Further on up the road – the German Synod fathers look back and ahead

They continue to be the subject of much criticism. Some claim their views have been victorious at the Synod, others say they have not. Some say they are manipulating the media, relishing in their rebelliousness… Well, that’s all fine to write lengthy articles, opinion pieces and blogs about, but I continue detesting conspiracy theories, and rather take people at face value and at their word (which does not mean I agree with them on all matters). On that note, here is my translation of the message of the German bishops who participated in the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop Heiner Koch and Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, at the conclusion of said meeting:

Dt Synodenteilnehmer

^The German participants in the Synod: Aloys and Petra Buch, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop Heiner Koch and Archabbot Jeremias Schröder OSB

“We conclude the Synod of Bishops in Rome with gratitude. For three weeks we have debated and struggled intensively and encouragingly, controversially and honestly with representatives from all over the world, dug into theological questions and addressed the realities of life of the family. Above all, these weeks were a spiritual wealth: in the celebration of the Eucharist, in common prayer and fraternal conversation we have sought ways in which the mission of the family in Church and world can succeed.

At the basis of our deliberations, next to Holy Scripture and Tradition, were the words of the Second Vatican Council: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ” (Gaudium et spes, 1). In this spirit we grappled theologically and practically with the needs of the family.

The Synod of Bishops took seriously the situation of families as they are: open, honestly, differentiated globally, but similar in many ways. Across all cultural divides, marriage and family are a constant value of human coexistence. We are therefore grateful to Pope Francis that he followed the synodal way on this topic. It began with the worldwide questionnaire of the Vatican and the Synod of last year. The current conclusion is not the end, but a colon. We must continue on this road for and with the family. No other global institution undertakes such a global contemplation with worldwide participation on the topic of the family.

The Synod has shown the great importance that the Church attaches to marriage and family. There was already a great consensus on this question during the deliberations. The Church encourages people to live marriage and family and the make an effort to continue faithfully on this way and endure difficulties. The Synod emphasised that the normal everyday life of the family is a witness. At the same time we are called to find ways to strengthen and accompany the family. This can happen, for example, by advocating in favour of the family in social policies, especially also for large families or single parents, using state legislation to promote the family and recognising its value for society. This must also and especially happen within the Church, for example through the corresponding training of pastoral workers to accompany families, through better marriage preparation and guidance, especially in the first years of marriage, but also through counselling services and facilities.

It became clear during the Synod that Church guidance is required, especially during times of hardship, for example when raising children is difficult, when family members are ill or disabled, requiring much care and attention, when spouses are fighting, when people are separated and remarry. Here it is important to recognise not only what the Church does, but also to say honestly where we have failed as Church: misconceived efforts to uphold Church teachings have repeatedly led to harsh and merciless attitudes, which caused people pain, especially single mothers and children born outside of marriage, people living together before or in place of marriage, people with homosexual orientation and divorced and remarried people. As bishops we ask these people for forgiveness, as we formulated in our working group.

We are grateful that the Synod has expressed  an appreciation for interfaith marriages and underlined the character of the path of life in marriage and family, while a more positive view of the path before marriage was also discussed. On the topic of divorced and remarried people the necessary distinctions of situations were addressed in the text. It was attempted to avoid generalisations. The Synod is clear that every situation in life must be considered individually. In hindsight we would have wished for more courage to deal with the realities more intensively and recognise them as signs of the times in which God wants to tell us something, but we also recognise that we have learned to go along with other cultures and experiences.

The Synod of Bishops advises the Pope. We will accompany the way forward with our prayers. Pope Francis now has the task to use the wealth of results for the Church. The Holy Father can only take decisions for the entire Church, where he always stand for the unity of the Church and the further synodal path, as he said himself in his historic speech last week.

What was considered in the Synod, we will develop and make concrete at home. As Church we accompany and live with the people, the spouses, the families, especially also with the oppressed, with their joys and hopes, sorrows and fears. Questions which occupy us now are these: How do we open, and not close, the way towards Christ? How do we fully integrate people in the Church? How do we become a Church with open doors? And how do we relate to families in the most difficult situations, such as refugee families, to make a life in dignity possible for them, as the Gospel shows? How can we encourage a new spring in the pastoral care of families in general?

The final text of the Synod of Bishops opens perspectives for action and gives impulses for further theological thought. That will also be incorporated in the message of the German bishops about marriage and family, which we are currently working on. What is important is this: the synodal path of the Church continues. Perhaps it has only just begun. The Church stays on the path and with the people, also in the questions of marriage and family. We, as Church in Germany, want to continue on this road with Pope Francis. Encouraged and strengthened we return to our dioceses.”

Photo credit: KNA

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Germanicus – a look at the German position

It’s safe to say that the German Synod fathers are scrutinised more heavily by Catholic media than others, and not always fairly, in my opinion. I already mentioned my own misgivings about what Archbishop Koch said in his intervention, but that’s not even remotely the same as accusing him of apostasy and heresy, as some have done. He has a clear understanding about the reality of Catholic life in Germany (which does not differ too much from that in other Protestant/secular parts of Northwestern Europe, and the picture he paints is one we should take seriously.

synod german circle

^A glimpse of the small windowless room where the German circle, the smallest of all thirteen groups, was to meet initially. Cardinal Müller soon invited the group to relocate to the roomier and less stuffy offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Today, the reports from the Circoli minori, the smaller language groups in which the Synod fathers discussed the first part of the Instrumentum laboris, were published. Because of the aforementioned interest in what the German circle thinks and wants emphasised, I will focus on their report here.

The Circulus Germanicus consists of the following persons, mainly from the German-speaking countries, but also some from central Europe, Scandinavia and even the Middle East:

  • Moderator: Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna
  • Relator: Archbishop Heiner Koch, archbishop of Berlin
  • Walter Cardinal Kasper, President emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity
  • Kurt Cardinal Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity
  • Reinhard Cardinal Marx, archbishop of München und Freising
  • Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller, Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith
  • Patriarch Gregorios III Laham, patriarch of Antioch of the Greek-Melkites
  • Archbishop Stanislav Zvolenský, archbishop of Bratislava
  • Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, bishop of Osnabrück
  • Bishop Benno Elbs, bishop of Feldkirch
  • Bishop Ladislav Német, bishop of Zrenjanín
  • Bishop Teemu Sippo, bishop of Helsinki
  • Bishop Antun Škvorcevic, bishop of Pozega
  • Bishop András Veres, bishop of Szombathely
  • Father Michael Sievernich, professor emeritus of Pastoral Theology at the University of Mainz and the Hichschule Sankt Georgen in Frankfurt
  • Dr. Aloys Johann Buch, professor of Moral Theology at the Interdiocesan Major Seminary of St. Lambert and Permanent Deacon in Aachen
  • Mrs,. Petra Buch, diocesan family pastoral worker
  • His Eminence Andrej, Metropolitan of Austria-Switzerland of the Serbian Patriarchate
  • Very Rev. Thomas Schirrmacher, President of the Theological Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance

The report, which was composed by Archbishop Koch in his function as relator, in my translation:

In the German circle, led by Christoph Cardinal Schönborn O.P., we have considered and edited the first part of the Instrumentum laboris in an open and good atmosphere. The various views of the participants were enriching and were also perceived as such. In my opinion the work in this group once again shows: diversity enriches.

The general style of the text was met with approval. We also agree very much with the given order of the Instrumentum laboris, and with the arrangement in three chapters. It takes up the structure of papers from earlier Synod and conferences, which lead from seeing to judging, culminating ultimately in action.

We have, however, also added elements which we think are important. We suggest and ask that a section is added at the beginning of the first chapter, which describes the beauty of marriage and the mission of couples and families, drawing on the concerns and considerations of Pope Francis. Gratefully and with wonderment we notice that marriage is called to take part in the Creation of God and in His work of salvation. Marriage is not just a topic of Catholic faith, but proves to be in the profoundest sense a fundamental desire of man. It shows itself to be remarkably constant across cultural and religious boundaries and beyond all social changes in time. Man desires to love and be loved. Love is the comprehensive and unconditional Yes to another human being – for his own sake, without ulterior motives or reservations. It is also a basic trait of humanity, that love always wants to give itself again. So marriage unfolds in the love of the children and others in the family. So grows the family out of marriage, which radiates in society and Church. Christian marriage is in this way a slice of living Church.

We also suggest to say thanks, in these introductory thoughts, to the married couples and families for their great service to each other, to our society and to our Church. We also want to especially thank those who stayed together in difficult times and so became a visible sign of the faithfulness of God.

In these introductory words we also want to mention why we as bishops take a stand for marriage and family: We come from families, live like families and take part in the life of the family. In ouir responsibility as shepherds we bishops care for the lives of married couples and families. But we also want to hear about their situations and their challenges and accompany and strenghten them with the loving gaze of the Gospel.

In their respective cultural backgrounds family relationships beyond the nuclear family especially offer many kinds of possibilities of support in the raising of children and in family life. They are especially important where the life of the nuclear family is made more difficult, impaired or even destroyed because of migration, disasters or flight, but also because of the effects of job mobility or broken human relationships, In these situations especially the wide net of kinship proves itself as a valuable aid.

Both of these examples should indicate that we have accepted the text presented to us in a positive way, but have also wanted to develop and add to it.

I would like to suggest one comment for the perception and evaluation of different cultural realities. A Synodal document must take the current cultural realities and differences properly into account. Especially when it deals with ambivalent or in the eyes of the Church problematic elements of modern cultural reality. Here a differentiated analysis and assessment is indispensable, to contribute to a proper and nuanced ecclesiastical-intercultural exchange. I would like to explain this with an example: the first chapter talks much about individualism. As a selfish trait it is undoubtedly a great danger to the lives of people. It should however not be confused with the individuality of people. Every single human being is uniquely and wonderfully made God and deserves esteem and protection of the dignity of his person. Our text speaks frequently about individualism, but the positive signs of the times, arising from respect for the individuality of people, are little appreciated. If we do not perceive here in a differentiatied way, we also come to different assessments of our society and subsequently different pastoral recommendations. Our circle asks not to succumb to an overvaluation of the rather pessimistic perception of our society.

Lastly: There is a double problem regarding the translation, that of the literal translation of the Italian text and that of the cultural translation of the content.

The German translation is relatively true to the Italian text, but this often makes the German text difficult to understand. The reason for this may be found in the overly long sentences, where the German prefers shorter sentences. The nested style is also bothersome. Here too, shorter sentences and a better structure of the contents is to be preferred. The translation of the final text should ensure a good style, pleasant readability and clear structure. The translation should not be interlinear, but mutatis mutandis.

In creating the text, it should be ensured that the ecclesiastical and theological position are not only understood internally, but are accessible also in a secular environment. This calls for a “cultural translation”, as well as an inculturation. From this follows the question if, in editing the joint document, a negatively confining and normatively judgemental language prevails (forensic style) or a postivie language which unfolds the Christian position, which then implicitly addresses what position are incompatible with Christianity. That also presupposes the willingness (cf. Gaudium et spes) to pick up positive developments in society.  Perhaps we need a sort of “hermeneutic of evangelisation” for the overall general style, which considers the topic “in the light of the Gospel”.

We are looking forward to further fraternal labour together and thank all for the many efforts to achieve a unanimous course and conclusion to the Synod.

In short, positive language, emphasis on the beauty and value of marriage and family life, and a nuanced relation with modern society. I am very much in favour of the first two points, while the third point requires a solid basis in the faith and the doctrine of the Church. Only if the Church is true to herself can she relate properly to society.

As a final comment, many have noticed the criticism against the Instrumentum laboris, but as Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle said in today’s press conference, that document is intended to be sacrificed for the final document that is to be drafted out of the suggestions made by the smaller groups.