Ahead of a historic meeting of 230 Catholic leaders and laypeople in Germany last week, Renardo Schlegelmilch, an editor for the country’s largest Catholic radio station, tried to reassure anxious conservatives and dampen the hopes of the church’s aspiring reformers. Big ideas up for debate—gay marriage, female ordination, married priests—had sparked speculation that the German Catholic Church was about to go rogue.
“So, will Germany actually abolish celibacy and ordain women priests? No, of course not,” he wrote on Sept. 17 in the National Catholic Reporter. “And nobody who follows the process thinks that. … Some say Germany must lead the way to a progressive church—and do it on its own if it comes to the worst. Nevertheless, for the most part, these are not the opinions that will garner a majority.
“To be honest, I’m pessimistic here,” he added. “The factions have their rock-solid opinions. … Anything they will be able to agree on will be a compromise that will sound soothing to everyone involved but won’t change anything in the long run.”
After the meeting, Schlegelmilch admitted he may have underestimated just how eager his fellow Catholics were to disrupt the status quo. “I wrote that all the fears that there’s going to be a schism, that people are trying to fundamentally change the church, didn’t really have roots in reality,” he said in an interview on Monday. “But this week, we saw that from the 200 delegates, there were only 25 to 30 who voted against these ideas—ideas like letting the people of the diocese elect the bishop.”
The assembly was part of something called the “Synodal Path,” a bottom-up, multiyear process for examining the problems in the country’s church. For three days, participants sat in nonhierarchical, alphabetical order to discuss 13 proposed documents. The forum last week was one of five dealing with hot-button topics: power structures, sexual morality, the modern priesthood, and the role of women in the church. The German bishops promised the public that the whole affair would end with a series of “binding” votes.
None of those votes has happened yet. But so far, the tone of the discussion—and the votes to allow certain proposals to move to the next stage—indicated more openness to radical change than many observers expected. The most surprising moment came when a slim majority voted to discuss, as one critical conservative publication put it, “the question of whether the priesthood is needed at all.”
To many conservative Catholics, the German situation is proof of the danger of Pope Francis’ liberalizing pontificate, and the logical end to his reform efforts: a takeover by the “radical progressives” who are so dismissive of tradition and doctrine that they would excise from the church the elements most key to its identity. For many progressives, this experimental process—and the wave of similar such processes about to start in churches around the world—is their great hope for saving a deeply damaged institution.
In 2018, the Catholic Church in Germany published an explosive report that detailed thousands of cases of abuse and cover-ups over decades. In a country where Catholicism still exerts profound influence over culture and society, the news hit particularly hard. (The report was one of the worst from Europe at that time; on Tuesday, a major investigation into the French church found clergy in that country had sexually abused some 330,000 children over the past 70 years.) Criticism soon coalesced around the handling of allegations in the diocese in Cologne, in particular.
It was this crisis that pushed the German bishops to launch the “Synodal Path,” seizing upon the pope’s official embrace of the concept of churchwide debate. (Money also comes into play: In Germany, Catholics pay a mandatory church tax, making the church wealthy enough to put resources into structures such as these.) According to David Gibson, the director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University, the German church is acting at an unusually good time for disaffected Catholics to speak out. “That ‘fortress Catholicism’ that John Paul II promoted only brought scandal and defections,” Gibson said. “So this is a really risky strategy, but one worth taking.”
Despite making this spirit of open and free discussion a signature emphasis of his pontificate, Francis has long been rumored to privately bemoan how things were unfolding in Germany. (Francis has recently curbed some of this speculation: “I wouldn’t get too tragic,” Francis said in a Sept. 1 interview in which he acknowledged that he found the Germans’ style troubling. “There is no ill will in many bishops with whom I spoke.”) In 2019, Francis wrote a letter to German Catholics congratulating them on their courage but warning them against allowing politics to take over the process. “When you allow Catholics to get together and debate things openly—that’s not how the Catholic Church likes to run things,” said Gibson, who also said that Francis knows and accepts the risks. “It’s going to be a rough ride. When there’s such pent-up frustration in the church for so long, there’s a danger to allowing these frustrations to be vented.”
In March, in a move perceived as a warning to the boundary-pushing German church, the pope decreed that Catholic clergy could not bless same-sex marriages. Two months later, more than a hundred Catholic churches in the country responded in a coordinated protest by blessing gay couples, often in front of cameras. According to Schlegelmilch, American Catholics likely wouldn’t understand how out-of-step German Catholics feel with Rome on this issue. “In every town I’ve been to this year, there’s been rainbow flags flying above the churches,” he said. An international uproar ensued; conservative commentators in the U.S. declared that the Germans were already “in schism” with the church. (The term schism is often thrown around as a kind of boogeyman, Gibson said, but the historical resonance of Martin Luther and the Reformation gives that warning a real edge for international observers.)
The impatience with Francis grew worse with his handling of the abuse crisis in Cologne. In late September, just a few days before the start of the assembly, the Vatican announced that it would allow the archbishop of Cologne, accused of mishandling the abuse crisis, to return to his position after a sabbatical. To clear the air before the start of the assembly, the bishops allotted an hour for the laypeople to discuss—and express their anger over—the decision, even while the archbishop was in the room.
The Catholic Church in Germany is still in a tough position. If the “Synodal Path” plays it too safe, gay Catholics, abuse victims, and the young people crucial to the church’s future will give up hope on finding a place there. If they act too boldly, they will risk going toe-to-toe with the Vatican and throwing the global church into further crisis.
As Schlegelmilch sees it, there are three options, none of which will change the church enough to appease the most disillusioned faithful. One possibility is the progressives win the votes, but the Vatican and the local conservative bishops won’t implement the changes, making it “a lot of time, money, spent on nothing.” Another option is the conservatives win the votes, shutting down all changes, with a similar outcome. But he believes the most likely outcome is that the assembled Germans find a compromise that won’t change much. It waits to be seen if it’s possible to find, through consensus, reforms dramatic enough to deflate some of the worst anger but not dramatic enough to spook the Vatican with threats of schism.
Many disenchanted Germans have already steeled themselves for a resurgence of the status quo. Recommendations that only deal with local matters likely won’t raise any eyebrows; those that challenge the structural rules of the church (married priests) or actual doctrine (gay marriages or female priests) would need to be forwarded on as an official request to the Vatican, which could simply shut things down. So unless the Germans want to break off and form their own church (they do not), they are facing the limitations to working within a monarchical system.
And there’s an opposition within Germany as well. “Some German bishops are afraid it would lead the church to heresy in Germany,” said Thomas Rausch, a professor emeritus of Catholic theology at Loyola Marymount University. Conservative critics there have expressed fears that the participants were going to “abuse” the sex abuse crisis to push for the most radical possible proposals. And even those who support reforms balk at the more controversial measures. According to Schlegelmilch, shortly after the vote to discuss the priesthood, the conference president gave a press conference reframing it as an opportunity to “positively recall the reasoning once again why and where the position of the priestly ministry is in the midst of God’s people.”
But many others remain hopeful, in part because leaders in the church took the time to listen to controversial opinions and bold ideas for reform—something few Catholics feel accustomed to. The conference president, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, wrapped the week’s proceedings with a note of optimism. “Texts have been debated that are not just texts but dreams put into words of how we want to change the church in Germany: a church that is participatory, gender-just, and walking this path with the people of God,” he said.
Katharina Westerhorstmann, a professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville who participated in the synodal process, seemed to recognize the conflicting thoughts many walked away with: a sense that things were spinning just a little out of control, but an appreciation for a church trying, genuinely, to do something new. She expressed trepidation about moving too far too quickly without proper deliberation—but even then, she said she was still open to being convinced. “In church history there have always been times when we had to make strong decisions,” she said. “And if the time has come to have massive changes, I will be open to follow, of course. But I want to be convinced it’s actually the Lord calling us.”