Sunday, December 11, 2022

Synodal Way

From The Apostle Magazine (SSCC Germany)

Look forward, have bold ideas, listen more, take as many as possible with you ...

In spring 2019, the German bishops undertook to take the Church on a Synodal journey.  The third Synodal assembly took place  in early February 2022. It has been supported by the German Bishops' Conference and the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK). 

Our editor Thomas Meinhardt spoke about the status of the consultations with Karin Kortmann (Vice-President of the ZdK until November 2021) and Manfred Kollig SSCC (Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Berlin). The speakers are members of the Synodal Assembly, the highest organ of the Synodal Way.

Thomas Meinhardt:  Ms Kortmann, isn't the Synodal Way bound to become a predictable disappointment? Beginning with the Würzburg Synod in 1976, there have been several attempts at church policy reforms in recent decades, none of which have ultimately brought about any lasting structural changes. What makes you hopeful that this time it is not just occupational therapy for committed lay people, intended only to take the current pressure off the institution?

Karin Kortmann: If the German Bishops' Conference and the ZdK had assumed that this would end in predictable disappointment and that we would not be able to achieve more than formulating expectations, we would not have started down this path together. In the various meetings - synodal assemblies, regional conferences, working groups - I experience a great confidence that together we can overcome the crisis that became apparent when the sexual abuse within the Catholic Church came to light. 

The Bishops' Conference and the ZdK felt this crisis to be so elementary that it was clear to us that we cannot stop at combating the symptoms. For this we need new ways of understanding, of exchange and long overdue structural changes. Only in this way can we give our Church, with which we are all closely connected, a good future.

Thomas Meinhardt:  If the delegates were to agree and come to far-reaching decisions, these would still only be recommendations to Rome. Do you think that Catholics in the 21st century will still accept that decisions taken by a large majority are ultimately meaningless as long as the Bishops' Conference and Rome do not agree?

Karin Kortmann: We were aware of the conditions from the beginning. We knew that decisions would not be made according to the majority principle. All Synod members have the same responsibility, but with different responsibilities. The role that the bishops bring to this synodal process is different from that which can be brought by the laity. We always knew that resolutions in certain areas would be recommendations to the German bishops and that in matters concerning the universal Church as a whole they would be recommendations to Rome. Personally, however, I believe that such a process as the Synodal Way can certainly contribute to changing these structures.

Thomas Meinhardt:  Father Manfred, do you share this assessment? How do committed parishioners see this according to your experience? Or are there many who have no expectation of change from their Church and are thus not very interested in the debates on the Synodal Way?

Manfred Kollig: I believe that the group of Catholics in Germany is very different. Some are satisfied if the sacraments are administered, if they hear a good sermon now and then, or if someone accompanies them in death or carries them to the grave. These people are neither interested in the question of whether we as a church are credible in society, nor whether we are connectable in this society.

And there are others who say: We have a mission as a church. We can only fulfil this social mission if we are both credible and connectable. And then there are the questions that concern us in the Synodal Way: How do we deal with power? Are we an alternative to others who also have power in this society? Do we use power for the good of the people, to build bridges in this very plural, heterogeneous world? Or do we use our power to divide? Do we use power for our own well-being? Or do we use our power, for example, for the preservation of creation and for justice?

Of course, this also raises the question: do we believe that God works through people, indiscriminately? Or do we believe that he differentiates according to gender? These questions were already asked by people in the Middle Ages. Think of the film and novel "The Pope". This goes back to a story from the 9th century. And the legend dates back to the 13th century. Back then, too, it was about the position of women in the church. Why does nothing change? Whenever it is about the decisive power relations, about authority, it remains tied to men. That is what many people see when they look at the church system. Many expect that something will really change now and that it will not just remain a discussion again.

Karin Kortmann: I agree with you on all these points. However, this time there is also a decisive new question: How has it come about that we have sexual abuses on a massive scale?  This new question is not only about personal misconduct, but what are the structural causes for this, to which we must also give structural answers.

Manfred Kollig: Yes, that is certainly true, Ms Kortmann. The shocks caused by the sexual abuse have set in motion a dynamic that now makes it obvious that we are no longer able to connect in some areas of this society. It is not a question of chasing after fashions. It is about answering the question as regards how we situate ourselves in this world. Many have already left the church because they no longer trust us with anything that could be significant for this world. Others are now taking a close look and waiting. But if we don't really make progress on the central questions, they will no longer see the church as the place that helps them in their religiosity. They will then look for other places.

In contrast to earlier church crises, I see a shaking of the institution as a whole, which can also be explained by the communication channels and the speed at which information spreads worldwide in real time today. When an influential and globally represented organisation is affected, which claims a very high moral standard for itself, then the height of the fall in such catastrophes as the abuse of children and wards can hardly be overestimated. 

Karin Kortmann: I share this assessment. And the sad thing is that the German Bishops' Conference would never have initiated such a Synodal Way on the fundamental questions of church reorganisation or transformation if there had not been this terrible disaster of sexual abuse. After the MHG study on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, which was commissioned by the Bishops' Conference, there was no other way.

However: the world has long since run away from us. There was already a gap between participation in society that we as citizens are all entitled to as a matter of course and what is possible for Catholics in their Church. We urgently need to change this in the Church so that people do not become schizophrenic in the truest sense of the word. In society, much has been fought for and much has changed in recent decades to enable equal participation and equal opportunities, and in the church system these elementary self-evident things still do not exist. Only the disaster of widespread sexual abuse by priests, religious and other ministers is now leading us to discuss fundamental structural changes with each other, such as the role of women, new forms of participation by lay people - women as well as men, and last but not least, how to deal with power. The Church will only come out of this multifaceted elementary crisis by being fully honesty and willing to uncover the structural causes and the courage to make real changes.

Manfred Kollig: You said that the world has long since run away from us. We say now: We are ready for departure because our time demands it. And because - and this is decisive - Christ goes along at today's pace in order to remain in the midst of people and in the world. Those who always say that we must not run behind or adapt to the world should perhaps meditate on the sentence in the style of Madeleine Delbrêl: God runs - Christ runs - at the pace of the world, so that he can remain in the actual world and abide among real people.

Thomas Meinhardt: How do you both assess the course of the Synodal Way so far? What gives you hope, and on which points of content do you think the success or failure of the path will be decided?

Manfred Kollig: What gives me hope is that there is widespread agreement that answering the question "How do we deal with power?" is crucial for the future of the Church. I am convinced that there will be a large majority in favour of not tying power to individuals so much as distributing power. This means, for example, establishing consultative systems and decision-making systems so that power is usually exercised in community. 

A second is the question "How do we deal with imperfections?". Mistakes we make or imperfections must not lead us to deny people the message that he or she is accepted by God. We have to let people feel they are accepted, even if we might think they are not behaving according to the Gospel or not according to the teaching of the Church or not according to tradition. So we have to get away from sanctioning people. Because we are supposed to be a blessing for people and not a curse.

A third point is that we finally recognise that there is plurality and that it cannot be eliminated by forcing uniformity. I would like us to be prepared to experiment, to try things out with those who want something different, including some bishops who want to and are able to and can reconcile changes with their conscience. This succeeds if we respect each other that we live the faith in different ways. Unity is not created by us. Unity is created by God, and God can create a great diversity. For me, the success of the Synodal Way will also be measured by the willingness to present this unifying power of God as a church.

We are to unite different positions and also endure the uncertainty that this entails. And that entails trust in this God. Yes, we do not have to smooth everything out. Jesus did not smooth everything out either. The healing on the Sabbath was an irritation for believing Jews, but it was effective. It may not have been right in the eyes of the teachers of the law, but it was the right thing to do because it was healing. I think we could often be more wholesome even if we irritate some of the people and shake their moral ideas. But we would be wholesome for the individuals, and I would always put that first. My recommendation to all of us: look ahead, have courageous ideas, listen more, take as many as possible with you and win people back.

Karin Kortmann: At the beginning of the synodal process, my greatest hope was that we would work well together for two years and that the cooperation between the Bishops' Conference and the ZdK would work well. And that has been very much fulfilled. In the forum leaderships we have become communities, that's how I would describe it a bit casually. There is always a bishop and a lay person who have taken over the leadership of the forums. We have moderations that reflect precisely this good cooperation at the synodal assemblies. We are far away from saying that the DBK sits there and the ZdK sits there. We have done everything possible, at the beginning with rules of procedure, with seating arrangements according to the alphabet, to dissolve this old rigid relationship and to practise a new togetherness. I am very grateful today that this first thread of hope has borne so wonderfully. We are also showing how we can reshape the church together.

My second hope was that we as the German Church could offer something that would also be helpful for churches on other continents and in our neighbouring countries. This was linked to the fact that we asked observers from other countries to accompany this process. And this is a lively crowd of people who give us feedback on the processes they observe. We receive many encouraging letters, also from other continents. Many write to us: "It's good that you have the courage and the capacity to do something like this, because these are issues that affect us. But we are not yet ready or cannot start because of logistical problems. For me, this is a very nice and encouraging response on the Synodal Way.

I am also very grateful that members of the "Concerned Persons Advisory Council" of the German Bishops' Conference have declared: We would like to be actively involved in this Synodal Way. For me, this is a great gift that people who have experienced great suffering trust us to try to do everything possible to ensure that this does not happen again in the Church. And that they have said that we want to contribute our experience and our knowledge, our wishes.

Thomas Meinhardt:  Father Manfred, you pointed out another way of dealing with power, which I very much agree with. Power is often described in a negative way. I very much like the definition of Hannah Arendt, who formulated power very positively and said: Power means the ability to join forces with others and to act only in agreement with them. Now we can also think about going along new ways in church politics in agreement with others. I like that because at no point did we formulate the wish or want to give the impression that we are going down a special German path here. Of course, we see that the socio-political environment in our country leads to different expectations of the Church than is the case in other socio-political circumstances in Asia, Latin America or Africa. But we have always spoken of the unity of the Church, which must be preserved, respected and also protected. Here, the plurality that you have just described, Father Manfred, is the decisive factor. With the Synodal Way, we are not moving out of something, but filling something up with new possibilities. I very much hope that submissions that we formulate as a national synodal assembly will be taken along by the German bishops as a wealth of experience when they travel to the Synod of Bishops in Rome.

It is a question of the extent to which the interim results and also the results in Germany of the worldwide synodal process that has just begun will be taken up and valued at the Synod of Bishops in Rome in 2023 and not simply dismissed. Here it will be decided whether we - lay representatives and bishops - can seriously go further together or not. This places an incredibly heavy responsibility on the bishops. I very much hope that Pope Francis will be able to see these results as a gain and agree that ecclesiastical structures and paths cannot be changed everywhere in the same way, but that different possibilities may be considered for a certain region, for a certain country, for a certain constellation. And that Pope Francis thereby trusts his bishops to follow these new paths without endangering the unity of the Church. In other words, whether the Synodal Way is successful with its results depends essentially on whether the Pope trusts his bishops and whether the bishops "have the guts" to go in new ways.

Karin Kortmann is a social educator and SPD politician .  She was Parliamentary State Secretary in the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development from 2005 to 2009. She is Head of the GIZ Representative Office in Berlin, married and has two children.

Manfred Kollig SSCC:  In addition to his activities in parish pastoral care, school pastoral care and in the Department of Pastoral Care in the Diocese of Münster, Fr. Manfred has served in the religious leadership of the Arnstein Fathers (SSCC) in Rome. He has been Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Berlin since February 2017. 

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