The head of Germany’s largest lay association has written that the church needs a “clear adjustment” in its teachings on homosexuality, coming the same week the Vatican issued further criticism of that nation’s Synodal Way process.
Marc Frings, general secretary of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), wrote in Outreach about possibilities that the Synodal Way is opening up when it comes to reconsidering the church’s sexual ethics. Frings states it was “only logical” that the process’ main theological text seek this “clear adjustment.” It is, he writes:
“[A] conscious statement against the current Catholic catechism, which has been critical and disparaging of homosexuality since the mid-1970s and still reproaches homosexual activity as sin.
“Meanwhile, the magisterium has recognized that homosexuality is an orientation—not something chosen. Catholics are increasingly being pushed into cognitive dissonance if they seriously try to reconcile official church positions on homosexuality with their own real lives. For children and young people today, it is completely normal to be confronted with queer identities among fellow students, teachers and friends. “
Frings acknowledges that developing magisterial teaching “cannot take place in a local church,” but, he notes, the local church “can give it an important impetus” to do so. The text set before the Synodal Way’s next assembly in September asks only that Pope Francis, in Frings’ words, “examine more precisely and reassess church doctrine on homosexuality.”
The lay leader also writes the German church “must be loud, demanding and progressive” when it comes to ending discrimination against LGBTQ+ people. He comments:
“[T]he local German church should not make itself smaller than it is. It may be that, in other parts of the world, a church review of Catholic sexual teaching is not a top priority. But a global campaign for human rights in order to lead a self-determined life without restrictions should have top priority for the German local church. It is not without reason that the work of our Catholic relief organizations and campaigns is an important pillar of the German church. In this way, a contribution can be made to naming homophobia and discrimination as such and to fighting conversion therapies.”
Frings concludes his piece by saying he is “convinced” the Synodal Way members meeting in September “will speak out in favor of a revision of the church’s catechism.”
In related news, the Vatican issued a brief, unsigned statement criticizing the Synodal Way. The statement intended to “clarify” that the process in Germany “does not have the power to compel the bishops and the faithful to adopt new ways of governance and new approaches to doctrine and morals.” It further expressed hope that the Synodal Way would find greater harmony with the church’s universal synodal process now underway.
While Pope Francis and other church leaders have made their concerns about the German church clear, this statement—its origins and its weight—leaves more questions than answers. (For a detailed examination of its potential impact, see this article in German from Katholisch.de.)
Leaders of the Synodal Way quickly objected to the Vatican criticism. The process’ two presidents, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, chair of the German Bishops’ Conference, and Irme Stetter-Karp, president of the ZDK, released their own statement. Opening with a reminder that the Synodal Way’s own rules make it only a consultative body, Bätzing and Stetter-Karp stated (via Google Translate):
“We never tire of emphasizing that the Church in Germany will not go a ‘German special way’. Nevertheless, we see it as our duty to clearly state where we believe changes are necessary. We are already feeling that the problems and questions we have identified are similar around the world. . .
“We are irritated and regret that this direct communication has not taken place so far. According to our understanding, the synodal church works differently! This also applies to the type of communication today, which amazes us. It is not good communication within the Church to publish statements that are not signed by name.”
For nearly three years, the Synodal Way in Germany has practiced the synodality which Pope Francis seeks. Through patient listening and communal deliberations, German Catholics have been earnestly trying to discern the Holy Spirit’s desires for the church. They find that greater inclusion for LGBTQ+ people, including reforms of magisterial teachings, are needed. A perhaps inevitable tension is now surfacing. Some church leaders seek to retain, in a generous interpretation, unity and, in a less generous interpretation, control. But many faithful pursue healthy development and evolution on LGBTQ+ issues and other matters.
If being a synodal church is only about listening to people and then maintaining the status quo, it will hit a dead end. But if being a synodal church means taking people’s reflections seriously and acting on them, as Marc Frings and other German leaders now do, it could lead to great ecclesial reform.
—Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, July 27, 2022