Pope Francis’ response to four former delegates of the German “Synodal Way” has once again highlighted Pope Francis’s concern regarding the path undertaken by the Church of Germany. A concern shared in the Vatican, so much so that the risk of schism is often raised. From a certain point of view, however, Pope Francis’s response, combined with the various actions regarding the German Synodaler Weg, leaves an open question: What if Pope Francis had wanted to put the Church in a state of permanent Synod precisely to avoid schism?
The question goes beyond the alleged possible doctrinal concessions of Pope Francis.
The Pope acts pragmatically and always tries to avoid head-on clashes, faithful to the idea that “time is superior to space.” The German synodal path, in its stubbornness, might have seemed a dangerous challenge if taken head-on. Then, Pope Francis would have tried to find a way to get around the obstacle.
It’s about going back in time and understanding how Pope Francis acted, in order to find some confirmations of this theory. First is the letter that the Pope sent to the people of God on their journey in Germany in 2019. It is a letter that encourages open discussion but underlines that doctrinal decisions belong only to Rome and asks not to lapse into functionalist drifts and ideological drifts.
During that period, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich launched the idea of a European Synod, together with a series of continental synods that could allow us to discuss together and globally overcome the various crises triggered in the local Churches.
Pope Francis must decide on a theme for the Synod of Bishops, celebrated in 2023. The Pope himself says that the first place among the requests was to discuss the role of the priest at the Synod. Synodality was the second favorite theme. Pope Francis, however, chooses synodality. And it seems there is also the underlying idea to absorb the storm breaking out in Germany into a broader debate.
There is already an ongoing debate on some issues. Cardinal Hollerich is appointed general rapporteur of the Synod. He will host a meeting between Cardinal Grech and Bishop Baetzing, president of the German Episcopal Conference, in his archdiocese of Luxembourg to encourage the establishment of a working group that reconciles the German Synodaler Weg with the universal Church.
And it is always Hollerich who acts as spokesperson for some of the most popular issues in the discussion of the Synod, from the role of women to the change in the Church’s doctrine regarding homosexual unions.
Some positions around the Synod seem to have the final objective of silencing any possible dispute, throwing an olive branch to the progressive wing, and absorbing everything in a new balance.
One question remains: If the Pope is worried about the drift of the Synod of Germany, why do some of his positions still seem to wink at those of the Germans?
The question is legitimate, and the answer might lie in the same pragmatic way of doing things as Pope Francis.
As regards doctrinal questions, Pope Francis remains formally anchored to the deposit of faith. He accepts, however, that there may be deviations and does not want the doctrine to stand in the way of God’s mercy. For example, there is no openness to homosexual unions, while there is an openness to welcoming homosexuals. There is no opening for the priesthood of women or the diaconate for women. There is a willingness to discuss it, however, and perhaps even give women government roles, but there is not so much as an inkling of impending change to doctrine or discipline in these regards.
The situation of the Church in Germany does not seem to worry, however, because of the pressure on doctrinal changes, but rather because of how these pressures are applied. Pope Francis tends to decide through light documents or practical solutions; the Church in Germany has set up a panzer structure in commissions, sub-commissions, and papers for detailed reforms, which go against the Pope’s principle.
Pope Francis has the principle of managing changes but not of doing so institutionally.
The measures he took generally went against some groups that were not going in the direction he hoped for, such as traditionalist groups. On the other hand, the Church in Germany carries forward some themes that the Pope could agree with in principle but which he cannot agree with due to how they are carried forward. In the end, the Church is a “holy hierarchical mother” for the Pope, and the Pope’s authority is sacrosanct.
The Pope is a man of government, and the fact that the Church in Germany, through his actions, calls into question his authority is problematic for him to manage. Pope Francis’s response was to broaden the debate, hoping the Germans would reformulate the synodal path.
That did not happen.
Indeed, the Germans prepared a 59-page dossier before the Synod, distributed to the presidents of the Episcopal Conferences throughout Europe, in which they detailed some of the decisions taken in the Synodaler Weg and underlined that these measures were already mandatory in Germany. In contrast, on the issues that they would have had to have the approval of the Apostolic See, the heads of the bishops would have taken care of dealing directly with the Vatican.
The majority of the Synod made a different choice, avoided significant deviations in the Synod’s summary document (amended 1215 times), and showed a particular aptitude for introducing changes without wanting to upset everything. The fact that in the final press conference of the Synod, there was talk of resistance and that then-Cardinal Hollerich, in an interview, explicitly said that some changes would not be made, “we will have lied to people,” gives the idea that there was a need to respond to some expectations.
In his response to the letter of the four theologians, Pope Francis says he is concerned “about the now numerous concrete steps with which large portions of this local Church continue to threaten to move further and further away from the common path of the universal Church.”
The four signatories of the letter were concerned, in particular, with the idea of establishing a synodal committee that would aim to ” prepare the introduction of a management and decision-making council.” Pope Francis said that an organism of that kind “cannot be harmonized with the sacramental structure of the Catholic Church” and that, in fact, the establishment of such an organism “was prohibited by the Holy See with a letter of 16 January 2023, approved by me in a specific way.”
The Pope also underlines that “instead of seeking salvation in ever new committees and, with a certain self-referentiality, of always discussing the same themes, in my Letter to the People of God who are on their way in Germany, I wanted to recall the need for prayer, of penance and adoration and invite us to open ourselves up and go out to meet our brothers, especially those who are abandoned on the threshold of our churches, on the streets, in prisons and hospitals, squares and cities.”
It is a phrase that betrays the Pope’s vision.
That vision is based on faith but ultimately looks at faith immersed in concrete things. The German problem, in the end, is not a problem of doctrinal change. It is a problem for how doctrinal change is carried out. And so, the Pope tries to stop it – and it should be remembered that last November, the German bishops saw the texts of their ad limina reports published, including Cardinal Ouellet’s text calling for a moratorium on the synodal path.
Pope Francis, however, is not looking for head-on clashes.
He doesn’t go one-on-one. Above all, he does not want to create a division, and he does not want to be the one who, out of rigidity, causes a schism. According to Pope Francis, the Synod of the Universal Church can then, indeed, be the antidote to schismatic pressures.
History will tell if this was the case.