Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck on the World SynodNo German special path

With the strengthening of synodality, Pope Francis has taken a very decisive step in the direction of a learning church. Enabling participation and listening to the many voices of the faithful inevitably needs a structural framework.

Blick auf den Petersdom in Rom
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"With the help of the Holy Spirit, it is the task of the entire People of God, especially pastors and theologians, to hear, distinguish and interpret the many voices of our age, and to judge them in the light of the divine word, so that revealed truth can always be more deeply penetrated, better understood and set forth to greater advantage.“ (GS 44)

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me start giving my impulse for this evening by quoting from a famous passage of the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes. It poses a crucial question to which a clear answer is needed: How does the Church relate to the modern or postmodern world? Of course, the relationship of the Church to the post-modern world is complex and ambiguous - and vice versa. It would be fatal to resolve this ambiguity one-sidedly by painting the picture of modernity as an age distant from truth and thus from God, where positivism instead of natural law prevails in questions of morality, normlessness instead of commitment in questions of sexuality, and egocentrism instead of orientation towards the common good in questions of living together.

Admittedly, such simplistic distorted images are sometimes also maintained towards the church - with similarly pejorative attributions. This may make it more simple for some in our church to continue to cultivate a closed-shop mentality that refuses to face current challenges, looks primarily 'inwards' and perceives enquiries 'from outside' mostly as a threat. This attitude usually means that, for example, human science debates and findings are ignored or talked down. A confrontation with the values of modernity is renounced because this would supposedly threaten the core of Catholic identity. The protection of the existing takes precedence over relevance for the people.

These simplistic representations of the outside and the inside, of the postmodern world there and the church here, do not help us when it comes to really making sure in a responsible way what it means to be the church in the world today.

Gaudium et spes 44 also contains the strong formulation that the Church is aware of how much she herself has profited by the history and development of humanity. “The experience of past ages, the progress of the sciences, and the treasures hidden in the various forms of human culture, by all of which the nature of man himself is more clearly revealed and new roads to truth are opened, these profit the Church, too.“ The Council theologian Yves Congar writes in his Council commentary on this passage that opposition and resistance are not only negative, as they also bring important questions to the Church that she cannot ask of herself: "Often, through the fire, through much destruction and tears, they free the Church from the weight of her superficialities, from the shackles of her illusions." Here it becomes clear that being able to perceive this potential for enrichment presupposes two things: firstly, one must also understand one's own position as capable of enrichment. Secondly, one must be willing to be told something in the conversation.

Instead of investing resources in doomed battles against distorted images and spectres, I think the challenge for the church and theology is to really lead discourses in the sense of a constructive culture of conflict. How often do we experience that positions already exclude certain solution perspectives and development steps quasipre-discursively, because they do not fit into the framework of what is conceivable in each case. In other words, a solution, a reform, sometimes even just a few next steps, cannot even be considered as options because they contradict the previous understanding that standardises or absolutises one's own point of view. This is nothing but discourse simulation.

Of course, it should not be a matter of always putting everything on the line in discourses and recklessly putting our faith at risk.  We have to keep balance: balance between places where faith can be celebrated, lived, cultivated and protected - and those places where we have the courage to make changes in the sense of taking the next steps. Our challenge is to determine and maintain this balance, this 'middle', again and again. In an article for the "Herder Korrespondenz", I once described this challenge as follows:

"In its understanding of tradition, the Catholic Church can thus decide to simply repeat moral and further ideas being heard less and less; but it can also become a learning organisation that communicatively absorbs non-conformity which means: that discursively and constructively cultivates the contradiction internally and thus generates new resonance and thus relevance of creative acts. The decision on how to continue the tradition of Catholicism then becomes reflexive as inner ambivalence and indicates a new level of consciousness."

With this, I am drawing nothing other than the picture of a learning Church. With the strengthening of synodality, Pope Francis has taken a very decisive step towards this learning Church. First of all, it is about enabling participation. For this learning is the task of the whole people of God. It is not enough to deduce the right instructions for the practice of faith from one's own principles and then pass them on "downwards" to the grassroots for application. Pope Francis quite rightly emphasises that it is the sensus fidei, the sense of faith of the whole Church, that matters, and in doing so he explicitly states: "The sensus fidei (the sense of faith) forbids making a rigid distinction between Ecclesia docens (the teaching Church) and Ecclesia discens (the learning Church), because the flock also possesses its own 'sense of discernment' to discern new ways that the Lord is opening up for the Church." (Address on the 50th anniversary of the re-establishment of the Synod of Bishops) Enabling participation and listening to the many-voiced intuition of the faithful inevitably needs a structural framework. But this is the latest point at which a concretised form of synodality comes into play. Synodality is inevitably always also a structural aspect. The development of synodality as a modus vivendi et operandi of the church is therefore also a search for successful participation structures, for suitable meeting formats, for discussion techniques, criteria of discernment, decision-making modalities and decision-making rules.

In this respect, the Synodal Way of the Catholic Church in Germany was and is our way of concretising synodality. Particularly in the context of sexualised violence and its cover-up in the Church, the aim was and is to take concrete steps towards change. The joint work has produced a whole series of texts which were discussed according to a previously agreed procedure and finally adopted as basic theological considerations and recommendations of how to proceed. With regard to these synodal consultation and decision-making processes, and also with regard to synodality as a whole, it has been emphasised time and again that a parliamentary struggle to win voting majorities at any price is an idea that does not fit with the concept of a synodal church. In this context, there have also been several warnings against mixing faith and democracy. Two things need to be said briefly and without further elaboration. Firstly: Is it not, under certain circumstances, the fear of modernity that is breaking through here in the dissociation from a liberal social order? Should not a community that relies on participation, despite all the critical consideration in detail, be more open and appreciative of democracy as a form of government and avoid the danger of talking the talk of autocratic enemies of democracy? And secondly: Whatever the modalities and rules of synodality will look like - in view of the fact that we are dealing here with structures of participation, we will also need rules for it. These do not have to be identical with the rules of parliamentarism.

Pope Francis has quite rightly pointed out that the ideal of unanimity, for example, has a special significance for synodality and that higher approval barriers than a simple majority are therefore appropriate for decisions. Orientation towards a factual discussion instead of a mere exchange of blows must also be reflected in such rules. But if synodality represents the structural concept for the common exploration of the sensus fidei, then it is also good and conducive to equip this structural concept with precise rules and regulations that can be optimised in lived practice, which help to achieve greater clarity and thereby avoid disputes and discord. It requires a large portion of courage to accept the polyphony of lived synodality and to actually understand it as a richness. The synod members have experienced first-hand, so to speak, how exhausting it is to listen, and no less difficult it is to reach distinctions and decisions with one another. However, one must also ask oneself what the alternative would be: a systematically well-designed doctrine without breaks and question marks, but which is increasingly distant from the reality of people's lives and in the end can only be understood by experts? Gaudium et spes speaks a clear language: For the whole people of God, it is a matter of understanding revealed truth ever more deeply. To this end, they should listen to the voices of this time with the help of the Holy Spirit! The Synodal Way of the Church in Germany has set out to take a tangible step forward here. I am convinced that we are not taking an isolated special path, but that we are firmly anchored in the Church's teaching. And we are carried by the hope that we will be able to contribute further aspects from these experiences to the Synodal Way of the Universal Church.

The text is based on a lecture given at an event organised by the German Embassy to the Holy See at which, based on our Herder-Thema-issue "World Church
on the move. Synodal Ways"
, together with ZdK Vice-President Birgit Mock, the responsible for the Irish Way Nicola Brady and the France expert Monica Baujard, the synodal processes processes worldwide were the focus. Here you can find the German translation of the text.

Anzeige: In der Tiefe der Wüste. Perspektiven für Gottes Volk heute. Von Michael Gerber

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