AAt the beginning there was a clarification: “Holy Father, we are not working on texts, but dreams that should grow,” said Bishop Georg Bätzing at the start of the second general assembly of the “Synodal Way” in Frankfurt. The words of the chairman of the Catholic German Bishops’ Conference were based on a formulation by Pope Francis, with which he recently called on Catholics all over the world to take a “Synodal Way”: They should not produce texts, but dreams. Interested circles interpreted these words as a new swipe, like the Pope’s letter from 2019 to the German Catholics about the reform project: 16 texts with a total of around 190 pages were to be written by the 210 members of the “Synodal Way” from Thursday evening to Saturday afternoon first reading will be discussed.
But already on Friday morning it became clear that it should not be about dreams, but about concrete reforms in the Catholic Church in Germany, for which one does not even have to ask the Pope’s permission. “Commitment” was the magic word. Bishops and pastors should voluntarily and bindingly declare that they are willing to forego some of their previous competencies and grant the faithful extensive say in their dioceses and parishes. This was one of the central demands of the two texts presented by the Synodal Forum “Power and the separation of powers in the Church”. This proposal, which has been in the room in a similar form for a long time, was born out of necessity: Nobody can oblige the bishops to give up their often unlimited power in the church, unless they do it themselves. Canon law shields the sphere like a firewall the decision-making depends on the decision as such. But it was precisely on this – on compatibility with the applicable church law – that the Synodal Forum attached great importance in its first concrete proposals.
An amendment aimed at obliging the bishops to hand over powers to lay bodies was rejected by a majority. A fundamental debate ensued about how democratic the church can and should be. “Power and the separation of powers can be demanded without forgetting specifically about the church,” said the Vice President of the Central Committee of German Catholics Claudia Lücking-Michel. The Trier bishop Stephan Ackermann expresses himself skeptically: One should not pretend that democratic societies are the “second gospel”, he said.
The Essen bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck demanded that the church must endure “ambiguity”. One should not confuse plurality with arbitrariness. The Aachen bishop Helmut This warned that democracy in the church should not “eat up” the hierarchy. He spoke out in favor of a consensus model, as practiced in his diocese: a decision can only be made if neither the bishop nor the lay committees object.
The Munich Archbishop Reinhard Cardinal Marx, on the other hand, said that the Church should not “remain below the level of what it demands of society in its social teaching”. He called the way of self-commitment “realistic” because it does not mean that everything has to be immediately and uniformly changed on a global church level.
But are the bishops in Germany really ready to voluntarily give up power? Or does the whole thing end in a “cloud cuckoo country” after all, as a member of the Synodal Assembly asked? The oath of disclosure did not come about during the deliberations, which lasted until Saturday afternoon. The demand to let the bishops vote separately on individual motions in order to get a picture of the mood was rejected with reference to the rules of procedure for the first reading. The bishops have a blocking minority: If only a third of them votes against the resolutions of the “Synodal Way”, they are rejected.