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Pope Francis and the ‘German Synodal Way’: 5 takeaways

People attend the German Catholic Church's fifth synodal assembly in Frankfurt March 9, 2023. At the assembly, which concluded March 11, 230 bishops and lay representatives discussed issues such as blessings for homosexual couples, the ordination of women, a relaxation of mandatory celibacy and greater church involvement for laypeople. (OSV News photo/Heiko Becker, Reuters)

By Deacon Dominic Cerrato

(OSV News) — In recent years, the Catholic Church in Germany embarked on an ambitious and controversial project known as the “German Synodal Way.”

This initiative, which sought to address various issues within the church, including governance, the role of women, and the church’s teaching on sexuality, has stirred significant attention and debate within the global Catholic community. The Synodal Way represents a distinctive approach to ecclesiology — the theological study of the nature and structure of the church — and has raised questions about its alignment with the broader teachings and traditions of the Catholic Church.

Against this backdrop, a letter written by Pope Francis Nov. 10 to four German Catholic laywomen — moral theologian Katharina Westerhorstmann, theologian Marianne Schlosser, philosopher Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz and journalist Dorothea Schmidt — has gained considerable significance. First published by the German newspaper Welt Nov. 21, this letter highlights the pope’s concerns regarding the direction of the Catholic Church in Germany, particularly in relation to the German Synodal Way. This correspondence offers valuable insights into the ongoing dialogue between the Vatican and the German Church and sheds light on key theological and ecclesiological issues.

Understanding the German Synodal Way:

Before delving into the specifics of Pope Francis’ brief letter, it is essential to understand what the German Synodal Way is and why it has become a point of contention. The Synodal Way is an initiative by the German bishops in collaboration with the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK). It was launched as a response to the various challenges facing the church, including the fallout from the sexual abuse crisis. The Synodal Way aims to foster a broad and inclusive discussion on several critical topics, such as the church’s moral teachings, clerical celibacy, the role of women in church ministries, and the governance structure of the church.

This approach, while innovative and reflective of a desire for reform and renewal, has led to concerns about its potential divergence from the universal Catholic Church’s teachings and practices. The German Synodal Way’s emphasis on regional autonomy and its approach to contentious issues has been viewed by some as a departure from traditional Catholic doctrines and a challenge to the Vatican’s authority.

Pope Francis’ Letter: Key Themes and Takeaways:

  1. Concern for Ecclesiological Fidelity: Pope Francis’ concern over the ecclesiological fidelity of the German Church reflects a profound commitment to maintaining the universal church’s integrity and unity. This concern centers on the steps taken by the German Synodal Way, which he fears may lead parts of the German church away from the path of the broader Catholic community. The pope emphasizes the importance of adhering to the church’s sacramental structure, a cornerstone of Catholic ecclesiology. This structure is not just about governance but encapsulates the theological understanding of how the church operates as the body of Christ, with Christ as its head and the faithful as its members. The pope’s apprehension is that deviations from this structure could lead to a fragmentation of the church, undermining its universality and the apostolic tradition it upholds.
  2. Prohibition of the Synodal Committee: The formation of the synodal committee in Germany aimed to create a consultative and decision-making body that could address various concerns and challenges facing the church in Germany. However, the Holy See, with the pope’s endorsement, prohibited this committee’s formation. The primary reason for this prohibition was the committee’s proposed structure, which was viewed as misaligned with the church’s sacramental and hierarchical nature. The concern here is that such a structure could diminish the role of the episcopacy and the pope, leading to a more congregationalist or democratic model of church governance, fundamentally at odds with the Catholic understanding of ecclesial authority and decision-making.
  3. Emphasis on Traditional Practices: In his letter, Pope Francis underscores the importance of traditional spiritual practices like prayer, penance and adoration. He advocates for these practices over the creation of new committees and engaging in repetitive dialogues that may not lead to genuine spiritual renewal or effective action. The pope’s emphasis here reflects a belief in the transformative power of these practices, not only for individual believers but for the church as a whole. By focusing on prayer, penance, and adoration, the faithful can foster a deeper relationship with God, leading to a more authentic and effective witness in the world. This approach aligns with the Pope’s broader vision for a church that is deeply connected to its spiritual roots while actively engaging with the needs of the marginalized and the broader society.
  4. Commendation of Theological Contributions: Pope Francis acknowledges and appreciates the theological and philosophical contributions of professors Westerhorstmann, Schlosser, Gerlalkovitz and Mrs. Schmidt. In doing so, he recognizes the vital role that lay theologians, especially women, play in the life of the church. The pope’s commendation highlights the importance of informed and faithful theological reflection in understanding and communicating the Faith. It also underscores his commitment to acknowledging and promoting the contributions of all members of the church, regardless of their role or status.
  5. Call for Unity and Prayer: The Pope concludes his letter with a call for unity and prayer, asking for continued prayers for himself and for the church’s commitment to unity. This call reflects his vision of a church characterized by collaboration, solidarity, and mutual support among all its members. By emphasizing the need for prayer, Pope Francis underscores the spiritual dimension of ecclesial unity, suggesting that true unity in the church is not merely a matter of organizational or structural alignment but is fundamentally rooted in a shared relationship with Christ and a common commitment to living out the Gospel. This call for unity and prayer serves as a reminder of the church’s mission to be a sign of communion in a divided world.

Pope Francis’ letter is a significant intervention in the ongoing discussion about the future of the Catholic Church in Germany and, by extension, the global Catholic Church. It underscores the delicate balance between the need for reform and the preservation of core Catholic teachings and traditions. As the church grapples with modern challenges, this letter serves as a reminder of the importance of staying true to its foundational beliefs while also engaging with the contemporary world in a meaningful and transformative way. For those unfamiliar with the German Synodal Way, Pope Francis’ response provides a clear and thoughtful perspective on the complexities and nuances of this pivotal moment in the life of the church.


Deacon Dominic Cerrato is editor of Our Sunday Visitor’s The Deacon magazine. He is director of the Office of the Diaconate for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois, and director of diaconal ministries.

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