Several Catholic priests held a ceremony blessing same-sex couples outside Cologne Cathedral on Wednesday night in a protest against the city’s conservative archbishop, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki.
Their protest was triggered by Cologne church officials’ criticism of a priest from Mettmann, a town near Duesseldorf, who in March had held a “blessing ceremony for lovers” — including same-sex couples.
Officials from the Cologne archdiocese, which Mettmann belongs to, had reprimanded the priest afterward and stressed that the Vatican doesn’t allow blessings of same-sex couples, German news agency dpa reported.
The blessing of same-sex couples on Wednesday was the latest sign of rebellion of progressive believers in Germany’s most populous diocese with about 1.8 million members.
Several hundred people showed up for the outdoor blessing service for same-sex and also heterosexual couples. Waving rainbow flags, they sang the Beatles hit “All You Need Is Love,” dpa reported. A total of about 30 couples were blessed.
The German government’s LGBTQ+ commissioner called the service an important symbol for the demand to recognize and accept same-sex couples in the Roman Catholic Church.
“It is mainly thanks to the church’s grassroots that the church is opening up more and more,” Sven Lehmann said, according to dpa. “Archbishop Woelki and the Vatican, on the other hand, are light years behind social reality.”
Catholic believers in the Cologne archdiocese have long protested their deeply divisive archbishop and have been leaving in droves over allegations that he may have covered up clergy sexual abuse reports.
The report absolved Woelki of any neglect of his legal duty with respect to abuse victims. He subsequently said he made mistakes in past cases involving sexual abuse allegations, but insisted he had no intention of resigning.
Two papal envoys were dispatched to Cologne a few months later to investigate possible mistakes by senior officials in handling cases. Their report led Pope Francis to give Woelki a “ spiritual timeout ” of several months for making major communication errors.
In March 2022, after his return from the timeout, the cardinal submitted an offer to resign, but so far Francis hasn’t acted on it.
Germany’s many progressive Catholics have also been at odds with the Vatican for a long time.
Several years ago, Germany’s Catholic Church launched a reform process with the country’s influential lay group to respond to the clergy sexual abuse scandals, after a report in 2018 found at least 3,677 people were abused by clergy between 1946 and 2014. The report found that the crimes were systematically covered up by church leaders and that there were structural problems in the way power was exercised that “favored sexual abuse of minors or made preventing it more difficult.”
The Vatican, however, has tried to put the brakes on the German church’s controversial reform process, fearing proposals concerning gay people, women and sexual morals will split the church.
On Wednesday night, just across from the hundreds of believers celebrating the blessings of same-sex couples, there were also about a dozen Catholics who demonstrated against the outdoor service, dpa reported. They held up a banner that said “Let’s stay Catholic.”
As Catholic bishops and lay people prepare to gather in Rome this October to begin discussions on the main challenges facing the church, tensions over the topics — and the stakes — of the summit have grown.
Papal allies and organizers of the October 4-29 event — the “Synod on Synodality: Communion, Participation and Mission” — are trying to defuse the tension and reassure faithful that the church has nothing to fear from the discussions even if they will take place behind closed doors.
“The way we will communicate the synod is very important for the discernment process of the entire church,” said Paolo Ruffini, who heads the Vatican communications department and will conduct briefings on the event during the month of October, at a press conference at the Vatican on Friday (Sept. 8).
With its unassuming title, the Synod on Synodality could be easily dismissed as a gathering of no consequence. When describing the event, organizers use the terms “walking together,” “enlarging the space of our tent” and “ecclesiology.” But the summit is actually the culmination of a three-year process initiated by Pope Francis to engage the church at every level and has the opportunity to not only radically subvert power structures in the traditionally hierarchical institution, but also to create a new system of governance that can overcome growing polarization.
The success of this ambitious project greatly relies on how much people who participate in it believe in it, organizers said. Members of the Vatican’s Synod office have structured the event in such a way as to promote healthy dialogue, with short discussions interrupted by prayer and meditation, group retreats and small working groups. Individuals trained in synodality, called facilitators, will guide the event and help participants engage in a spirit of unity and fraternity.
Despite the efforts the Vatican has made to ensure the discussions at the synod occur in a collegial and thoughtful way, the church has little to no control of how the event is perceived from the outside. The Catholic Church is currently addressing controversial issues concerning the welcoming of LGBTQ Catholics, the creation of leadership roles for women and female ordination, and the accountability of bishops on questions ranging from sexual abuse to financial mismanagement. Anxieties abound over how the synod will grapple with these polarizing topics.
Local synodal expressions, such as the Synodal Way in Germany, have taken a very progressive stance on some of these issues and even defied Vatican recommendations by blessing same-sex couples.
To ensure attendants can speak freely, the Vatican Synod office has maintained that the speeches and conversations within the hall will remain secret. “We have to preserve the synodal environment,” Pope Francis said, answering questions by journalists on his return flight from Mongolia on Monday (Sept. 4). “This isn’t a television show where everything is on the table, no, it’s a religious moment, a religious exchange.”
Ruffini quoted the pope’s words during the conference on Friday, underlining the need to preserve “the sacredness” of synodal discussions. He also underlined that most institutions don’t publicly share the internal debates leading up to a decision.
At the end of the synod event, attendants will approve a synthesis document that will be made public. But it won’t be the final report, Ruffini specified, since there will be a second synod meeting at the Vatican in the fall of 2024 that will issue a final document.
“We are really counting on how media will be able to communicate this communal effort of ours,” he said, before adding: “You can count on us.”
Ruffini specified that the opening Mass, the first general assembly meeting and the opening sessions of each sections, or modules, will be livestreamed. The five modules will focus on the topics of synodality, participation, mission and communion and a final synthesis and approval of the synod report.
Shutting the doors on synodal discussions in the past has contributed to frustrating previous synods under Pope Francis, with coverage being centered on polarizing topics and sensationalist statements. When the pope called bishops and Indigenous peoples to the Vatican in 2019 to discuss the Amazon region, where fires burn down trees daily and pollution endangers the forest, articles on the event centered around a young conservative Catholic who stole a sacred image of Amazonian peoples and tossed it in the river Tiber.
The Vatican has so far ensured the synod will issue daily briefings and provide detailed information about what is happening behind the closed doors of the synod hall. The Synod on Synodality has opened its process and discussions to rank-and-file Catholics more than any other modern Vatican gathering, and now those people feel invested in the result of their efforts.
The secrecy that typically surrounds Vatican events, even one as open as the Synod on Synodality, has fueled papal critics who believe the summit is nothing more than a cover for the pope to implement a liberal agenda. After all, while synod participants will get to vote on the topics, it will be the pope who in the end draws the conclusions from the event.
The pope during the in-flight press conference acknowledged the polarization inside and outside of the synod. While he said that “there is no place for ideology inside the synod,” he also recognized that many looking from the outside are afraid the event will ultimately lead to changes to church doctrine.
“If you look deep at the root of this fear you will find ideology,” the pope said. “It’s always ideology that wishes to detach itself from the path of communion with the church.”
The synod is “very open,” the pope insisted, explaining that the discussions will be kept private to avoid fostering a climate of gossip and politics. After all, he said, “the synod isn’t a parliament.”
When Pope Francis spoke of “a very strong, organized, reactionary attitude” that opposes him within the Roman Catholic Church in the United States and, in comments that became public this week, warned against letting “ideologies replace faith,” some American Catholics recognized their church immediately.
“He is 100 percent right,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and commentator who is considered an ally of Francis. The opposition to Francis within the American church now, he said, “far outstrips the fierceness of the opposition to Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict,” the two previous popes.
When Father Martin visits Rome these days, he said, the first question many people there ask him is, “What is going on in the U.S.?”
It’s essentially the same question that prompted the pope’s sharply critical remarks, which were made impromptu last month and published this week by the Vatican-approved Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica.
In a private meeting with Portuguese Catholics in Lisbon, a priest told Francis that on a recent sabbatical to the United States, he had observed that many Catholics, and even bishops, were openly hostile to the pope’s leadership.
“You have seen that in the United States, the situation is not easy: There is a very strong reactionary attitude,” the pope replied. “It is organized and shapes the way people belong, even emotionally.”
There are conservative Catholics all over the world who emphasize the church’s teaching on sexual morality and obedience, and who prefer traditional forms of worship. But they are especially prominent and influential in the United States, where Francis faces a church hierarchy that is uniquely hostile to his papacy, led by several outspoken bishops and fueled by a well-funded ecosystem of right-wing Catholic websites, radio shows, podcasts and conferences that have shaped the landscape of American Catholicism and politics more broadly.
“The pope has only spent six days in the U.S. in the last 10 years, so it’s difficult to understand how he really understands Catholics in the U.S.,” said C. Preston Noell III, public liaison for the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, a right-wing Catholic organization that describes itself as “on the front lines of the Culture War.”
“All we’re trying to do is defend the traditional teachings of the church,” Mr. Noell added, singling out opposition to same-sex marriage and artificial contraception.
Francis’ latest, unusually sharp comments about the American church landed at a delicate moment, about a month before a major gathering in Rome that has drawn escalating anxiety and outrage among some American clergy members and commentators. The gathering, an assembly of the Synod of Bishops, will be the first at which women and lay people will be allowed to vote, and it is expected to prompt wide-ranging debate on the church’s teachings and its future.
The Vatican recently announced that on the opening day of the synod, Francis will release a second part of his encyclical Laudato Si, a forceful call to reframe care for the environment as a moral and spiritual imperative. Some conservatives see the encyclical as an attack on capitalism.
After three decades of leadership by popes who generally affirmed American conservative priorities, “Francis has been a complete shock to the system,” said John McGreevy, a historian at the University of Notre Dame. “It just has been tough for a big chunk of the American church, who thought these questions were settled and now seem unsettled.”
The first pope from the global south, Francis has emphasized making the church he leads a more expansive and inclusive one, in contrast to the smaller and more ideologically homogeneous church that some conservatives would prefer. Devotees of the Tridentine Mass, a traditional form of worship said in Latin, fiercely resent that Francis has narrowed their latitude to celebrate the rite, which was largely phased out in the 1960s.
Francis has shown a penchant for seemingly off-the-cuff remarks that poke at conservative priorities. His reply to a question in 2013 about gay priests — “Who am I to judge?” — is perhaps the most memorable single moment so far in his papacy, widely quoted by his supporters and critics alike.
He has worked to cement his legacy by replenishing the College of Cardinals, who will choose the next pope, with men of voting age who share his priorities. By now, he has appointed a strong majority of the group.
Among conservatives in the United States, the pope’s latest comments felt personal. A headline on the conservative website First Things asked, “Why Does the Pope Dislike Me?”
Part of what makes the American opposition to Francis’s agenda unique is that a drumbeat of direct defiance is coming not just from commentators, but also from high-ranking clergy members.
A coterie of outspoken clerics have recently fanned speculation that the synod might undermine core Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist, salvation and sexual ethics. In a public letter in August, Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, warned that many “basic truths” of Catholic teaching would be challenged at the synod, and that the church could split irrevocably in its wake.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American former archbishop and leading voice among conservative Catholics, wrote in the foreword of a book published last month that the synod’s collaborative process was inflicting “evident and grave harm” on the church.
An English translation of the book, “The Synodal Process Is a Pandora’s Box,” was published by Mr. Noell’s organization, which recently mailed copies to all the cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons and religious brothers in the United States — about 41,000 in all.
Like other conservative Christians, some Catholics in the United States see themselves as embattled, surrounded by a culture that is hostile to Catholic doctrine and practices.
Catholics make up about 20 percent of adults in the United States, but Mass attendance has been declining for decades, and dropped sharply during the pandemic.
As a whole, Catholics in the United States are a politically diverse group, but those who still attend Mass more frequently also tend to be more conservative. And young men entering the priesthood in the United States are increasingly conservative, surveys have consistently found.
Father Martin said that in many places, Catholics who support the pope’s vision “don’t feel comfortable in their parishes, because the way that Francis’s vision of the church is ignored or downplayed discourages them,” and added, “The opposition to Francis is so loud that it dominates the conversation.”
Kevin Ahern, a professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, said that many of his students, both Catholic and not, arrive in his classroom totally unfamiliar with Catholic social justice teachings, a historically robust strain of Catholicism that has played a role in labor movements and debates over immigration and the death penalty.
Students who have been exposed to the Church only through its most prominent voices in the wider culture, he said, “are surprised to learn that the Catholic Church doesn’t map onto Republican talking points.”
Francis himself appeared undisturbed by the reaction to his latest comments by his critics in the United States. “Yes, they got mad,” he told reporters on Thursday as he flew to Mongolia for a formal visit. “But move on, move on.”
“I dare to ask you, the experts of journalism, for help: Help me to narrate this process for what it really is,” Pope Francis told a delegation of Italian journalists on August 26, 2023, regarding the Synod on Synodality. The journalists had come to the Vatican to award the Pontiff the “It’s Journalism” prize for his efforts to promote truth and justice. While certain voices are concerned about where the Synod may lead, Francis took this meeting as an opportunity to urge journalists to depict “reality” when reporting on this process, which he sees as important for the Church and the world.
The Synod on Synodality on the future of the Church was initiated by Pope Francis in 2021. It has featured a diocesan and continental phase where Catholic faithful all over the world were able to share and discern on how they see the Church today and in the future.
The next phase is coming soon, in October 2023 with a General Assembly in Rome, and then another meeting in 2024.
An “urgency of constructive communication”
Pope Francis started his speech to the journalists by highlighting that he does not usually accept awards, and did not do so even before becoming Pontiff. However, he accepted this one because of the “urgency of constructive communication” needed in society, “which fosters the culture of encounter and not of confrontation.”
He thus told the journalists he had a “request for help.”
“But I am not asking you for money, rest assured!” he joked. The Pontiff called on journalists to help him “narrate” the Synod on Synodality “for what it really is, leaving behind the logic of slogans and pre-packaged stories.”
“Someone said: ‘The only truth is reality.’ Yes, reality. We will all benefit from this, and I am sure that this too ‘is journalism,’” he said, echoing the title of the prize he received.
“Precisely at this time, when there is much talk and little listening, and when the sense of the common good is in danger of weakening, the Church as a whole has embarked on a journey to rediscover the word together,” the Pope said, explaining how in October bishops and lay people will come together for the Synod. “Listening together, discerning together, praying together. The word together is very important.”
No one is excluded
The Pontiff acknowledged not everyone may be enthusiastic about the Synod, but emphasized why he believes this process is fundamental for the Church’s future and has roots dating back to the end of the Second Vatican Council.
“I am well aware that speaking of a ‘Synod on Synodality‘ may seem something abstruse, self-referential, excessively technical, of little interest to the general public. But what has happened over the past year, which will continue with the assembly next October and then with the second stage of Synod 2024, is something truly important for the Church,” he said.
“Please, let us get used to listening to each other, to talking, not cutting our heads off for a word. To listen, to discuss in a mature way. This is a grace we all need in order to move forward,” he added.
“And it is something the Church today offers the world, a world so often so incapable of making decisions, even when our very survival is at stake. We are trying to learn a new way of living relationships, listening to one another to hear and follow the voice of the Spirit. […] That word of the Gospel that is so important: everyone.”
The four sins of journalism
The Pope also underlined that journalists play a crucial role in a society where “everyone seems to comment on everything, even regardless of the facts and often even before being informed.”
He encouraged them to “cultivate more the principle of reality – reality is superior to the idea, always.”
He identified four “sins of journalism” that reporters need to be aware of : “disinformation, when journalism does not inform or informs badly; slander (sometimes this is used); defamation, which is different from slander but destroys; and the fourth is coprophilia, that is, the love of scandal, of filth; scandal sells. Disinformation is the first of the sins, the mistakes – let’s say – of journalism.”
“I am concerned, for example, about the manipulations of those who interestingly propagate fake news to steer public opinion,” he said. “Please, let us not give in to the logic of opposition, let us not be influenced by the language of hatred.”
When Pope Francis called two years ago for a worldwide discussion among rank-and-file Catholics about the main challenges and issues facing the church, the question of women’s ministry and leadership echoed loudly in parishes and bishops’ assemblies.
The question is resounding more loudly as the summit of bishops and lay Catholics known as the Synod on Synodality, scheduled for October, draws near. Participants and observers alike recognize that any conversation about reforming church hierarchy or promoting lay involvement, Francis’ twin goals for the synod, has to include honest exchanges about the role of women.
“It’s not just one issue among others that you can tease out,” said Casey Stanton, co-director of Discerning Deacons, a group committed to promoting dialogue about the female diaconate in the church. “It’s actually kind of at the heart of the synod and we need to take a step forward that is meaningful, and that people can see and feel in their communities.”
Stanton believes that opening the door for women to become deacons — allowing them to oversee some aspects of the Mass but not consecrate the Eucharist or perform other duties reserved for priests such as anointing the sick — could send an important signal to Catholics that the Vatican is listening to their concerns.
The upcoming synod already gives a greater role to women, who will be allowed to vote for the first time in any such meeting. Of the 364 voting participants, mostly bishops, more than 50 will be women. But women were never the intended focus of the synod, a project Francis hoped would inspire discussion of a “new way of being church,” which was interpreted to mean a focus on church power structures and rethinking the privilege enjoyed by clergy.
But by the end of the last phase of the synod, when gatherings of bishops divided by continents examined the topics brought up at the grassroots level, it was clear that the question of women had taken center stage. The document that emerged from those discussions, with the telling title “Enlarge Your Tent,” spoke to the “almost unanimous affirmation” to raise the role of women in the church.
The document described the peripheral role played by women in the church as a growing issue that impacted the function of the clergy and how power is exercised in the historically male-led institution. While it made no mention of female ordination to the priesthood, it did suggest that the diaconate might answer a need to recognize the ministry already offered by women all over the world.
“It’s remarkable the shared cry that came through in ‘Enlarge the Space of Your Tent’ around the deep connection between creating a new synodal path in the church and a church that more fully receives the gifts that women bring,” Stanton said.
When, in June, the Vatican issued its “instrumentum laboris,” or working document that will guide the discussion at the synod, it explicitly asked: “Most of the Continental Assemblies and the syntheses of several Episcopal Conferences call for the question of women’s inclusion in the diaconate to be considered. Is it possible to envisage this, and in what way?”
Attributing the question to the continental assemblies and avoiding the words “ministry” and “ordination” in asking it, said Miriam Duignan, co-director of Women’s Ordination Worldwide, constituted a “preemptive strike” against open discussion of priestly ordination.
This avoids a direct challenge to the Vatican, which has shut down the possibility of women’s ordination many times.
In 1976, the Pontifical Biblical Commission established that Scripture did not prevent the ordination of women and voted that female priests did not contradict Christ’s vision for the church. But soon after, the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, intervened to state that the church was not authorized to ordain women.
Pope John Paul II had the final word on the issue when he definitively stated that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women,” in his 1994 apostolic letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” (“Priestly Ordination”).
Francis and synod organizers have emphasized that the synod has no intention of opening that door. “For the Catholic Church at this moment, from an official point of view, it’s not an open question,” said Sr. Nathalie Becquart, undersecretary at the Vatican’s synod office, in an interview.
The question of the female diaconate, however, remained open. Pope Benedict XVI changed canon law in 2009 to clarify the distinction between priests and bishops, who act as representatives of Christ, and deacons, who “serve the People of God in the diaconates of the liturgy, of the Word and of charity.”
“Benedict predicted that the call for women priests and ministry was going to get stronger and stronger,” Duignan told Religion News Service on July 25 in a phone interview.
The demand for women deacons was an underlying topic during Francis’ previous synods on young people, the family and the Amazonian region. Francis created a commission to study the possibility of women deacons in 2016, and when no clear results emerged, he instituted another in April 2020.
According to Duignan, the commissions were “set up to fail,” since a decision on the matter required a unanimous vote. While it’s undeniable that women deacons existed in the early and pre-medieval church, theologians and historians remain divided on whether women were ordained deacons or if they occupied the role in a more informal way.
“There were women deacons in the past. We could do it again,” Stanton said. “Let’s just settle that.”
The division on the question means that Francis will likely have to decide. “Our prediction is that there is going to be a bit of a stalemate between those bishops who fear a diaconate role for women, and those who say now it’s the time, let’s give them the diaconate,” Duignan said.
Advocates for female deacons hope the pope will finally welcome the demand felt by many Catholic women. “For many young people it has become untenable,” Stanton said, “an obstacle to feeling the gospel.”
The pope could leave the decision to individual bishops, which would create a patchwork of policies. Stanton, who has witnessed many experiments for new ministries for women, said that while one bishop may open new opportunities for women, the issue will “wither on the vine” if another bishop doesn’t see it as a priority.
In the end, she added, “it’s one cleric getting to determine the scope of a woman’s vocation and ministries.”
“There were women deacons in the past. We could do it again. Let’s just settle that.”
— Casey Stanton
Historically, the path to priestly ordination follows the steps of lector, acolyte and deacon. In January 2021, Francis allowed women to become lectors and acolytes; a decision in favor of female deacons could signal a cautious opening for the cause of women priests.
“The glacial pace for change in the modern Catholic Church means we have to accept any steps forward as progress,” Duignan said. The female diaconate would in her opinion offer some recognition for the women who catechize, evangelize and assist faithful all over the world.
“Once they start seeing women at the altar in an official role and seem to be leading the Mass there will be more calls for women priests,” she added.
Advocacy groups such as Women’s Ordination Worldwide will be in Rome in October to make their demands known through vigils, marches and conferences. The Synod on Synodality will draw the attention not just of Catholics but women everywhere, putting the question of female leadership in the church and beyond in the spotlight.
“The women are coming,” Duignan said. What remains unknown is whether the Vatican is prepared.