Synod elite conspires. Synodalists seek 12 Bishops to ordain women to the priesthood at Pentecost 2025, with or without Rome.

At a conference in Würzburg, many of the most respected (!) reformers in the Catholic Church met to review the Synodal Way in Germany. They wanted to determine how the initiated reform process could continue to progress in this country and worldwide. A class reunion of the undaunted who believe that the Church of Rome can only be saved by more democracy, or more precisely: "synodality".

There were great terms to learn: "performances of the Catholic", "affective collegiality", "memory and experience packages", "performative transformation process" ... but above all this one: "the revolutionary millimetre". One suspects what it could be about, what tension and slight irony lie in this combination of words. At the same time, however, "the revolutionary millimetre" was a good summary of what was in the air for about 48 hours at a top-class conference in Würzburg: could the Catholic Church at least in Germany, if not worldwide, seriously reform itself, perhaps become more "synodal", i.e. de facto: more democratic?

"Synod as an opportunity. What the Church needs to move forward" - that was the title of the conference at the Catholic Academy Domschule Würzburg. The conference was organised by no less than four renowned professors, Julia Knop (University of Erfurt), Matthias Remenyi (University of Würzburg), Matthias Sellmann (University of Bochum) and Tine Stein (University of Göttingen). Apart from their Catholic baptism, they have one thing in common: the belief that in this absolutist church, lay people (i.e. non-priests), women and perhaps even victims of abuse could one day be given more power or at least be heard.

Fight against the Curia

At the conference, about three dozen mainly academically highly decorated experts from all over the world, of course primarily theologians, gathered to accomplish three things: a review of Catholic synodal efforts in the past, an analysis of the recently more or less completed Synodal Path in Germany and an outlook on the synodal dialogue and reform processes initiated by Pope Francis himself worldwide. An ambitious programme that went like clockwork, even via video link across three continents, including experts from the USA and Latin America. It was striking that, with a few exceptions, everyone agreed: Synodality is an opportunity for the Church - and we must more or less gently force the Pope and the bishops to make good on their previous promises, namely that the Church must change its face towards more equality and participation. One could also say that it must arrive in today.

Since many have been active in Germany or abroad on the respective synodal paths for years and people know each other, there was a lot of dueling and hugging at the conference in Würzburg. It had something of a class reunion, a somewhat nerdy rendezvous of those committed to the church, who reliably understood even the slightest hints and jokes on the podium and in the audience. Brothers and sisters in arms, you could say. In the fight against a Catholic hierarchy and Curia in which many, if not most, of the men with bishops' mitres on their heads think nothing of reform (even if they publicly claim otherwise). Because in the end it's all about power. And despite the good mood in Würzburg, it was clear to everyone that Catholicism in Germany is in a deep valley. Matthias Remenyi, like many, said: The crisis of the Church was "manifest". And it was the biggest since the Reformation 500 years ago.

Historic place

It was fitting for this historical outlook that the meeting took place on almost historical ground in terms of church history. Only a stone's throw away, in the cathedral of Würzburg, the so-called Würzburg Synod met from 1971 to 1975, in which the Catholic Church in West Germany tried to reform itself. It wanted to "translate" the decisions of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) to the universal church, as it was called at the time. However, the very elaborate meeting with illustrious participants such as the great theologian Karl Rahner, the long-time Bishops' Conference chairman Karl Lehmann and the later Pope Joseph Ratzinger ended in disappointment: many papers failed in the Synod due to the black bloc of bishops. For they had the right of veto in all votes. And what actually did find a majority was either rejected by Rome or not even answered. The worst example of this is the vote or rather the suggestion of the Würzburg Synod for the ordination of women deacons. This proposal has been moulding unanswered in a curial desk in Rome for almost half a century. That is an affront. And a humiliation.

In view of such failure, the look into the past on the first day of the conference was not exactly encouraging - even if it was stimulating. During a discussion with contemporary witnesses, for example, the 90-year old political chap Bernhard Vogel, President of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) at the time of the synod in Würzburg and later CDU Minister President first of Rhineland-Palatinate and later of Thuringia, pointedly said: "Of course the bishops had the right of veto. Rightly so!"

Given this despondency at the time, it is hardly surprising that the Würzburg meeting was so inconclusive that it means something almost only to church history professionals - unlike the at least partially rebellious Catholic Day in Essen in 1968. (A banner at the time became famous: "bow and bear witness".) Perhaps even more clearly forgotten is the East German counterpart to the Würzburg Synod, the "Pastoral Synod of Dresden" (1973 - 1975). But at least, despite the Stasi contamination, this still represented a certain empowerment boost and democracy training course for synod members in the GDR. Some even saw it as having profound effects leading up to the Peaceful Revolution in East Germany in 1989/90. Moreover, the expectations in the SED state for the synod were far lower than those in the almost simultaneous church assembly in Würzburg. "In the end, I fell into a deep hole," said the then West German chairperson of the Catholic Young Community (KjG), Elisabeth Rickal, now a venerable (and still rather angry) old lady.

Painful memory

Speaking of anger, this could be felt again and again on the next day of the conference. After all, the new Synodal Path (2019 - 2023) in Frankfurt am Main was not a resounding success either. Here, according to the statute, there was a one-third blocking minority of the bishops, so that even papers that received an overwhelming majority in the synod plenum could still fail because of the black block of Today. This was the case, for example, with the so-called sex paper, in which the Frankfurt Synod wanted to find warm words of recognition for LGBTQ people. Last autumn, the failure of this vote by the Episcopal No was the big scandal of the church assembly. There were tears in the Synod, not to speak of traumas of the queer synod members after so many years of church engagement in a tendentially hostile environment.

Again and again during the Würzburg days, it was painfully remembered that the Synodal Path in Frankfurt am Main, because of the refusal of a minority among the bishops, once again only recommended the ordination of deaconesses, not even demanded it. This cannot be understood in any other way than as a sign of fifty years of standstill, which in no way can be sold as a success or a daring proposal by the Germans. The theologian Julia Knop, who had been a decisive voice in Frankfurt, said self-critically, ten weeks after the Synodal Assembly: the resolutions there had clearly lacked "clout".

In addition, Rome quickly put up stop signs in the past weeks, which tried to cancel the Frankfurt resolutions immediately, such as lay preaching at Eucharist celebrations, the public blessing of homosexual couples and above all the planned Synodal Council. This was decided by the Synod in Frankfurt. It is to consist of bishops and lay people and make real joint decisions for the Catholic Church in Germany. Real decisions! Joint decisions also with lay people! Crazy!

Frozen in fear

Even before the last Synodal Assembly on the Main, all the German bishops were in Rome last November for a routine visit ("ad limina"), actually to sell the Synodal Path as progress and a necessary innovation of the Church, at least that is what the clear majority of the senior pastors wanted. However, the way in which they were flogged off there like schoolboys by the responsible cardinals of the Curia, literally from above in a kind of lecture hall, shocked and outraged even some German bishops who do not clearly belong to the reform camp. Some opponents of reform in the German bishops' circle are nevertheless already so frozen in fear over the resistance in Rome that they have even been considering for a few days now to financially dry up the Synodal Committee of lay people and bishops decided on in Frankfurt. The Synodal Committee is supposed to prepare the once much more powerful Synodal Council.

So the reform forces are under powerful pressure. And the outcome of the whole thing is quite uncertain. This autumn, there will be a conference of bishops and laity in Rome, convened by the Pope, to assess the first results of the global Synodal Path. In autumn next year, the global Synodal Path is to come to a conclusion, again with a Vatican conference on the Tiber. This will not be a council, but it could be important for a reform of the Church.

So there is a lot going on in the Roman Catholic Church at the moment, and the laity, unlike at the Second Vatican Council, for example, are playing their part at both the German and international level, even if not really on an equal footing with the bishops. In this respect, Gregor Maria Hoff, Professor of Fundamental Theology in Salzburg, was of course not wrong in his analysis at the Würzburg conference: despite rather meagre results, the Synodal Path does have an effect as an event or "performance" in terms of synodality. After all, a synodal church is already taking place here.

Spirit out of the bottle

In Frankfurt, according to Hoff, despite all the mistakes and weaknesses, a synodal church of a Catholic colour could be tested and observed - which, by the way, does not look very different on the whole from the synods that the EKD holds annually. Hoff said logically: "We are not facing upheaval, we are in the middle of it." The genie is out of the bottle, you might say.

Synodality may not be the silver bullet, but is there really an alternative if the "people of God" are to be heard at all on urgent issues? Thomas Söding, New Testament scholar at the University of Bochum and Vice-President of both the ZdK and the Synodal Path, was one of those who asked this question. In the background at the conference in Würzburg, the sepulchral voice of a FORSA survey from the end of January could always be heard. 4,000 people in Germany were asked about their trust in major institutions of society. According to the survey, the Catholic Church ranks third to last with eight percent (minus four percent). Behind it are only Islam with six percent and advertising agencies. The Protestant Church still has 31 per cent of the people behind it on this question. But what, asked the Protestant theologian Ellen Ueberschär, who was invited as a guest, do the churches have to offer other than their credibility? The political scientist Tine Stein nevertheless wanted to spread some optimism. Her talk about the "revolutionary millimetre" that the Synodal Path represents became a common word at the conference in Würzburg. At the same time, however, "justified rule-breaking" is needed in order to make progress.  Stein put forward the idea that twelve bishops from all over the world should ordain women (as well as men) to the priesthood at Pentecost 2025, Rome or no Rome.  Theologian Maria Mesrian, co-founder of the very active Catholic women's initiative "Maria 2.0" and board member of the young association "Umsteuern! Robin Sisterhood". Among other things, this association assists church members who have left the church if they want to donate their unpaid church tax to other good causes.

Ah, these Germans!

Maria Mesrian's appeal to the Würzburg Round Table was a call for more radical action: "Go into dissent! You are on the right side!" Ellen Ueberschär, among others, countered this: If you leave the church, you only strengthen the radicalisation within the church, because then the conservatives would no longer have a voice against it. For this also became clear at the conference, especially on the last day with its international outlook: seen worldwide, the reform forces are not clearly in the majority, neither in the episcopate nor among the laity. The Catholic Church in Germany, despite all the brakes and lukewarm resolutions, is still quite far ahead, which also explains the Vatican's resistance to the proposals from north of the Alps. The Catholic Church in the Federal Republic of Germany has obviously become quite annoying on the Tiber: "Oh, those Germans!

Johanna Beck and Johannes Norpoth drew a first conclusion of the conference. They were the official "congress observers" of the conference - and formerly both victims of abuse in the church. It was already clear that synodality would never be a dance between bishops and laity, but "a hard struggle for the right way", as Norpoth put it. Johanna Beck added with a historical review: A Synodal Church, like the Liturgical Movement before Vatican II, must come from below and have staying power. But even then it could change a lot. This requires hope, courage and strength - and "the power of the Holy Spirit". Matthias Sellmann, a pastoral theologian, was almost militant in his support for this statement: "The spirit of Frankfurt is unbroken! Whether this spirit will last longer than its older brother from the Würzburg Synod fifty years ago remains to be seen. Even good spirits do not live forever.


Cathcon: No sign of conference videos on YouTube.  So much for synodal transparency.


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