Jan-Heiner Tück: Until now, synods have been special events in the life of the Church. Now, under Pope Francis, the synodal church is being made permanent, so to speak. Is this an ecclesiological paradigm shift?
Walter Kasper: A distinction must be made between synods as special events either at regular intervals (about every ten years) or at urgent occasions, and synodality in the sense of a new style in the Church in the sense of fraternal co-operation between bishops, priests, religious and lay people, where women and men, young people and older people, poor and foreigners should be appropriately included. This gospel-oriented, spiritual style should characterise the entire life of the church, the synods and many other church bodies. This is a paradigm shift insofar as, since the Second Vatican Council, the Church sees itself not only unilaterally in institutional terms as a hierarchical society, but also, on the basis of the one common baptism, as a communion in which all, with different charisms, vocations and ministries, are together on a way in synodal co-operation. The specific open questions are to be addressed at the 2024 Synod of Bishops.
Tück: The first session of the Synod of Bishops on synodality has just come to an end. Some have praised it as a "small revolution", others have criticised it as "not courageous enough". What is your assessment?
Kasper: I wouldn't call it revolutionary. The Synod followed the line of the Second Vatican Council and developed its approaches courageously, but also in unison. The spiritual style, interspersed with prayer, contributed significantly to this. The test of courage will only come at the 2024 Synod, when concrete resolutions will have to be passed.
"Of course, there were different opinions, but there were no window-dressing speeches and no media side-synods that dominated public opinion."
Tück: In the run-up to the Synod of Bishops, Pope Francis prohibited the presence of the media in order to safeguard the spiritual format of the consultations. This was criticised as a lack of transparency. Rightly so?
Kasper: There is no doubt that the transparency created by the media in particular is of great importance for church events. Communion requires communication. But even in democratic states, it is completely normal and beneficial for certain bodies to meet without media participation. In this specific case, the exclusion of the media had a positive effect. Everyone was able to speak freely without subsequently being categorised as progressive, conservative, reactionary, etc. or even punished by the public. Of course, there were different opinions, but there were no window-dressing speeches and no media side-synods that dominated public opinion. The results of the synodal discussion are now publicly available in various languages and can be discussed publicly until the decision is made at the 2024 synod.
The synod: not a collective
Tück: In addition to a culture of listening, a process of spiritual discernment was repeatedly called for. Is it possible to transfer the logic of existential knowledge, as envisaged in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, to synodal bodies?
Kasper: Of course, the existential decision is a matter for each individual to make in accordance with their personal conscience. The Synod is not a collective, but rather a co-operation of Christians in which each individual is directly related to God and ultimately accountable to Him. In concrete terms, the decision will be made by listening to and weighing up the arguments of the other synod participants and then determining one's own vote.
Tück: The interim report met with the overwhelming approval of the synod members and covers a wide range of topics that can hardly all be dealt with in the final 2024 session. What criteria would you use to prioritise them?
Kasper: It is planned that the Synod's agreed interim report will now be sent back to the local churches, which will report to the General Secretariat of the Synod on what they consider to be particularly urgent. Based on these reports, a proposal will then be submitted to the Synod 2024. Issues that are not taken up at that time do not necessarily fall by the wayside, but could also be passed on to other committees or institutions or, if necessary, to future synods for consideration.
Tück: Participation and co-responsibility of the laity and women is one of the most important topics. Vatican II's strong emphasis on the episcopate has sometimes been seen as a problem. Some have questioned the character of a synod of bishops due to the participation of non-bishops?
Kasper: The participation of lay people and women did a lot of good to the Synod. The discussions were not overly theological and did not come from a purely institutional perspective. The voices of the women from different cultures were very authentic, emphatic and thought-provoking; the Synod would have lacked something, if they would not have participated. The participation of the laity and women will therefore undoubtedly be one of the urgent topics of the 2024 Synod. Their participation in this year's synod has maintained the character of an episcopal synod, if only in terms of numbers, and has adhered to the framework provided by canon law. It would be desirable for future synods to not only consider the participation of bishops and lay people, but also to include priests working in local parishes and local pastoral care, as they are the ones who have to bear the "heat of the day".
"There is no legitimisation of a Synodal Council with equal numbers of bishops and lay people given by the synodal process of the universal Church."
Tück: In Germany, the "Synodal Committee" has just been constituted to prepare a permanent Synodal Council with equal representation, despite objections from Rome. Renowned participants see this procedure as legitimised by the synodal process of the universal Church. Rightly so?
Kasper: There is no legitimisation of a synodal council with equal numbers of bishops and lay people given by the synodal process of the universal Church. This question was not even dealt with during the Synodal Process and the Roman objections have been more than clear. To simply continue with this project and create a fait accompli can only be understood as a defiant challenge that cannot end well.
Debate on the Synodal Council
Tück: In a letter to four former synod members on the 10th of November 2023, Pope Francis also stated that the constitution of a Synodal Council is not compatible with the sacramental constitution of the Church. This objection has been met with incomprehension by many - including bishops in Germany. How can this hermeneutical dissonance be resolved?
Kasper: The sacramental structure of the Church consists, among other things, in the fact that the authority to lead in the Church is tied to the ministry that is given and authorised by sacramental ordination. This includes, in the sense of synodality, that a bishop consults with synodal bodies and gives an account of his decision. Vatican II speaks of a "unique harmony between leaders and the faithful" (DV 10). Such regular consultations between the Bishops' Conference and the ZdK (Central Committee of German Catholics) have been taking place at a national level since the Würzburg Synod. There is nothing to prevent these consultations from becoming more prominent. However, it would become problematic, if a Synodal Council would be able to pass binding resolutions to which the individual bishop is canonically or morally bound. Such a Synodal Council would undoubtedly interfere with the sacramental structure of the Church and would limit or even remove the bishop's authority to lead. It would then have more power than the Bishops' Conference, which according to the current CIC (with a few exceptions) is an advisory body.
"It is not clear to me how one can assume an office at ordination and then renounce the fulfilment of the obligations that are essential to this office and which one has publicly committed to at the ordination."
Tück: In Germany, the systemic failure of the bishops in dealing with sexual and spiritual abuse by clerics is cited to justify the institutionalisation of the Synodal Council. Regardless of the objections raised by Rome, the majority of German bishops are sticking to their voluntary commitment to abide by the decisions of the Synodal Council in the future. This is seen as a sign of the bishops' willingness to learn. Why do you remain sceptical?
Kasper: It is not clear to me how one can assume an office at ordination and then renounce the fulfilment of the obligations that are essential to this office and which one has publicly committed to at the ordination. The self-commitment that every bishop publicly promises at his episcopal ordination is fidelity to the Pope. How can this be reconciled with a commitment to a synodal council that the Pope explicitly disapproves?
Tück: In democratic societies, bishops can no longer rule like baroque princes. What specific measures would you yourself recommend to make the episcopal ministry more transparent and more synodally embedded?
Kasper: Governing like a baroque prince is undoubtedly not a way that corresponds with the Gospel and is not a reality here in Germany either. I don't even remember how many committees I had to listen to when making important decisions as a bishop. It is therefore not a question of creating additional new structures with reference to synodality, but rather of reorganising the existing structures in the spirit of synodality and making them less bureaucratic and more spiritual. We need a culture of fraternal dialogue. If this does not help or is refused, a kind of administrative jurisdiction or an independent complaints office can be helpful in the event of abuse of office or unjust decisions.
More theological precision
Tück: In your friendly dispute with Cardinal Ratzinger, you yourself warned against "Roman centralism". Pope Francis already spoke of a "salutary decentralisation" in Evangelii Gaudium 2013. How far can this go without damaging what we have in common, i.e. the coherence of Catholicism?
Kasper: Decentralisation does not seem to be the right word for my concern at that time, which has since been taken up several times by Pope Francis. Of course, the Church on earth has a visible centre in the Petrine ministry of the Bishop of Rome, whose task it is to strengthen the brothers in the episcopate (Luke 22:32). Over the course of history, the relationship between the universal and local church has taken on different forms depending on the needs of the time. In the course of modern times, the universal church has reached a geographical and cultural diversity that goes beyond the previous framework and prompts us to reconsider and reorganise the diversity within the unity of the church. As the Synod of Bishops indicated, this can only be done in a synodal manner by establishing intermediate synodal bodies at regional and continental level.
"The lack of theological depth and precision was repeatedly expressed at the Synod of Bishops."
Tück: What role can theology play in preparing the final phase of the Synod of Bishops?
Kasper: The lack of theological depth and precision was repeatedly expressed at the Synod of Bishops. In a synod that was initially intended to articulate the expectations of the faithful, it had also its good points. In this way, the expectations of the faithful came across unfiltered. However, if the expectations of the faithful are not to be disappointed, answers must be provided and solutions developed at the Synod 2024. This cannot happen without specialized, theological and canonical standards. The Council of Trent first discussed all questions thoroughly in the Congregation of Theologians and only then decided in the Congregation of Bishops. At Vatican II, many bishops brought their "in-house theologians" with them, so almost everyone with a certain reputation in theology was present at that time. At the Synod of Bishops, there is the task of the synod theologian. It is hardly possible for one single person to do this work, hence I propose an international group of recognised theologians and canonists.