Maike Hickson

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Pope’s letter to Germans on ‘synodal path’ is open to many interpretations

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July 1, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – On Saturday, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, the German Bishops' Conference published a 19-page letter written by Pope Francis, in which he touches upon matters such as evangelization, synodality, and conversion in light of the German “synodal path” as it is currently being set up. The letter is not addressed to the German bishops, as is usually the case, but to the “pilgrim people of God in Germany.” 

However, since Pope Francis wrote in a more general manner and chose not to mention any specific topics of the new “synodal path” – such as the questioning of priestly celibacy and of the Church's teaching on sexuality – the different camps in Germany all interpret his letter in a way pleasing to them.

For example, Cardinal Reinhard Marx – the head of the German bishops – and his lay counterpart, Professor Thomas Sternberg – the head of the German lay organization Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) – both welcomed this papal letter, thanked the Pope for his “encouraging words,” and state that they, “as bishops and lay representatives,” feel “invited to continue the process that we have started.” They agree with Pope Francis that such a “synodal path” should not concentrate “on structures,” but, rather, on “a spiritual orientation.” Pope Francis, they continue, invites us “to a new form of listening to one another, so that we, as part of the Universal Church, serve the Faith with all our creativity, spirituality, and passion.”

However, for Cardinal Rainer Woelki (Cologne) and General Vicar Michael Fuchs (Regensburg), the papal letter is clearly a sign that the “synodal path” as planned cannot be continued. Cardinal Woelki, in his June 29 statement, points out that the Pope has spoken of the “crisis of faith” in Germany and of the “primacy of evangelization.” For Woelki, this means that “we have to be a missionary Church” and that the Church should not “adapt to the Zeitgeist,” in the papal words. Cardinal Woelki thus expresses his gratitude to Pope Francis.

General Vicar Fuchs, in his own lengthy statement, points out that “the situation is dramatic” and says, “certainly, after this letter of the Pope, there cannot be a ‘let's keep going’ concerning the ‘synodal process.’” Fuchs believes that “the direction and the intensity” of the demands that have been expressed in light of the upcoming “synodal path” “must have urged the Holy Father to write this letter.” The prelate stresses that Pope Francis pointed in his letter to the loss of faith in Germany.

Fuchs goes on to say that the Pope warned against a “fragmentation” and instructed German Catholics to be attentive to unity with the Universal Church. Indeed, Pope Francis repeatedly mentions the words “Sensus Ecclesiae” and insists that it is important to avoid polarization and fragmentation. Fuchs also quotes Francis as saying that “the particular churches live in and from the Universal Church and would weaken themselves, spoil, and die, should they be separated from the Universal Church.” The “community with the whole body of the Church,” the Pope continues, “needs to be kept alive and effective.”

Pope Francis, in his letter, also warns against a sort of “gnosticism,” which makes people believe that they are “more advanced,” pretending “to go beyond the ‘ecclesial we.’”

Comments Fuchs: “Obviously, it did not remain hidden from Pope Francis that some demands of the initiators of ‘synodal path’ . . . go beyond, or do not take sufficiently into account, the foundations of the Catholic faith – as they are valid worldwide.”

With reference to this papal letter, General Vicar Fuchs asks himself: “Have we in Germany, therefore, lost the primacy of evangelization … the joy of faith?” 

Thus, for him this papal letter calls upon German Catholics to come up with a “completely new concept of such a [synodal] process that is to be oriented toward evangelization and spiritual renewal.” This “synodal process,” therefore, should not “adapt,” but, rather, concentrate “on God.”

Joachim Frank – a German Catholic journalist who is sympathetic with some of the reform plans of the German bishops – says that the new papal letter “gives free” the “synodal path” as approved by the German bishops in February 2019, just adding some “signposts.” In another article, he comments that “the recipients deal with the papal letter to the German Catholics like with a bag of jelly beans.” He means with it, that everybody picks out the parts of the letter that are pleasing to him.

What is striking to Frank is that the “contested topics” such as “sexual abuse, sexual morality, female ordination, [and] celibacy” are not even mentioned in the text. 

“On the other hand,” Frank continues, “Francis once more argues like the conservatives in the Church.”

Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, the vice president of the German Bishops' Conference and a leading voice in the progressivist camp, shows himself relieved. He stated: “First of all, he [Pope Francis] is in favor of the synodal path. That was for me the relief. Nothing is being withdrawn here. That is to say, that we can move forward, that we can go on a path.” The journalist who reports these words, Tilmann Kleinjung, entitled his article: “A papal letter with many interpretations.”
In a similar manner, the German Catholic journalist and commentator Peter Winnemöller asks: “[Are there] several letters from Pope Francis?”

One theologian, who spoke with LifeSiteNews under condition of anonymity, said that the Pope’s letter is “written in a way that everybody can accept it.” 

“Alfredo Peron,” he continues, “who is himself also known for trying to embrace contradictory positions, would like it very much.” However, adds the theologian, “the fact of the letter itself is surprising and thus might more benefit Catholic forces who wish to set limits to the ‘synodal path.’ In this respect, the letter is to be welcomed, even if it unfortunately does not make any concrete comments on any of the questions of content.” 

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Maike Hickson

Dr. Maike Hickson was born and raised in Germany. She holds a PhD from the University of Hannover, Germany, after having written in Switzerland her doctoral dissertation on the history of Swiss intellectuals before and during World War II. She now lives in the U.S. and is married to Dr. Robert Hickson, and they have been blessed with two beautiful children. She is a happy housewife who likes to write articles when time permits.

Dr. Hickson published in 2014 a Festschrift, a collection of some thirty essays written by thoughtful authors in honor of her husband upon his 70th birthday, which is entitled A Catholic Witness in Our Time.

Hickson has closely followed the papacy of Pope Francis and the developments in the Catholic Church in Germany, and she has been writing articles on religion and politics for U.S. and European publications and websites such as LifeSiteNews, OnePeterFive, The Wanderer, Rorate Caeli, Catholicism.org, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Notizie Pro-Vita, Corrispondenza Romana, Katholisches.info, Der Dreizehnte,  Zeit-Fragen, and Westfalen-Blatt.