Clear and present danger to the Catholic Church from the Synodal Church. Synodalist admits they will never get another chance to destroy the Church.

The Synodal Process must succeed

Helena Jeppesen-Spuhler openly cites the opportunities and challenges of the Synodal Process. She was a member of the Swiss delegation at the European Assembly held in Prague from 5 to 9 February.

How has a laywoman from Switzerland been given a say in the future of the Catholic Church?

Some time has elapsed since the Assembly in Prague: What is your conclusion?

Helena Jeppesen-Spuhler: Mixed. On the one hand, something has started to move in the Catholic Church in Europe and dialogue has become possible despite widely divergent positions. On the other hand, the - also sobering - question remains: And now?

With what expectations did you travel to Prague?

With a very pragmatic attitude. Nevertheless, it was intense to experience these tensions. But there were also great encounters with people who are theologically extraordinarily well-founded.

Where did the resistance come from?

There were conservative representatives who honestly should have admitted: We don't want the Synodal process at all. But they didn't dare to do that because they knew that they would have taken themselves out of the game with the Pope. So they went along with it, but tried to preserve as much as possible of what was already there.

Cathcon: Shocking, but I am sure this was true.

Can the line between traditionalist and reformist be located geographically?

The line ran mainly along the border between Western and Eastern Europe. The majority of the Eastern European local churches sent very conservative delegations, almost exclusively made up of clerics. For example, they represented extremely backward-looking positions from the century before last with regard to the image of the family and sexual morality. But even there, there were interesting exceptions. Two women from the Serbian delegation and one woman from the Russian delegation openly admitted to us that the young people in their countries also question the traditionalist attitude of their bishops. But the women did not dare to say this to their delegation.

Where does this difference between East and West come from?

The historical background plays an important role. For decades, these churches were only able to maintain themselves behind the Iron Curtain through strong demarcation. I suppose that's where this attachment to traditional images and the need to distinguish so uncompromisingly between true and false comes from.

What disturbed you most?

How rarely theological arguments were made. That was dramatic in parts. That has to change before the Synod in Rome. It's great to gather different opinions. But at some point you have to insist that the positions are also justified theologically.

How did the talks go?

At the beginning there were huge tensions. Due to the reports of the Bishops' Conferences, the positions were as if set and so we could not really discuss at first. In the working groups, we worked with the method of spiritual conversation, which is strongly characterised by listening to each other. This practically prevented controversial discussions. In retrospect, however, this also had the one advantage that everyone became aware of the discord. In my group, for example, the poles could hardly have been further apart.

And then?

We had to let our differences stand: I, Helena, am for the ordination of women - the Opus Dei representative is totally against it. By acknowledging the difference, the tension was released on the third day. For me, the greatest success of the meeting was that the Bishops did not present their own paper.

Why is that a success?

The bishops ended up meeting alone for two days, which did not go down well at all with us lay people. We were not even admitted as observers. My fear was that the bishops would now draw up a paper in which they would determine the framework in which further discussion is allowed at all. And this danger did indeed exist. Fortunately - also thanks to the strong commitment of Bishop Felix Gmür - it did not happen. The bishops merely stated in a concise statement that they support the synodal process and take the final document of the assembly seriously.

What do you expect from this final document?

It has only been read out to us in draft form so far, but it contains strong positions, for example concerning the ordination of women. So far, the bishops and the Vatican have always tried to prevent this. I very much hope that these positions will be presented just as clearly in the final version.

Where are you most likely to see movement?

In about 90% of the reports from all over Europe, it was stated that the LGBTQIA+ issue must be taken very seriously. It is about people who are part of the church and have a right to participate. The picture on the role of women was equally clear. Here too, it was clear in practically all the country reports that the church must finally move forward.

How were these issues received at the Assembly?

Of the 200 delegates in Prague, about half were clergy. With this majority, a reaction would certainly have been very reserved. It was therefore fortunate that the votes of the online delegates were introduced on Wednesday afternoon. This broadened the horizon massively and also strengthened the urgency of the concerns. People spoke much more critically and openly. The bishops cannot ignore this.

And what will become of it at the Synod of Bishops in autumn?

I believe - and sincerely hope - that something will be possible on the women's issue. There are now many bishops who are prepared to take clear steps. The priesthood of women will not be introduced right away, but the diaconate of women should come up for serious discussion at the meeting in Rome. And also the voice and vote of women at this assembly. For the moment, we have to be satisfied with such partial results and at the same time persistently continue to work. What we would like from the Swiss point of view is unfortunately not possible to the full extent at the moment.

How did you experience Bishop Felix Gmür?

Bishop Felix saw himself as part of our delegation. We appeared together in a credible manner. It was helpful that he knows many bishops and is very fluent in languages. Bishop Felix represented the Swiss report without any ifs and buts. As far as I can tell, this clarity was very much appreciated. 

How did the German delegation fare after their Synodal Path was heavily attacked by the Vatican shortly before the Assembly?

The German delegation was in a very difficult situation. At the beginning, it was really attacked. In the run-up, delegations from Eastern Europe were obviously stirred up, we Western Europeans and especially the Germans had an agenda. In the course of the meeting, however, it became clearer and clearer that the concerns of the Synodal Path appear in many other country reports. 

And how did the German delegation react to the hostility?

They were strong. By far the most professional delegation. Far ahead of all of us theologically and in the synodal process. I think that is precisely why they were met with envy. And anti-German reflexes broke out. Fortunately, there were other strong delegations, for example from Luxembourg, Malta and Ireland. We Swiss and the Austrian delegation also convincingly supported the concerns of the Synodal Path. And to some extent we actually succeeded in breaking the ice with some delegations.

Where were the other large local churches?

Italy was not noticed at all. Their bishop only came on Thursday, which is saying something. France presented a good report, the Bishop of Troyes and the two women were very convincing, but the President of the French Bishops' Conference is very conservative. Overall, I observe a rather conservative tendency in France.

What questions remain?

Will there be a follow-up meeting at European level next year? Do we even have the ambition to continue on this path? I think it is necessary, but then we would probably have to have a Western European and an Eastern European assembly so that we can also tackle our respective tasks seriously and not run the risk of blocking each other.

How much time is left?

The Church is in deep crisis all over Europe. All over Europe! Although some delegations wanted to deny this at the beginning, it has become clearer and clearer in the course of the talks. I believe that now everyone finally realises how dramatic the situation is. The Synodal Process is needed and a new way of working together is needed. However: it is urgent. And it needs rules of the game. Simply listening, but then not voting and not deciding, that doesn't help.

And what can help further?

Felix Gmür is very much in favour of clearing the way for decentralised solutions so that, for example, the women's question can be tackled in the local churches. The theologian Petra Steinmair-Pösel from Innsbruck called for "trial spaces" in a statement. This was well received in the assembly. Incidentally, it also sounds similar from the Amazon Synod.

Cathcon: Catholic Truth is indivisible.  They are so confident, they are boasting about their doctrinal Trojan horses.

What do you expect from Pope Francis?

Pope Francis actually stands for decentralised solutions, but he must now finally take a clear position, lay down clear rules of the game and also make uncomfortable decisions. Not only from Europe, but also from Latin America, I hear clearly that he must now move forward. This is also important because there is fierce resistance, for example, from Cardinal Marc Ouellet and his networks. Cardinals Mario Grech and Jean-Claude Hollerich, who are responsible for the Synodal Process, are constantly attacked by traditionalist circles, even though they were commissioned by the Pope.

With what feeling did you return to Switzerland?

I went home strengthened, but also aware that we must continue to work. As a delegation, we absolutely have to give feedback to the Synod Office, especially in view of the World Synod. And we also need to move forward here in Switzerland. So many people are resigned, even those who are standing and working in the heart of the Church. It is not enough for us to be lukewarm. In Switzerland, too, we have to bring about a new dynamic. - It will not be easy. - But: It is our last chance!

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