Epitaph of a failed Pontificate

Where is the Roman Church heading?

Starting tomorrow, Pope Francis is inviting people to the World Synod in the Vatican. The call was answered by 365 members entitled to vote. Five representatives are traveling from Germany. No concrete decisions are expected. All conflict topics are carefully avoided. The skepticism is great.

You don't want to be in Pope Francis' shoes. From the conservative side he is suspected of heresy, apostasy from the right-wing Catholic faith, while from the reformer side he is accused of inaction. And in the Vatican administration he is seen as the sole decision-maker who allows the church administration to participate as little as possible. Not good starting conditions for the big world meeting of the Catholic Church. The “World Synod” begins tomorrow, Wednesday, and continues until almost the end of the month.

The conservatives are struck by the fact that among the 365 voting members of the synod there are priests, laypeople and 54 women. They fear a weakening of traditional Catholic teaching and that the church could give in to “fashionable tendencies.” For them, homosexuality is and remains a serious sin. A marriage is inseparable, priests are celibate and the word “gender” causes them to gasp.

The Pope tried to avoid the conservatives' attack with a statement before the start of the synod in order to avoid an open split in the church before the deliberations began. He called for dialogue and condemned both “backward thinking” and “progressivism.” Both attitudes are “signs of disbelief”. As a concession to the reform wing, the church leader at least considers “blessings for homosexual couples” to be conceivable.

Working paper avoids all contentious issues

The Vatican has published a working paper - "Instrumentum laboris" - for the World Synod. It consistently avoids all controversial issues in the church. It does not contain any proposals on the most burning questions such as celibacy among priests, celibacy or the role of women, or on concrete steps for real collegiality in the Church: In the end, the Pope decides, and in principle everything and alone.

It is a working paper of cheap words. The Pope sees the Church as a "community that radiates: How can we become even more a sign and instrument of union with God and the unity of all humanity?" One must be aware of the "common responsibility in the mission: How can we better share skills and tasks in the service of the Gospel?" Francis demands that participants exchange “life experiences” and “deal with tensions without being crushed by them” in a “synodal church.”

Blank spaces on the agenda

But a general appeal for a willingness to engage in dialogue is no longer enough. Rome's church has to face problems that have long since called its existence into question. One of the big problems came to light in 2002. US journalists from the Boston Globe uncovered 249 cases of abuse committed by 159 priests. Boston Cardinal Francis Law, who was accused of covering up the cases, resigned - and found refuge in Rome. Pope John Paul II made him archpriest in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.

In many countries the bishops then began investigations; in Germany it was first the Berlin Jesuits. The dioceses followed. Hundreds of cases of abuse by hundreds of perpetrators came to light - and decades of silence. In Italy, the Association of Victims of Priest Abuse "Rete Abuso" counted 332 victims as of 2002, and they did not want to go further back in their investigations.

But the issue of abuse is not on the agenda of the World Synod in Rome, nor is the forced missionary work of children, which became a scandal in Canada with the discovery of hundreds of children's bodies.

Nothing left of the “reformer pope”

But how is the church supposed to become a “better community” and fulfill its missionary task if it does not reveal its dark sides? The five German bishops in Rome will have little illusions about this. The 65 German bishops had already discovered how the Pope does not imagine the Church's "common path" during their obligatory visit to Rome every five years at the end of 2022. Francis did not want to discuss with them and had the German bishops literally ironed out by his cardinals: the German "Synodal Way", in which laypeople and bishops voted on church reforms in a kind of joint church parliament, did not suit the Argentine Pope at all . He said he listened to everyone, the participants reported after the meeting. In the end, however, the Pope decides alone. The laypeople are allowed to implement it.

Francis also made his position clear on the next hot topic at the Amazon Synod in autumn 2019. There the demand for women's priesthood and the relaxation of the marriage ban for priests emerged. Suggestions that were only intended to help alleviate the enormous shortage of priests in the Amazon. But Francis spoke of an “ideological discussion”.

The image of the "reformer pope" that Francis was awarded when he was elected in 2013 has long since lost its luster.

Explosive topics only outside the Vatican walls

The Germans in particular have to really annoy the Pope. For the first time there is no German language group at this world synod. In the past, many Central Europeans who advocated reforms had come together here. Now the standing of the German church in Rome is not particularly great. The Vatican holds the mass resignations against her.

The German bishops are trying to square the circle. In Rome they have understood, it says in their statement on the upcoming synod, "that the church worldwide needs to talk about this." It would have to be about “concrete topics”, the “how” of the church is important, the way in which the good news is proclaimed, but it is even more important to discuss the “what”. Talk about the controversial content. They openly have a suspicion: "A superficial reading" of the preparatory document could "give the impression that Synodality is seen here primarily as a kind of cultivated style of interaction and conversation in the church." This makes it certain that the explosive issues at the synod will be addressed outside the Vatican walls.

In the end, a crucial question remains unanswered: Will Francis still have the courage to carry out a major reform of the Roman Church towards the end of his pontificate, at least now that the German parallel pope is no longer breathing down his neck, and will he still be able to join in the parade ?



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