Rome Newsroom, Feb 10, 2022 / 10:30 am (CNA).
The German “Synodal Way” is moving forward boldly following a decisive meeting in Frankfurt at the start of February. But one important question remains unanswered: how does the initiative fit in with the two-year global synodal process launched by Pope Francis leading up to the 2023 Synod on Synodality?
Bishop Georg Bätzing, chairman of the German bishops’ conference, went some way to answering that question at the end of the three-day meeting of the Synodal Assembly, the supreme decision-making body of the Synodal Way.
“It was received with great approval and joy in the Synodal Assembly that we will establish a mixed discussion group between those responsible in the Roman Synod Secretariat and the presidium of the Synodal Way in our country,” he said on Feb. 5.
Bätzing made it known that he had a meeting in Luxembourg with Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich and Cardinal Mario Grech. Both men have critical roles in the worldwide synodal process. Pope Francis chose Hollerich, the archbishop of Luxembourg, to serve as relator general of the Synod on Synodality. The pope selected Grech, from Malta, as secretary general of the Synod of Bishops.
According to a source familiar with the work of the General Secretariat of the Synod of the Bishops, Grech’s presence at the gathering was “part of a series of meetings that the General Secretariat of the Synod intends to hold with the particular Churches,” with the will to “accompany them in the synodal process.”
In this regard, Grech also gave a speech at the last general assembly of the Italian bishops in November 2021. So, the Maltese cardinal is talking to multiple national bishops’ conferences about the global synodal process.
The idea of establishing a working group is part of a mediation effort that also aims to avert a possible schism of the Church in Germany. In June 2019, Pope Francis sent a 19-page letter to German Catholics highlighting a “growing erosion and deterioration of faith” in the country. He urged Church members to resist the temptation to reorganize structures in the face of difficulties and engage instead in evangelization.
At the Synodal Assembly meeting on Feb. 3-5, participants voted in favor of draft texts calling for the abolition of priestly celibacy in the Latin Church, the ordination of women deacons and priests, same-sex blessings, and changes to Catholic teaching on homosexuality.
The process has not gone unchallenged. Members of a German initiative called “New Beginning” have launched a campaign posing seven questions about the Synodal Way. “The next schism in Christendom is just around the corner. And it will come again from Germany,” they said.
Hollerich may be uniquely positioned to serve as a mediator. For one thing, he comes from Luxembourg, which borders Germany and includes German among its administrative languages. He also studied in Germany and so is familiar with the German theological world. He is also fluent in Italian (among other languages) and, like Pope Francis, is a Jesuit.
In addition to being the relator general of the Synod on Synodality, Hollerich is president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE). In that capacity, he had appealed for a Europe-wide synod in February 2021, shortly before the Vatican announced the two-year global synodal process.
After the Vatican’s announcement in May 2021, Hollerich expressed satisfaction that there would be “a synodal process also in the European Union, thanks to the reform of the Synod of Bishops.”
“It is not possible,” he told ACI Stampa, CNA’s Italian-language news partner, “that one episcopal conference goes ahead, while others do not.” The reference, not too hidden, was to the German Synodal Way, which in a certain sense separated the Church in Germany from that in other European countries.
Hollerich’s most recent statements go precisely in the direction of seeking mediation on different issues and between contrasting national sensitivities.
In common with Synodal Way members, Hollerich has called for a change to Catholic doctrine on homosexuality.
Asked by German Catholic news agency KNA how he dealt “with the Church teaching that homosexuality is a sin,” he replied: “I believe that this is wrong. But I also believe that we are thinking ahead in doctrine here. The way the pope has expressed himself in the past, this can lead to a change in doctrine. Because I believe that the sociological-scientific foundation of this teaching is no longer correct.”
Hollerich has also shown some openness to the abolition of priestly celibacy. “At one time,” he told the French Catholic daily La Croix, “I was a great supporter of celibacy for all priests, but today I hope there are ‘viri probati’ [mature, married men ordained as priests]. It is a deep desire. But I think we must go in this direction; otherwise, we will soon have no more priests. In the long term, I can also imagine the path of Orthodoxy, whereby only monks are required to celibacy.”
On women priests, he explained that the first problem “is not whether women should become priests or not, but first of all whether women have a real weight in the priesthood which belongs to all the baptized and confirmed people of God and whether in this way they can exercise the authority associated with it. Would this also mean a homily at Mass? I would say yes.”
In yet another interview, with the German magazine Herder Korrespondenz, he acknowledged that the rapid introduction of viri probati and women deacons would present “the danger of schism.” He emphasized that he had nothing against the changes, but said: “After all, it’s not just about the German situation, where perhaps only a small part would break away. In Africa or in countries like France, many bishops would possibly not go along with it.”
Through his interviews, Hollerich appears sympathetic towards the direction of the German Synodal Way, but also to suggest the need for mediation with the wider Church. For example, in the Herder Korrespondenz interview, he said that the German bishops misunderstood Pope Francis.
“The pope is not liberal, he is radical,” he commented. “From the radicality of the Gospel comes the change.”
Hollerich has also made it clear in the past that he is uncomfortable with some ideas being promoted within the Church in Germany. For example, on the question of intercommunion, Hollerich, who lived for years in Japan where he was vice rector of Sophia University, stressed that he had never denied Communion to anyone but would never concelebrate with an evangelical pastor.
He also clearly said no to “nuptial blessings” of same-sex couples because “we consider marriage only the union between a man and a woman.”
He has stood firm on abortion as well, with sharp words like those of Pope Francis, who likened the practice to hiring “a hitman to solve a problem.”
The working group of Synodal Way leaders and Synod on Synodality organizers could use Hollerich’s positions as a starting point. But would this be enough to dovetail the German initiative with the synodal process that the pope wanted for the whole Church? It is a decisive question.
The recent votes cast by members of the German Synodal Way may appear to leave little room for further mediation. But the current phase of the global synodal process is dedicated to listening. The idea is that all positions should be heard so as to stimulate debate. But eventually, decisions will have to be made — and they will fall to the pope when the two-year process comes to a head with the Synod of Synodality in Rome next year.
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