Germany’s Catholics don’t want to wait anymore. They demand reforms. And believers worldwide hope that the breakthrough will succeed in the country of Luther. The Synodal Way is an ordeal, says Christoph Strack.

Does the Catholic Church make its way from the 19th century to modern times? A good ten years after the discovery of sexual abuse began, the Catholic Church in Germany has embarked on the so-called Synodal Path . A gathering of the faithful, men and women, priests and lay people, who have never existed in this form.

The opening was about power and abuse of power, the priestly image of the future, the role of women, the church, love and sexuality, but too little about the perspective of victims of abuse, the victims of the church system. These issues will determine the Synodal Way. And one thing is clear: This also raises the question of a relaxation of the celibacy obligation for Germany and an appreciation of women in the church.

Days with the Protestants

The Synodal Assembly was supposed to meet in Frankfurt’s Imperial Cathedral, the city’s main Catholic church. But also because of the construction work, the delegates moved to the former Dominican monastery, a house of the Evangelical Church. As if this wasn’t symbolic enough, there was also a tablet on the way from the hotel to the conference location, which reminded the reformer Martin Luther’s multiple visits in April 1521.

Despite the evangelical references, it was a confidently Catholic event with an openness that was rarely seen in such a context. The 217 participants in the Synodal Path gave impressive testimonials of their faith, hope and doubt across the board. This applies to older religious as well as to the (too few) younger representatives, laypeople and the priests present.

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait (DW / B. Geilert)

“Courted and burned”

“Before the consecration we are courted, afterwards we are burned up”, someone summed up their mood. They all spoke in free and personal speech. On the other hand, it looked almost like a caricature, like a small minority of the bishops present, led by Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, used to pull out and read sheets of well-written texts in the so-called pronunciation. With an “end of debate” style.

In Frankfurt, for example, a religious, diverse and at the same time torn assembly of German Catholicism presented itself . Cardinal Marx spoke at the end of a “great cross-section” of the Catholic Church in Germany. Cardinal Woelki, on the other hand, compared the gathering in Cologne’s “Domradio” with an “Protestant church parliament”. Perhaps both words are just further evidence of how much the crisis of the Catholic Church is a crisis of its ministers.

Pioneer Germany?

The anger of the “black block” around Woelki, which is still readable in Frankfurt but hardly capable of dialogue, may also be related to the relevance of the Synodal Way. The initiative remains an ecclesiastical experiment. It is not an official synod, but with its statutes and representative office it is not a marble group in the circle of chairs.

With the Synodal Way, the Catholic Church in Germany, internationally valued for its theology and role in relation to Rome, is in the international spotlight. Official observers from various countries followed the debates in Frankfurt, and media interest extends far beyond Germany.

In December Pope Francis complained that the Catholic Church was 200 years behind the realities of life. The German Catholics, shaken and unsettled by the scandal of sexual abuse, have now started to do something about it. It will create tension. But after the opening in Frankfurt you can be excited.


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