Synodality in Germany is an oft-mentioned topic that for some is concerning, others confusing and then for another group is considered the “great future”.
“Synodality is a moment of crisis,” Professor Margit Echolt from the University of Osnabrück, told Flashes of Insight.
“The issues centre around the democratisation of the Church, equality, sexual abuse, women, and young people.”
“There are many people, particularly women, of my age but also the younger generation who will leave the church unless they are treated equally, are heard and engaged in the church and their parish,” she said.
The point was reinforced by Emeritus Professor Paul Zulehner, from the University of Vienna, Austria, who told Flashes of Insight that laypeople, pastorally, “The People of God,” are in their professional life qualified, involved and are given responsibility. Still, it is not the case with the Church.
“We need to start again with Vatican II, to open up its meaning and then change the Canon Law,” he said.
While some are fighting for reform, others have given up and are walking away, he said.
Zulehner says to be faithful, Catholics rely on two main sources, biblical tradition and the Holy Spirit.
“Tradition must find shape in culture and the Holy Spirit talking through the signs of the times,” he said.
Echolt agrees, saying the German church has great theological work of women and that it is time for the hidden histories of women in the Church to be on display, opened and integrated.
She believes feminist theology is a gap in the formation of future priests.
We have a lot of ‘authoritarian’ people within the Church and clergy; they argue against gender ideology; These people are in the majority, and it is challenging to discuss diverse perspectives with authoritarian types, she said.
Zulehner admits he is a little pessimistic because he sees the situation as “getting worse;” open-minded people, even older Catholics, are leaving the Church, leaving an increasing proportion of traditional theological thinkers.
Professor Emeritus Thomas O’Loughlin describes the situation as “concerning,” that in a synodal environment, the group leading the Church are unable to listen.
“Psychologically, they have not entered the world, and these are the people who are talking about Synodality,” he says.
Zulehner says the vision of community is that, as Church, serves another, that answers a human need but also a divine need.
He believes the church will re-emerge but not as an international corporation, somewhat akin to the religious United Nations.
“The experience of the last 150 years has been an illusion,” says emeritus professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham.
“The great movements towards human solidarity and the alleviation of human suffering have often come parallel to the church but inspired by the Christian message. And so, new directions, new organisations, and new human sets of human relationships will emerge, which will serve each other, serve the world, and bring us closer to God.
“They will not have the trappings of this great international corporation,” he said.
Echolt says while we do not know the future, we can say that the power of Catholicism in Germany has been movements of laypeople, of women. These movements have come from within parishes and local communities.
She says Germany has a long history of young people studying theology.
However, she is concerned that today, fewer young people are studying a Master of Theology and becoming priests and pastoral workers.
Zulehner says he has great hope for the future, but the future is in this ‘secular’ context.
The hope for the future is also a sense of mission, Zulehner says.
He thinks the Church needs to look at the early Church and refound it.
“We need structural reform and ensure it happens by changing the Church’s Canon Law to allow full participation from the People of God.”
“The Second Vatican Council told us that the Church has its place in the great drama between God and the world. It told us to look at the world and risk it”.
“Look at the world that suffers many challenges now—climate challenges, the new social questions arising around digitalisation and pandemics and so on. Migration is a big challenge. As Pope Francis says, God has empathy for those suffering, so our question is what can we do?”
He said in the context of a Synodal Church, his theological hope for the future of the Church takes him back to his childhood, where he learnt that his purpose was to go to heaven as soon as possible and without sin. However, years later, a good bishop told him, “we are not Christians to go to heaven, but to bring pieces of heaven onto Earth, here and now.”
- Professors Margit Echolt and Paul Zulehner joined Thomas O’Loughlin and Dr Joe Grayland in this Flashes of Insight conversation.