Germany’s “Synodal Path” went seriously off course last week. On Tuesday, February 11, Cardinal Reinhard Marx said he would be stepping down as chairman of the German bishops’ conference. This announcement – which coincidentally fell on the seventh anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation – shocked his fellow bishops.
At 66, Cardinal Marx was expected to serve a second six-year term. In a statement that raised more questions than it answered, the cardinal said that he wanted to focus instead on his Archdiocese of Munich and Freising. “I think it should be the turn of the younger generation and perhaps it is good if this role changes hands more frequently in future,” he wrote.
This is curious because Cardinal Marx is relatively young – at least in episcopal terms. He also appears to be at the zenith of his influence. He is not only chairman of the bishops’ conference, but also a member of the Pope’s six-man Council of Cardinal Advisers and coordinator of the Vatican Council for the Economy.
The cardinal used his considerable diplomatic skills to ensure that the Synodal Path got off the ground despite fierce resistance at the Vatican. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more skilful intermediary between Rome and those German bishops who seek changes to Church teaching and practice. Cardinal Marx has no obvious successor among “the younger generation” of German bishops, and it would be surprising if any possessed his talent for getting things done at the Vatican.
An even more dramatic development was to come a day later, on Wednesday, February 12, when Pope Francis released his long-awaited document on the Amazon synod.
Some German bishops had made no secret of their intention to ask for permission to ordain married men in their dioceses as soon as the Pope authorised an exception to mandatory priestly celibacy in the Amazon region. They had hoped that the Pontiff would also approve women deacons. To their considerable disappointment, Francis neglected even to mention celibacy or a female diaconate in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia.
Thomas Sternberg, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics, which is helping to oversee the Synodal Path, accused the Pope of lacking “the courage to implement real reforms regarding the issues of the ordination of married men and the liturgical competences of women, which have been discussed for 50 years”.
Sternberg’s disappointment was understandable. It was clear from the outset that the Synodal Path would push both for married priests and female deacons in Germany. Organisers had raised expectations among German Catholics that the Vatican would look favourably on the Synodal Path’s proposals.
But now the path appears to be blocked – and by none other than Pope Francis.
Did the Pope intend to throw the Synodal Path into disarray? That is a hard question to answer. Certainly Francis has an intense dislike of being manipulated by factions within the Church. He may have felt that he was being pressurised by elements within the German Church to conform to a predetermined agenda. But that is pure speculation.
The Pope did, however, tell visiting US bishops last week that he was frustrated by the accusation that he lacked courage. “A synod is not about the courage of the Pope or the lack of courage of the Pope,” he reportedly told them, but rather about discerning the promptings of the Holy Spirit. To judge from this comment, Francis bases his decisions on what he believes to be the promptings of the Spirit. In other words, he does not see himself as some sort of ecclesiastical politician who is required to respond to the demands of various interest groups within the Church.
The architects of the Synodal Path insisted last week that they would continue to push for change. But they have suffered a double blow with the imminent departure of Cardinal Marx and Querida Amazonia.
Still, it would be foolish to write them off. The German Church remains wealthy and influential, and perhaps the cardinal might be given a senior Vatican post. The Path is expected to last for at least two years. It will be interesting to see if it is able to regain some momentum. That is certainly possible, but this past week has set back the Path’s supporters considerably.