Bishop thinks critics of the Synod have been silenced but he wants to see more controversy next year

Bishop of Essen in interview after the Synod on Synodality 

The Bishop who is looking for a fight

Overbeck after World Synod: In 2024 there must be better arguments

“This is not Catholic,” Bishop Overbeck was told at the World Synod on the Synodal Way in Germany. In the interview, the Ruhr bishop explains why the criticism fell silent, what bothers him about the Synod's final paper and why he would like to see more controversy in the coming year.

After four weeks of the World Synod, Essen Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck takes stock of the synod process of the universal church. A lot of things were good, but some things bothered him, he admits. In an interview with, Overbeck reports on confrontational encounters and tame compromises behind closed doors. He demands that a lot of things have to change in 2024 and hopes, above all, for a more well-founded exchange of views at the second stage of the world synod.

Question: Bishop Overbeck, you said in Rome that the Synodal Path in Germany was a path of renewal. What was the first meeting of the World Synod in Rome like for you?

Franz-Josef Overbeck: For me, the first meeting of the World Synod in Rome was also a renewal. Of course on a different level and under different conditions than the Synodal Way in Germany. In Rome, for example, it became very clear that the pace of change processes varies greatly depending on the continent and political and ecclesiastical conditions. Mentalities play a big role here. The understanding of how being Catholic should work and what being Catholic entails varies greatly.

Question: You say that you move on other levels. What do you mean by that?

Overbeck: When we talk about the role of women, about sexual orientation and diversity or about questions of power, this is associated with very different results depending on the culture, history and experiences of the respective local churches. Theology has to do with ways of thinking and these differ depending on where you come from. This became very clear, for example, in the question “Who is a priest and how does he live?”

Question: You have now been sitting behind closed doors for four weeks. Can you maybe illustrate that?

Overbeck: In our German society, the question of equal rights for women and men is completely different than, for example, in many other societies in the global south. This needs almost no explanation, but arises from the worlds in which we live and are shaped. This is particularly true when reflecting on life with the church. This is exactly what we experienced very clearly in Rome. This was nothing new for me, but for everyone who is less involved in world church contexts than I am, it was astonishing.

Question: Did you have the impression that you also found understanding for the German approach?

Overbeck: At the beginning I noticed a very skeptical attitude from many people. Some were really negative. But that has changed over time because understanding of the topics grew in light of the public discussion at our synodal assembly. I believe that the participation of women with voting and advisory rights has made it possible to name these issues in a completely different way.

Franz-Josef Overbeck believes that the fact that laypeople and especially women were able to have a say at the World Synod made a more open exchange possible.

Question: How do you react to such a negative attitude?

Overbeck: Some people then come and tell me that something is not Catholic. This is a thought pattern that I already know from many other contexts. As the Synod progressed, I heard such comments less and less, but they became increasingly thoughtful. The method of the round tables at which we sat, and above all the so-called conversation in the Holy Spirit, certainly helped. We were able to get to know each other by listening and filtering out similarities and differences together.

Question: How did you find this working method?

Overbeck: In the first two weeks of the synod it was a very fruitful opportunity to come into contact with one another and listen to one another. The method allowed us to work out what issues there are that we need to work on and what else concerns us.

Question: So it was a complete success?

Overbeck: In my opinion, the theological perspectives should have been considered much more in the second part in order to be able to continue working on many topics and questions.

Question: The Pope said in the run-up that the Synod was in no way about arguing for the better argument. Would you say, then, that despite this restriction, this method was purposeful?

Overbeck: For the first stage of this journey, it has proven itself. But I believe that next year it will also be a matter of arguing for the better argument. We need viable perspectives for certain decisions that are envisaged in the final document. In 2024, we need more open discussions in which the positions of the universal Church, which are difficult to reconcile, become clear and in which we struggle for common ground.

Question: That means more confrontation and dispute?

Overbeck: Yes, there will also have to be a discussion about viable paths. Above all, there must be a fair exchange of arguments in 2024.

Question: Do you think that the World Synod will have an impact on your confreres who have so far been opposed to reform demands and the Synodal council?

Overbeck: No, I haven't heard anything about that yet.

"One should not overlook the fact that there is something about queer people in the text at all and that the passage was approved with a majority of over 80 per cent. That was almost a miracle." - Quote: Franz-Josef Overbeck

Question: Let us look at the final paper. Compared to what there was in Germany with the Synodal Way, everything reads much more demure and defensive. How would you assess that?

Overbeck: The paper is undoubtedly a compromise text that was formulated in such a way that over 80 percent of the synod members could agree. That was good. We must realize that the perspectives with which Catholics in Germany live, work and think in a highly secularized society are simply different than in many other societies in the world, which have never asked themselves some questions in this way. It is therefore not advisable to make a comparison with the results in Frankfurt. We should rather ask: Where do our topics also appear? And it has become clear that the themes of the synodal path of the church in Germany also occur in the universal church.

Cathcon:  The Catholic Church cannot be governed by compromise texts. Truth would then have no meaning. 

Question: The synod document, for example, emphasizes that it is important for everyone to know that he or she belongs to the church. The participation models behind it all remain within the framework of canon law. Is renewal even possible?

Overbeck: Of course, renewal is possible. The framework of canon law is very broad, especially in these questions. In everyday life, this is essentially linked to the way in which the bishop understands his office and leads his diocese. And it is already clear in Germany that this is perceived differently. Perhaps this is even an indication of postmodern diversity in the church.

Question: The Synod document proposes, for example, lay baptism to enhance the role of women in the church. Church leadership by laypeople would also be an option, it is said. Both are possible under canon law and practice in your diocese. How do you communicate to your people that you actually talked about things that were self-evident in Rome?

Overbeck: I said before I left that there are certainly many things that have not yet been discussed in the universal church, but are already being implemented here. This form of walking differently with everyone united in faith is a challenge that we face. That doesn't mean we're divided. With the broad view of the universal church, we must see that we learn to live with this difference. Anyone who doesn't want to understand this just needs to look at the Diocese of Essen to see how many cultures we have to and are allowed to live together with here and how we live well together in peace - thank God!

Question: The final text states: "In different ways, people who feel marginalized or excluded from the Church because of their marital situation, identity and sexuality also ask to be heard and accompanied and to have their dignity defended." For her, the synod has a deep feeling of love, mercy and compassion. – You voted on this text on Saturday. Do you support this pity rhetoric?

Overbeck: I never like pity rhetoric. But such a style also existed in Germany not too many years ago. One should not overlook the fact that there is actually something in the text about queer people and that the passage was approved by a majority of over 80 percent. That was almost a miracle. It was important to me that the topics were reflected in the document at all and that we could now continue working with them. This is also an advantage with regard to the next steps, which we are now considering at the Synodal Committee. If “LGBTQ+” had been mentioned in the text, that would have been the case for some people


Cathcon:  He would like to think traditionalist and conservative criticism has been silenced so that they can get on with the project of changing Catholic doctrine.

He, after all, admitted that he was prepared to sacrifice apostolic tradition, although he later denied it.