Synodal Path hits the accelerator as European divide deepens – Catholic Herald

Archbishop Jerome Lloyd OSJVPosted by

Synodal Path set to vote on all-important council, despite global evidence that liberalism will not save the German Church

Synodal Path hits the accelerator as European divide deepens – Catholic Herald

Synodal Path set to vote on all-important council, despite global evidence that liberalism will not save the German Church

Next month, participants in the Synodal Path in Germany will vote on whether to create a permanent council to oversee the German Church, a move likely to concern the Vatican, which recently came out swinging against the Synodal Path, claiming the movement lacks the authority to instruct bishops on doctrine or morality, amid warnings of a schism. The Synodal Path believes however it is speaking to an engaged constituency, after data recently revealed most German Catholics reject the Church’s official stance on abortion.

Still, there has been significant pushback within the German Church. Cardinal Walter Kasper – former president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity – for instance, has claimed the Synodal Path is ignoring the Pope, and that if it continues to ignore his concerns, it could “break the German Synodal Path’s neck”. According to Kasper, while reform is necessary this does not mean reducing the Church “to a mass of modelling clay which one can knead and shape to fit any situation”.

To recap, the Synodal Path is a series of conferences of the German Catholic Church to discuss theological and organisational questions. It is divided into forums on separation of powers; succeeding relationships; priestly existence, and the role of women. A majority at a conference in February endorsed women’s ordination, same-sex partnerships getting a public blessing, reforming teachings on sexual ethics, and allowing married priests. 

The Synodal Assembly has also signalled its intent to challenge Church doctrine and discipline, and vowed to issue binding teaching on a range of matters. For his part, Pope Francis wrote a letter to German Catholics in 2019, objecting to the course of action. However, in 2021, a “Fundamental Text” asserted that “there is no one truth of the religious, moral, and political world, and no one form of thought that can lay claim to ultimate authority.” 

Within Germany, the Synodal Path may be pushing against an open door. The lower house of the German Parliament recently voted to remove the criminal code ban on advertising abortions. That said, the German Church has suffered from a devastating decline, with hundreds of thousands of members officially resigning. According to the German Bishops’ Conference, at least 359,000 Catholics left the Church in 2021, a jump from 221,390 in 2020. 

In turning left, the Synodal Path presumably thinks this decline can be arrested and that a focus on social justice will bring Catholics back into the pews. Yet, evidence from mainline Protestantism – as well as the Catholic Church’s loss to Evangelicalism in Latin America – suggest this is not correct. If it was, liberal Protestantism would not also have nosedived in Germany. While fifteen years ago, 61 per cent of Germans belonged to either a Catholic or Protestant church, today only about 26 per cent of Germans are officially registered as Catholics, with 23.7 per cent registered as Protestants.

In addition, data on American Catholics from the Pew Research Center suggests that while ex-Catholics are evenly divided between those who have become Protestant and those who are now unaffiliated, opposition to conservative values is primarily an issue for the latter group only. While just over half of former Catholics who are unaffiliated cite dissatisfaction with Catholic teachings on abortion and homosexuality – and nearly half cite dissatisfaction with teachings on birth control – as reasons for leaving Catholicism. Xuch reasons are cited far less by former Catholics who became Protestant (23 per cent and 16 per cent, respectively). 

This may suggest the Church attracts and repels in equal measure, yet the evidence of Protestantism’s decline, and the rise of Latin American Evangelicalism – as well as the strength of the Church in societies such as Nigeria, the Philippines and Poland – suggests that going woke is no solution to empty pews. This all comes as the Synod of Synodality enters its ‘continental phase’, which will try to reconcile divisions between a progressive approach in western Europe, and a conservative approach in central and eastern Europe, with European Catholics largely mirroring trends in wider society. Unsurprisingly, the President of the Polish Episcopal Conference has rebuked the Synodal Path. According to Poland’s synodal report, Polish Catholics in Poland do not want doctrinal changes. 

Overall, the German Synodal Path – like the Irish Church – seems to believe social justice is the key to turning around Catholicism’s fortunes. Of course, the Church must tolerate dissent and there are reforms which ought to be discussed. Still, the example of Protestantism’s decline – as well as the fortunes of the Catholic Church where it has held firm against where it has turned liberal – suggests the German Synodal Path is taking the wrong turn.

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