Coordination during the dialogue process (Archive) © Harald Oppitz (KNA)
Role of women, sexual morality, encrusted power structures. These were all topics at the Catholic Church's dialogue process, which began ten years ago. Parallels to the current Synodal Way suggest themselves.
"There are signs that we are in a transitional situation with regard to the history of our church in Germany."These were the words with which the Catholic bishops in Germany addressed the dialogue process ten years ago, on 17 September. March 2011, to communities between Flensburg and Passau. In the letter, they invited a "conversation process" that would last five years.
The abuse scandal becomes known
An important trigger was the disclosure of the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in early 2010. In the fall of the same year, the then chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, Robert Zollitsch, formulated the idea of a broad-based dialogue between bishops and laity. "We will talk about the ies that are of particular urgency for the life of the Church in Germany," he announced in an interview with the Catholic News Agency (KNA).
In front of his confreres, the otherwise rather reserved Archbishop of Freiburg had found clear words. "People say about the church – and often mean us bishops specifically – that we act too much as knowers and teachers and too little as learners," Zollitsch said. "They say our own lifeworld is too far removed from the lifeworld of the people."That was about half a year before the bishops announced the key data on the initiative in their letter.
A core element of the discussion process would be annual gatherings of some 300 representatives of church life to discuss ies such as greater participation by women or the relationship between priests and laity. Also on board: the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) as the highest representative body of the Catholic laity in Germany.
In a KNA interview shortly before the kick-off event in Mannheim in July 2011, its president at the time, Alois Gluck, assessed the initial situation as follows: "Among both the bishops and the laity, there is a group of preservers and those who want to dare a new departure."
Leap to the present
At this point at the latest, a leap into the present, to the Synodal Way to the Future of Church Life, suggests itself. Reformers and preservationists also wrestle over the future of church in this initiative. As with the dialogue process, the shocks triggered by sexual abuse formed the starting point for the Synodal Way – and in both cases, bishops and the ZdK hold the helm together.
A closer look reveals further parallels: the assertions not to take a special German path already existed in a similar way ten years ago. And also at that time, the Pope warned against getting lost in structural debates: The discussion process must be a spiritual path of renewal, Benedict XVI urged.
The appropriate keyword of his successor Francis is: new evangelization.
The dialogue process ended in Wurzburg in September 2015. In the meantime, the chairmanship of the Bishops' Conference had changed from Archbishop Zollitsch to Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich. Both emphasized that the last meeting was not a final point, but a double point. Conversation between laity and bishops must continue, he said.
Reform of church labor law
Among the concrete results, Marx counted a reform of church labor law. A look at the Synodal Way and its four central themes of power, the priestly way of life, Catholic sexual morality and the role of women shows that many urgent questions still await an answer ten years after the dialogue process began. One reason the Synodical Way is seeking a higher level of commitment in its resolutions.
One fear that the bishops formulated in their 2011 letter has become even more acute, particularly as a result of social media: "We see a real danger that we will fall out in our church in such a way that bridges will be burned and existing unity abandoned," it said at the time. "It is notoriously difficult to talk to each other on barricades."