More participation, more transparency – and a stronger role for women

New working paper for the Synod on Synodality: The unspecific becomes more concrete

Bonn - According to the Vatican, the Synod on Synodality should only be about synodality as such. However, the working paper for the second phase of the meeting shows that it will not work without change. The proposals are now taking on more concrete contours – even if the synod is not allowed to discuss all controversial topics.

Published  on 10.07.2024 at 00:01  – by Matthias Altmann

It is primarily about the style of the church. A new way of working together, a return to the common missionary mandate of all the baptised and how to do justice to this in a new way. Those responsible for the organisation of the Synod on Synodality have repeated this mantra like a prayer wheel since the official start of the project almost three years ago: ultimately, it is not about concrete reforms. Of course, this did not stop those involved in the consultations from setting topics anyway. The new "Instrumentum laboris" is also about the style of the consultations. But not only. The synod organisers must have been aware from the outset that synodal discussions alone would not be sustainable enough. Or as the text puts it: "Without concrete changes, the vision of a synodal church will not be credible, and this will alienate those members of the people of God who have drawn strength and hope from the synodal path."

The working paper presented on Tuesday will guide the debates at the second session of the Synod on Synodality in October. As expected, the text does not call for an ecclesial revolution. Overall, everything remains the same: Non-ordained persons may have a say, but the final decision-making power remains with the ordained ministers. This is and remains the Catholic understanding of ecclesiology. In future, however, there should be more clearly defined ways of making decisions, lay people and committees that do more than just advise - and a duty of transparency and accountability for all decision-makers. If this is actually implemented by Pope Francis after the Synod on Synodality, it would certainly be a significant step. Some of the things that the "organisers" of the Synod on Synodality have so far often defined rather vaguely under the term synodality are becoming increasingly clear. Paths for reform are slowly emerging, at least for sime topics – especially where there seems to be a consensus within the global church.

Papal laws in future only after consultation?

"How we can be a synodal missionary church" is the title of the document. The topics of the working paper for the first round last October reappear: The participation of women in positions of leadership and responsibility, the relationship between clergy and laity, the participation of unordained church members and possible new ministries, as well as the topic of power and its control. While the previous document primarily formulated key questions for the talks in Rome, which resulted from feedback from all countries and continents, the Instrumentum laboris for the second round is more specific in terms of proposals for possible reforms. However, the new document omits other points that were addressed in the first working document, such as the church's treatment of LGBTQ people.

With regard to decisions in the Church, the following applies: there should no longer be any solitary decisions by pastors, bishops or the Pope. Instead, synodal consultative structures are to be introduced at all levels. In contrast to what is currently regulated in canon law, the participatory bodies should no longer have a "merely advisory vote". Although the final decision by the bishop must be preserved, the aim should be a "shared decision that obeys the Holy Spirit", according to the text. This principle should also apply to the Pope: In future, for example, he should only promulgate laws after joint consultations.

Pope Francis during an address
Bild: ©KNA/Romano Siciliani

Will Pope Francis only enact laws in future after communal consultation? At least that is what the "Instrumentum laboris" suggests.

In this context, reference is made to the local churches, i.e. the dioceses or the Church in certain countries. The working paper literally states: "It is up to the local churches to make greater use of all opportunities to bring to life authentic synodal decision-making processes that correspond to the particularities of the various contexts." This echoes the theme of "salutary decentralisation", which Pope Francis has repeatedly called for, but has rarely implemented to date. Consequently, a possible strengthening of the role of the bishops' conferences is addressed: they could be recognised as ecclesial subjects endowed with doctrinal authority. This, too, had already been discussed at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), but has not yet been realised. Although Pope Francis has repeatedly granted the bishops' conferences individual competences during his pontificate - such as the approval of liturgical translations - they have so far tended to deal with pastoral issues. Only the individual bishop has magisterial authority for his own diocese.

The question of decision-making processes in the church is almost automatically accompanied by the question of how women can be better involved in these processes. The document devotes a great deal of space to this topic: their position must be recognised and strengthened in all areas of church life. The text also mentions that there are calls worldwide to give women better access to positions of responsibility in dioceses and church organisations.

One topic that is not only hotly debated within the framework of the Synod on Synodality will now definitely not be part of the discussions: the diaconate of women. This was excluded from further deliberations in advance by Francis along with other topics. This papal decision was sharply criticised in some parts of the world, including Western Europe: Pope Francis wanted to take the wind out of the sails of the Synod on Synodality. One reason for the outsourcing could be that the discussion within the framework of the Synod on Synodality has become bogged down. "While some local churches are calling for the admission of women to diaconal ministry, others are reaffirming their rejection," the text says tellingly. "On this question, which will not be the subject of the work of the second session, it is good that theological reflection continues at an appropriate time and in an appropriate manner."

Offices and ministries for women

To this end, the working paper brings other ministries and services for women into play - or for lay people in general. One of these is to be dedicated to "listening to and accompanying" people who feel condemned or threatened by the Church. This service should be organised differently depending on local circumstances. Particularly interesting from a German perspective: the document recalls that there are already regulations in the Church according to which lay people can take over the baptismal service and wedding assistance in exceptional situations. "It makes sense to continue thinking about how these ministries can be entrusted to the laity in a more stable form," it says. The Synodal Path of the Church in Germany had also called for something similar. In the dioceses of Essen, Osnabrück and Rottenburg-Stuttgart, women have already been authorised to administer baptism.

An announcement, which was also made public on Tuesday, shows that the Vatican is clearly working hard on the issue of ministries, especially for women: There is soon to be an official document from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Synod Secretariat that will clarify fundamental questions of canon law and theology on the subject of "specific ecclesiastical ministries". This also includes the question of the "necessary participation" of women in the life of the church - as well as in its leadership. It remains to be seen whether this can help to mitigate conflicts within the church over the "women's issue".

Ordination of a deaconess
Bild: ©KNA/Cornelis Gollhardt

The ordination of women as deacons is not to be debated at the synod in Rome.

In addition to more co-determination and a stronger role for women, the working paper calls - in great detail - for transparency and accountability in the church hierarchy. Here, the document suggests that the Church has learnt from the serious failings of the past: "In our time, the demand for transparency and accountability in and by the Church has arisen as a result of the loss of credibility due to financial scandals and, in particular, sexual and other abuse of minors and vulnerable people." In future, however, these principles should not only apply when dealing with cases of abuse and in the financial sector, but also to pastoral plans and church employment relationships. In future, there should be accountability in two directions: The lower levels should also be able to demand accountability from the higher ones. German readers will also praise this.

Initial reactions from Germany have also been overwhelmingly positive. The President of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), Irme Stetter-Karp, spoke of the Church being on the move and struggling with the transformation of its tradition in its current process towards more synodality. The Chairman of the German Bishops' Conference (DBK), Bishop Georg Bätzing, called the paper a good basis to work with.

A side blow against the synodal path?

However, one passage from the working paper is unlikely to please them: It also addresses the extent to which scientific findings can be used to argue in favour of church reforms. It states that discernment as an intellectual principle can only benefit from the analytical contribution of the various human and social sciences: "This does not mean that technical and scientific expertise has the last word." This means that references to scientific findings should not dominate the debate. This could certainly be interpreted as a side blow against the Synodal Way, which repeatedly underpins demands for a change in sexual morality with references to the human sciences.

In October, the delegates will meet for the second round of the Synod on Synodality. They will deliberate, draw up a final report and present it to Pope Francis. The head of the Church will then draw up a post-synodal letter. Whether or not he adopts the synod's resolutions is then entirely up to him. For example, he rejected the "viri probati" demanded by the Amazon Synod. If it does so this time, it will need to amend the canon law. The synod will then be officially closed. But somehow it will continue. "We can expect a deepening of the common understanding of synodality, a better focus on the practices of a synodal church and even the proposal of some changes to canon law, but certainly not the answer to all questions," the text reads. "This is also because further questions will arise on the path of conversion and reform to which the Second Session will call the whole Church." It is no coincidence that the working document also addresses the question of whether there should be something like a world synod on a permanent basis.

by Matthias Altmann