After the Synodal Assemblies I – IV (30.01.–01.02.2022, 30.09.–02.10.2021, 03.–05.02.2022, 09.–11.09.2022) the Fifth Synodal Assembly took place from 9 to 11 March 2023 in Frankfurt/Main.
The Spring Plenary Assembly of the German Bishops’ Conference from 11 to 14 March 2019 in Lingen was influenced by the so-called MHG study (Research Project “Sexual abuse of minors by catholic priests, deacons and male members of orders in the domain of the German Bishops’ Conference”) on the survey of cases of sexual abuse in the domain of the Catholic Church, which had already shaped the Autumn Plenary Assembly in September 2018.
In the period up to spring 2019, the German bishops in the meetings of the Permanent Council had repeatedly dealt with the question of the consequences of the MHG study. Already in September 2018, the Plenary Assembly declared: “The challenges specific to the Catholic Church, such as the questions of the celibate way of life of priests and various aspects of Catholic sexual morality, will be discussed in a transparent process of dialogue with experts from various disciplines.”
A study day during the Plenary Assembly in Lingen took up questions from the MHG study. Its theme was: “Die Frage nach der Zäsur – Studientag zu übergreifenden Fragen, die sich gegenwärtig stellen” (“The question of the turning-point-study day on overarching questions that currently arise”). The lectures given there were published on dbk.de.
In Lingen it became obvious: shock waves require special procedures. The MHG-study and, as a result, the demand of many for reforms show: the Church in Germany is experiencing a turning point. Faith can only grow and deepen if one becomes free from thinking blockades, if one faces up to the free and open debate and develops the ability to take new positions and to go new ways.
Under the title "Weltkirche im Aufbruch – Synodale Wege” the Herder-Korrespondenz has published a special issue on the Synodal Path, which focuses on international developments regarding the topic. The German special issue can be ordered from Herder-Verlag (https://www.herder.de/hk/hefte/thema/weltkirche-im-aufbruch-synodale-wege), the English and Italian editions are available as pdf files.
For this reason, in Lingen the decision was taken to follow a Synodal Path. The conviction was expressed: the Church needs synodal progress. Pope Francis recommends it. Even the Church in Germany does not start from the beginning. The “Joint Synod of the Dioceses of the Federal Republic of Germany” (“Würzburg Synod”, 1971 to 1975), the “Pastoral Synod of the Catholic Church in the GDR” (1973 – 1975) and also the discussion process of the past years have prepared the ground, also for many challenges of today. Cardinal Reinhard Marx declared in the closing press conference of the Lingen Plenary Assembly that it had been decided “to follow a binding Synodal Path as the Church in Germany, which makes possible a structured debate and takes place in an agreed period of time, together with the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK). We will create formats for open debates and commit ourselves to procedures that enable the responsible participation of women and men from our dioceses. We want to be a listening Church. We need the advice of people outside the Church”.
In addition, Cardinal Marx explained which aspects will be important as regards the Synodal Path:
“We know about the cases of the clerical abuse of power. It betrays the trust of people in search of stability and religious orientation. What must be done to achieve the necessary reduction of power and establish a more just and legally binding order will be clarified by the Synodal Path. The establishment of administrative courts is part of this.
We know that the way of life of bishops and priests demands changes in order to show the inner freedom of faith and the orientation towards the example of Jesus Christ. We value celibacy as an expression of the religious relationship with God. We will find out how far it must belong to the witness of the priest in our Church.
The sexual morality of the Church has not yet absorbed decisive insights from theology and human sciences. The personal meaning of sexuality does not receive sufficient attention. The result: the proclamation of morality does not give orientation to the vast majority of the baptized. It leads a niche existence. We sense how often we are not able to speak when it comes to questions about today's sexual behavior”.
During its Plenary Assembly on 10 – 11 May 2019 in Mainz, the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) dealt with the issue of the Synodal Path of the Church in Germany. With a clear majority, the Assembly voted to help shape this path constructively. The Committee and the Main Committee were instructed by the Plenary Assembly to continue the planning with the German Bishops' Conference in binding cooperation and under common leadership, to provide the necessary personnel and financial means for this and to ensure the networking of the representatives of the ZdK.
Pope Francis wrote – for the first time in contemporary history – a letter “To the Pilgrim People of God in Germany”. This letter also takes up the concerns of the Synodal Path. The President of the German Bishops' Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, and the President of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), Prof. Dr Thomas Sternberg, jointly commented on this letter.