“I think that's window dressing.”

Does Pope Francis' letter open up scope for reform in the Catholic Church? And what does it mean for the progress of the Synodal Way to the Future of Church Life in Germany? A canonical classification.

CBA: As an expert in canon law, how do you evaluate the letter on the Amazon Synod?

Prof. Norbert Ludecke (Bonn church law expert): With what unambiguity the pope names the environmental pollution and the economic exploitation of the Amazon region, as well as condemns crimes against the indigenous population, is extremely unusual for a doctrinal letter and very remarkable. But those who had hopes for reform within the church may have been massively disappointed by the letter.
CBA: The majority of the participants in the Synod in Rome were in favor of a greater role for women and the admission of married men to priestly ordination. Here's what the synod's final document says. In his letter, which has now been published, the Pope expressly suggests that this final document be studied carefully. Is this merely a reading tip or does it put into effect the votes contained therein?
Ludecke: In his post-synodal letter, the Pope summarizes what seems essential to him. The accents are regional, i.e., related to the Amazon region, and have a social-ethical focus. Approaches to reform in the understanding of the church do not exist.

In fact it refers to the final document. But the Synod of Bishops has no binding force whatsoever. It merely gives advice. The pope alone decides what to make of it. I am not able to recognize a coexistence of both papers in terms of canon law.

CBA: So no room for interpretation for possible reforms?
Ludecke: The pope's letter does not go one iota beyond classical teaching and current church law in its understanding of the church, of ministry and of the relationship between the sexes.
CBA: That means…

Ludecke: …among other things, that the priesthood is central. Only the priest represents Christ. He is called a minister, but he is superior to the laity. Anyone who says otherwise is wrong.

CBA: What about greater participation of lay people in church life?
Ludecke: Even there, the letter remains within the bounds of what was already possible before in terms of church law. Where clergy see a need to call in lay people they deem suitable as helpers, they can do so, as long as these functions are open to non-consecrated people. You can inflate that as "participation," but then, in the end, even lighting candles before the service is an act of participation.
KNA: What about the role of women?
Ludecke: The pope's letter says: "Women contribute to the Church in their own way and by transmitting the strength and tenderness of Mother Mary."For this they deserve esteem. But if the Magisterium thinks it knows, because of the special spiritual assistance it claims, that God never wants women priests and women bishops, so they can never teach or legislate in the Church in a binding way, then they are denied ordination.

CBA: That doesn't have much to do with equality.

Ludecke: These are different categories. In a modern state, lack of equal rights violates the dignity of the person. In the thinking of the Church, on the other hand, there is equal dignity without equal rights. The Magisterium determines the gender identity and concludes from it also the social role.
CBA: The Synodal Way, which German bishops and laity have embarked on to renew church life, speaks of a dialogue based on equality. Is such a thing even possible under the circumstances you describe?

Ludecke: No.

CBA: But isn't it the case that through baptism all Catholics have the same dignity?
Ludecke: That already. In gender and ordination, however, their ontological and legal inequality is founded. In such a hierarchical community there can be no eye level between ministers and laity, between shepherds and sheep – no matter how many sheep are present. And if dialogue means communication at eye level, i.e. among equals, then it cannot take place between clergy and laity.
CBA: Which concrete results are conceivable as results of the Synodal Way in terms of church law??
Ludecke: Changes are only possible where something is not declared by the magisterium to be divine right and thus unchangeable. A shortage of priests is met officially, for example, by expanding the size of the congregations or by entrusting lay people with additional tasks, as long as they do not touch the essence of the priesthood. If a majority of bishops thought it desirable to ordain women as deacons, they could have gone to Rome long ago to ask for special permission, an indult. For all this, the synodal way is not needed.
CBA: Then what is the purpose of this initiative?

Ludecke: The bishops have found that they have lost their credibility because of the abuse scandal. That was already the case in 2010 – but apparently they only came to this realization with the most recent study, the MHG study of 2018. Under the impression they have started the Synodal Way with the Central Committee of German Catholics. In my perception, the topic of abuse is regrettably moving into the background. Instead, it is now about completely different things.

CBA: Do you see a chance that binding resolutions will be reached by fall 2021?
Ludecke: I think this is window dressing. Significantly, the word "binding" does not appear anywhere in the statutes of the Synodal Way. For the bishops, possible resolutions do not create a legally binding force. Decisions are made at councils, by bishops. "Synodality" is widely used in the Catholic world as just another word for "consultation". And no more.

The interview was conducted by Joachim Heinz.

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