German Catholic memo to Down Under: tread carefully with Plenary

Australia’s Plenary Council and the German ‘Synodal Way’ are two early experiments in the Catholic Church’s pivot to synodality with more in common than you might think - just ask the Germans.

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German Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier speaks during the third Synodal Assembly in Frankfurt on 4 February 2021. German Catholic critics of the Synodal Way program in their own country have warned Australian Catholics not to repeat German mistakes with the Plenary process here. Photo: CNS, Julia Steinbrecht, KNA

After Pope Francis’ general audience on 5 January, a delegation of German Catholics approached the Holy Father and pressed a document into his hands.

The delegation represented a movement called Neuer Anfang – “New Beginnings”. The document was a nine-point manifesto proposing an alternative to the German “Synodal Way” causing shockwaves in the global Church because of its radical interpretation of the meaning of synodality.

Many Australian Catholics will have heard something about the Synodal Way, or about the President of the German Bishops Conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing.

The German agenda

Bishop Bätzing has called for far-reaching changes to church doctrine on everything from marriage, priestly celibacy, and women’s ordination, and leads a push for a new, “horizontal” structure to the German Church.

Even though the Synodal Way is ostensibly non-canonical – unlike the Australian Plenary Council – the conclusions of its four forums and 230 participants are held by some, including Cardinal Reinhard Marx, to be binding on the German Church.

The Vatican has issued several statements critical of the process, as have other European Bishops’ Conferences – recently, Poland and the Nordic countries.

Fears of schism

Rumblings that the Germans are en route to schism or a repeat of the Reformation are getting louder.

Few, however, will have heard of Neuer Anfang. Yet Australian Catholics should pay attention to this deeply convicted, theologically serious and tenacious opposition movement, given that Australia and Germany are, in many respects, the canaries in the mine regarding the global Church’s “synodal” recalibration.

The Catholic Weekly spoke with Birgit Kelle and Bernhard Meuser, two key figures in Neuer Anfang, about their manifesto – available in English at neueranfang.online/manifest – and their experiences during Germany’s counterpart to our own Plenary Council.

Birgit Kelle is a key figure in the German Catholic Neuer Anfang ‘New Beginnings’ movement. Neuer Anfang proposes a radically different solution to that emerging in the Synodal Way’s processes for the future of the Church in Germany based far more on discipleship – and far less on creating additional new structures. Photo: supplied

Two radically opposed visions of Catholic faith

In the view of Neuer Anfang, the Synodal Way has resulted in two radically opposed visions of Christian life contesting the future of the German Church.

The reformers of the Synodal Way are, ironically, the “conservative” party according to Kelle and Meuser, insofar as their priority is institutional restructuring rather than spiritual renewal.

 

 

“With regard to the basic social form of the church, representatives of the Synodal Way busy themselves with the preservation of the status quo,” says the Neuer Anfang manifesto.

Structure over spirituality?

“They wish to maintain and conserve the model of a highly institutionalised church that is ‘serving its clientele’ through adaptation and modernisation.

“What is not in view from the outset, though, is a church of genuinely shared spiritual life, in which people become a learning community of faith (and thus disciples).”

The Synodal Way’s ethical discussions therefore revolve around a question of changing Church teaching, “from ‘what was forbidden yesterday’ to ‘what is somewhat permitted now’, so that what remains of the Church can smoothly fit in with the cultural mainstream”.

Bernhard Meuser: like fellow Catholic Birgit Kelle, he is deeply concerned by the trajectory of the ‘Synodal Way’ in the Catholic Church in Germany. Photo: supplied

One view of autonomy

Meuser, corresponding by email with The Catholic Weekly, said the issue was a mistaken concept of autonomy: “One appeals above all to the autonomy of man and says: God has given him freedom so that he defines out of himself what he is and what he wants and how he lives.”

He quotes Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck, a supporter of the Synodal Way and chairman of the Faith Commission of the German Bishops’ Conference, who said: “How people have to live can no longer be generally authoritatively decreed without trampling on God’s gift of autonomy.”

What then, Meuser asks, is the role of the preacher – or indeed the sacraments, the teaching office of the Church, or of the Scriptures?

‘Redundancy’ of preaching?

On this view, “it no longer gives ethical instructions and is only spiritual decoration” because nothing can intrude on the radical freedom of the individual.

“But can someone be a Christian who only listens to himself and no longer to Jesus?” Meuser asks.

The “conservative” vision of the Synodal Way also extends, in the view of Neuer Anfang, to its model of the synodal reform of Church structures.

German_Australian similarities

The proposals, Meuser and Kelle say, are similar to those proposed to the Australian Plenary Council, as reported in The Catholic Weekly of 6 March 2022: synodal bodies set up alongside priestly and episcopal authority, including Diocesan and national synods.

The major difference is that the German proposal would see lay Catholics participate in decision-making at a binding, rather than consultative level – including in the ordination and appointment of Bishops.

Similar proposals were floated in Australia during the Plenary process, but have not made it through to the current stage.

The question on all observers’ lips is straightforward: where is it all heading? Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German bishops’ conference, speaks during a news conference at the start of the the third Synodal Assembly in Frankfurt on 3 February 2022. Photo: CNS, Julia Steinbrecht, KNA

Kasper – the unexpected critic

Cardinal Walter Kasper, known internationally as a German liberal Bishop, has been an unlikely opponent of these reforms, saying the Synodal Way has “not abandoned the episcopal office, but it has gutted it in its essence” by turning the Bishop into the chair of an advisory board.

“Thus the neck of the church founded on the Gospel and of the episcopate is broken,” Cardinal Kasper said.

Neuer Anfang certainly does not deny that the Church in Germany is in deep trouble, as their manifesto says: “Indeed, there is abuse of power in the Church and there is too little appreciation and genuine participation by laypeople, especially women.”

A bloated apparatus

But, Birgit Kelle told The Catholic Weekly, the solution is not the agenda of what she describes as “an event of church functionaries and selected individual laymen, paid by meanwhile more than 5 million Euros of church tax money”.

The Neuer Anfang manifesto is also forthright on the Synodal Way’s proposals, which it says would result in “a bloated apparatus and permanently installed chatter”.

“The church suffers from a lack of spirit and from too much of institution.

Discipleship the focus for German critics

“No one needs a church in which vocations are replaced by appointments, devotion by contract, and trust by control.

“We want one simple, serving and praying church in the discipleship of Christ … in empowerment of this sort, the church also finds the critical distinguishing criterion for its own inner life.”

Kelle adds that, “The majority of Catholics in Germany are completely unaware of what is going on in these meetings – they are not even consulted about it.”

Problems for the German model

She says the support for the Synodal Way’s reforms among the German episcopate is also far from universal, and that enough bishops have reservations that a “blocking minority” could put a stop to the whole process – but “most are simply silent, some stay away from the Synodal Way or leave early at meetings”.

“What would happen if even a handful of German bishops refused their further participation in this assembly and announced this on the microphone? It would cause a salutary scandal.”

Attempts to raise issues at the Synodal Way’s discussion forums are also beset with difficulties.

Unexpected critic: German Cardinal Walter Kasper, long considered to be a fairly representative German opponent of what he sees as an overly-conservative Catholicism, has been surprisingly sharp in his repeated criticisms. His concerns? The disruption of the fundamentals of faith and meaning being encouraged by Germany’s Synodal Path. Photo: CNS, Paul Haring

Procedural challenges

“Even bishops, like any activist, get only one minute of speaking time in the debates. It is practically impossible to have reasonable or even theologically profound debates in this format,” Kelle said.

“If we cannot stop this, a good result would also be that the discrepancy between the real problems of the Church in Germany and the staged problems would become more visible and it would maybe accelerate a new evangelisation on the long run,” she added.

With the Plenary Council’s Second Assembly rapidly approaching, and proposals to be voted on now under consideration by members, the Australian Church is making a major contribution to the growing understanding and practice of synodality.

Yet as Neuer Anfang’s manifesto and desire for intentional discipleship shows, there are different possibilities for how synodality could be realised.

When asked whether she had any message for Australian Catholics, Kelle had only one short sentence to add.

“God bless you and please do not repeat all those mistakes we have already made in Germany.”

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