The “church tax” in Germany has no equivalent in the United States. It involves the state collecting up to 9% of income from members of the different religious denominations and passing on the money to the various churches. Because of this lucrative arrangement the Catholic Church in Germany has a deep treasury and supports many major charitable ventures as well as sending millions to the Vatican every year.
That is an important source of real power in Rome where big cheques carry a lot of weight. In addition, since the Reformation 500 years ago, German intellectuals have been central to theological developments in the church. Most recently, Joseph Ratzinger, Archbishop of Munich before becoming Pope Benedict, was a leading theologian in the liberalizing Second Vatican Council before going on to lead a conservative papacy.
The sexual abuse scourge has devastated the Catholic Church. The idea that members of the clergy took advantage of their privileged position to prey on innocent young people disgusted the Catholic faithful to such an extent that they have left the church in droves.
The German exodus numbered over 100,000 annually from 1990 onwards, and then in 2018, following an especially egregious scandal involving a boys’ choir with a connected boarding school, a massive 216,000 cut their ties with the church which many of them spoke of as beyond reform.
People were especially shocked at the ineptitude and unwillingness of the hierarchy to take responsibility; in diocese after diocese the bishops engaged in a shameful coverup of this deplorable conduct by so many priests and religious brothers.
This huge leakage of members finally elicited a meaningful response, and a major two-year review of church policies in four vital areas started in December last year. The process, which so far is confined to Germany, is called The Synodal Way, and the four areas of concentration have been named:
1 Expanding the roles women play in the church.
2 How sexuality is understood and preached in the church community.
3 The job of the priest, including discussion of the celibacy tradition.
4 The use and abuse of clerical power locally and universally.
This synod will have about 230 members, all committed Catholics, with a fair balance between men and women and between clergy and laity. Four working groups of 35 will meet to deal with the agreed major topics. Their research and recommendations will be submitted to the entire gathering for approval or rejection.
The full participation of women in exercising power and authority, including accessing priestly ordination, will be debated and there is a strong expectation that the door will be opened – perhaps slightly – for this radical change favoring female ordination.
Unlike recent synods in Rome where no woman was allowed to vote on the important issues being discussed, the rules governing the German experiment actually prevent the passage of any proposal that does not enjoy majority female approval.
The synod is supported by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the archbishop of Munich and one of Pope Francis’ close advisors. The cardinal believes it is imperative for the church to welcome what he calls repeatedly “new thinking” if it is to thrive again. Continuing in the old ways will lead even more Catholics to look to other churches that have embraced modern perspectives on the big issues of our time, especially in the area of sexuality.
In the other corner, from Cologne, the archbishop of that area, Cardinal Woekli, views the synod as a challenge to traditional church beliefs and sees it as a mistaken effort to align church teaching with popular moral stands.
This is especially true about demands for change in the important areas of the use of contraceptives and the acceptance of same-sex marriage, complete no-no’s in Woekli’s teaching. He argues that “throughout history, Christians have never been in sync with the world. I do not want to support a German national church. We should not pretend to do better than the wider ecclesial body.”
Meanwhile only 8% of Catholics in his archdiocese attend weekly mass, highlighting a malaise of very low church attendance that is not confined to his city.
Priestly celibacy was instituted by Pope Gregory close to 1000 years ago. Prior to that, going back all the way to the apostles, most priests married. One reason for the change related to property claims by priest’s children, a situation that surely could be remedied, certainly in our time, by a legal contract.
However, the major reason for Gregory’s actions relates to his vision that a priest had to be separated from his congregation, that he should be seen as a “special” man, endowed with an indelible sign of holiness at ordination.
The Catholic Church has been marked by a destructive clericalism mainly because of this attitude of moral superiority claimed as a result of ordination. This pervasive culture of setting a priest apart from the community he is serving, encouraging people to view his ordination as identifying him as worthy of special respect and even adulation, has been very damaging for the whole church but especially for priests.
Placing pastors on a high pedestal with unreasonable expectations explains how so many members of the clergy failed their parishioners. Progressive Catholics make a strong case that this clericalist culture that isolates priests explains the origins of the sex abuse crisis.
Synod participants set the tone for the proceedings by insisting that the bishops not wear their formal regalia when entering the cathedral in Frankfurt for the opening ceremony. Their message was clear, emphasizing that the synod is a serious undertaking by the whole church in Germany with no place for assertions of pomp and importance.
Female members displayed signs at the opening procession demanding full equality. Seating was based on the alphabet, not on anyone’s title or sense of self- importance.
One other issue on the agenda in the synod’s deliberations concerns the place and treatment of gays in the church where the two ends of the ecclesial spectrum, left and right, do not agree. From the traditionalists’ perspective, natural law is clear: same-sex intimate engagement is always wrong and immoral.
Modern perspectives on homosexuality have changed dramatically in Western countries in the last few decades. Being anti-gay or intolerant towards that lifestyle is seen as somewhat backward, representing prejudices of another era.
While most dioceses follow the Vatican’s condemnatory rhetoric on this issue, Cardinal Marx allows the blessing of same-sex marriages in the Munich archdiocese. More important, the majority of Catholics in Germany and beyond have no problem with the gay lifestyle and are happy adopting a live and let-live attitude.
On the ordination of women, Cardinal Marx as president of the German Bishops’ Conference informed the faithful in his country that Pope Francis had told him that he is opposed to any change in this area of church discipline. The cardinal went on to say that he sees nothing wrong with opening the issue for discussion and it is on the agenda for the Synodal Way.
In the United States where most of the hierarchy is much more in tune with traditional values and mandates, it would be difficult to find a parish that would allow an advocacy group like Women’s Ordination Conference(WOC) to lead a discussion on the possibility of female priests, even though successive polls have shown that people in the pews have no problem with a woman preaching and administering the sacraments.
Two years from now, this German synod will not be issuing a gobbledygook report affirming past practices and traditions. It is a high-powered body that is likely to recommend radical changes in the Catholic Church.