice, pushing the Vatican to allow for the attempted sacramental ordination of women, and so forth.
But to follow the proceedings from the synodal assembly floor and to be immersed in the wider context of the German Catholic Church underscores that something far more systematic and sinister is afoot, of which the proposals that get the headlines are merely the destructive fruits.
The Synodal Way’s problems are in the roots of the entire enterprise: a three-pronged foundation of fatally flawed theological premises, coercive tactics to force compliance, and a spirit of prideful disobedience. The result is a project in which the universal faith of the Catholic Church — which is taught by the magisterium, expressed in the Catechism, and held by the faithful worldwide — is all but undetectable.
From a theological perspective, the issues advanced by the Synodal Way seem different and diverse. Blessing same-sex relations relates to theological anthropology and morality, the question of women’s ordination is a matter of sacramentology, and a permanent synodal council in which the laity can override the episcopacy is in the domain of ecclesiology.
However, what each and every one of the Synodal Way’s proposals have in common is that they are informed by the same fundamental theology or understanding of the nature of God’s revelation to humanity. At this most basic level, the theological vision that animates the Synodal Way is characterized by a deep doubt in the ability of Jesus Christ — the definitive Word of God — to reliably reach us today through Scripture and Tradition, as mediated by the teaching authority of the Church.
In the absence of confidence in the Church’s ability to interpret Divine Revelation, other “sources” emerge as definitive interpreters of the Catholic faith: namely, a secular sense of historical progress and subjective experience. Arguments based on these criteria dominated throughout the Synodal Way’s fifth assembly. For instance, most of the justifications for ordaining women at the assembly were based on individual woman’s subjective sense that they were being called to ordained ministry or to a perceived need to update Church practice to reflect prevailing cultural norms in Germany. Werner Otto, a priest, noted that he couldn’t believe that the question of women preaching during Mass still needed to be discussed in 2023. He received a rousing round of applause.
Perhaps one of the most bizarre theological moments during the Frankfurt assembly came amidst a discussion related to transgender ideology, when Julianne Eckstein, a theology professor in Münster, argued that because Genesis failed to distinguish between pets and wild animals, which we can do now, we can also go beyond its narrow description of humanity as either male or female. In the same conversation, a religious sister said that while we don’t know much about human nature, or even God, we do know that God is present in each person, an argument in favor of someone’s subjective sense of self trumping the Church’s authoritative teaching based in Divine Revelation. Still, another delegate said that only the Tradition of the Catholic Church was holding back the acceptance of transgender ideology, and it needed to be “destroyed.”
In his Principles of Catholic Theology (1989), Joseph Ratzinger provided a description of at least one of the dynamics apparently at play: an inversion of the German theologian Karl Rahner’s Hegelian-influenced equation of prevailing human opinions with Christianity.
“If the teachings of Christianity are the universally human, the generally held views of man’s reason, then it follows that these generally held views are what is Christian,” the future Pope Benedict XVI wrote, describing how this view undermines the authority of the Church. “If that is the case, then one must interpret what is Christian in terms of the universal findings of man’s reason.”
In other words, it’s not a “nothing’s certain, so anything goes” approach. Instead, allegedly enlightened human reason has emerged as the ultimate theological criteria, through which Scripture and Tradition must be filtered. What it says goes.
This is apparent in the way that the Synodal Way has selectively engaged with the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Despite clearly denying Dei Verbum, the council’s dogmatic constitution on Divine Revelation, by rejecting the singularity and definitiveness of Christian revelation in the synod’s foundational text, the documents and delegates of the Synodal Way frequently employed concepts from conciliar teachings to justify their proposals. But filtered through a flawed fundamental theology, these concepts become deformed, imbalanced, and abstracted from the texts within which they’re presented.
Lumen Gentium 9’s teaching on the “People of God” was cited as grounds for the laity overriding a bishop’s authority or dictating his teaching, despite everything else the document says about the hierarchical nature of the Church; the concept of the “sense of the faithful” was used to justify changing Church doctrine and discipline on the basis of opinion polls, seemingly oblivious to the fact that less than 5% of German Catholics go to Mass and a lack of understanding or acceptance of basic Catholic teachings is endemic; and Gaudium et Spes’s reference to “signs of the times” was spoken of as if it were the ultimate theological criteria, a position criticized recently by Father Thomas Marschler, a priest and theologian at the University of Augsburg.
If a theological approach grounded in distorted interpretations of this constellation of conciliar concepts — “People of God,” “Signs of the Times,” the “Sense of the Faithful” — sounds familiar, it’s because it has also been used to argue for dramatic changes to the Church via the ongoing Synod on Synodality by figures elsewhere, like Cardinal Robert McElroy, and arguably even within the “working document” of the synod’s continental stage. Therefore, how Pope Francis addresses the German Synodal Way will also likely have ramifications for this broader theological project.
But while this theological perspective is something of an outlier in the universal Church — albeit a loud, well-positioned, and well-funded one — it absolutely dominates the German scene and the Synodal Way. Most explanations from German Catholics who remain faithful to the magisterium cite a multigenerational crisis of catechesis in Germany, in which basic instruction was foregone by pastors educated by an academic theology establishment hostile to the popes of Rome, the magisterium, and the Catechism.
Still, a sizable minority of Synodal Way participants, and especially bishops, don’t share this warped theological perspective nor endorse the problematic resolutions it’s led to. However, you wouldn’t necessarily know that based on votes from this month’s assembly. That’s because German bishops who disagree have been subjugated to a brutal campaign of intimidation by Synodal Way leadership, delegates, and even their fellow bishops, likely changing the outcome of key votes.
At the previous assembly in September, rules were changed after one-third of the German bishops voted against a text advancing a radically unorthodox understanding of human sexuality, blocking its adoption. To prevent such an outcome from happening again, synodal leadership effectively neutralized the right to vote by secret ballot, by ensuring that a motion for secret voting could be voted down by the entire assembly. This, in fact, happened for every key resolution in Frankfurt. In fact, when Auxiliary Bishop Florian Wörner of Augsburg attempted to request secret voting, which required written support from four others, other delegates demanded to know the names of the other bishops who had joined him.
The controversial move to public voting was brutally effective. While 20 bishops had voted against the sexuality base text in September (while three abstained), the numbers were nearly reversed when it came to the now-public votes on action texts that were directly based on the rejected base text. For instance, on the vote for same-sex blessings, nine bishops voted “No,” but 11 abstained. And on the vote to adopt transgender ideology into Church practice, 13 bishops abstained, while only seven voted against the measure. In both cases, if the abstaining bishops had voted against the resolution, it would have failed to pass.
While many have questioned the moral character of a bishop who might have disagreed with these measures but abstained from voting “No” out of fear of backlash, few outsiders understand the degree to which the German episcopacy is effectively hemmed in by a powerful and actively hostile lay ecclesial apparatus. Enriched by the government-collected “church tax,” the Catholic Church in Germany employs 800,000 people, a number nearly as high as the total number of German Catholics who go to Mass most Sundays (900,000). In fact, many Church workers in Germany do not participate in basic practices of the Catholic faith, like Sunday Mass, nor agree with the Church’s core teachings. Yet because of Church labor laws, which became even more protective after the German bishops’ conference adopted new ones this past November, bishops have very little capacity to remove hostile actors or those who deviate from the faith.
An example can be found in Cologne, where fierce opposition against Cardinal Rainier Maria Woelki after an alleged mishandling of clergy abuse is believed by many to be a thinly veiled attempt to silence the prelate, who had been a prominent critic of the Synodal Way. Cardinal Woelki faced widespread opposition from diocesan employees, effectively cutting his ministerial legs out from underneath him. He even submitted his resignation to Pope Francis, who did not accept it, but also has not offered the embattled prelate his full support. Cardinal Woelki, whose diocese is situated in what is widely regarded as Germany’s “LGBTQ” capital, abstained from voting on the same-sex blessings resolution at this month’s assembly.
The tactics Synodal Way proponents have employed matched the rhetoric on the floor at this assembly. Frequently, bishops were publicly chastened for introducing amendments to texts, receiving regular accusations of being clerical and not interested in true synodality. On multiple occasions, it was implied that bishops would be complicit in suicides if they didn’t support resolutions related to same-sex blessing and gender identity. In at least one instance, a bishop was mocked to a chorus of applause. Many observers noted that this fifth and final assembly was actually tamer than the September assembly when several bishops who had voted “No” against the base text were pressured to confess before the whole assembly.
In fact, five former delegates resigned their position in protest before the final assembly, choosing not to participate.
“Personal attacks and defamation have often been showered on us, who have spoken in the spirit of Church teaching,” Dorothea Schmidt, one of four female delegates to opt out of the Synodal Way in February, told the Register. “The entire synodal process was political, not synodal as Pope Francis desires.”
A Spirit of Disobedience
Synodal Way organizers were often careful, even strategic, to not cross what they perceived as red lines drawn by Rome. The most obvious case was the decision to delay voting to establish a permanent synodal council, which the Vatican had explicitly warned against in the lead-up to the assembly. Instead, delegates voted to establish a “Synodal Commission,” which will be tasked with preparing a potential permanent Synodal Council, while the German bishops’ conference and the powerful Central Committee for German Catholics attempt to curry favor for their proposals in Rome and abroad.
In several other instances at the Frankfurt assembly, delegates and leaders spoke of canon law, doctrine, and Church disciplines as, at best, bureaucratic red tape to be overcome on the way to a predetermined outcome, rather than as legitimate expressions of the faith to be received and shaped by.
This kind of spirit of disobedience is not new. The German bishops rejected Humanae Vitae and its ban on artificial contraception with the 1968 “Declaration of Königstein,” which has never been formally rescinded. German Catholics regularly speak of a kind of Deutscher Katholizismus that views itself as above and beyond what the Vatican or the rest of the universal Church has to say.
And, of course, there are older precedents for German disobedience of Rome, something the opposition group Maria 1.0 reminded bishops and delegates of outside the Synodal Way assembly with a sign that read: Mach nicht den Luther! (“Don’t do a Luther!”).
In the weeks after the assembly’s conclusion, the spirit of disobedience poured forth more concretely. Despite the Vatican’s 2021 declaration that “the Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex” and Cardinal Pietro Parolin’s insistence that the German bishops can do nothing in this regard without the universal Church, Bishop Georg Bätzing insisted on German television that the practice would happen in Germany, with or without Vatican approval.
“We will implement it here,” Bishop Bätzing reiterated in response to a question about whether he was sure Pope Francis would agree.
Despite describing the Synodal Way as elitist, ideological, unserious, and not helpful, the Holy Father has yet to make any concrete interventions into the state of the Church in Germany. Catholics on the ground who accept the universal faith are desperate for intervention but have no confidence that help is coming. Discussions about “leaving the Church to stay Catholic,” or unaffiliate from the legally recognized Catholic apparatus in Germany in order to not be complicit with its rampant heterodoxy, are widespread among this group, as are questions about relocating to more orthodox dioceses, or even abroad.
If clarity and correction from Rome don’t come soon, many fear that the same dubious theology, Orwellian tactics, and spirit of disobedience demonstrated by the Synodal Way in Germany will soon spread elsewhere. And for good reason: The German synodals are explicit that this is their goal.
Discussions in Frankfurt touched on the Synodal Way’s strategies for currying favor for its proposals in Rome and beyond, given that many of its aims — such as women’s ordination or an end to priestly celibacy — would require approbation at the universal level. The possibility of creating “promotional videos” was even mentioned. Several times, Synodal Way delegates spoke of their provocative work as necessary to lead to changes in Church teaching and practice in other parts of the world.
It is a reflection of a short rhyme made famous by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1907, which many German Catholics themselves say still characterizes the German mentality: Am deutschen Wesen mag die Welt genesen (“The German way of being will heal the world”).
Or, in this case, the German Synodal Way’s “different” way of being Catholic will infect the Church.