Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German bishops’ conference, celebrates Mass during the third Synodal Assembly in Frankfurt, February 4, 2021 (CNS photo/Julia Steinbrecht, KNA).

Pope Francis has given countless interviews, but over the past few years he has rarely spoken to the public at large about the ongoing synodal process that he initiated in 2021. One exception is the January 25 interview he gave to the Associated Press, in which he talked about the Synodal Path in Germany. He didn’t delve into the specifics of the calls for reform the German bishops are addressing, such as the teaching on sexuality, new roles for women in Church leadership and ministry, or new structures of governance. The pope said that while dialogue in the Church is good, “the German experience does not help.” He continued: “Here the danger is that something very, very ideological trickles in. When ideology gets involved in Church processes, the Holy Spirit goes home, because ideology overcomes the Holy Spirit.” Francis added: “We must be patient, dialogue and accompany this people on the real synodal path and help this more elitist path so that it does not end badly in some way, but so is also integrated into the Church.”

This wasn’t Rome’s first warning to the German synod. Indeed, it’s just the latest round of pointed and polemical exchanges between the Vatican on one side and the president of the German bishops’ conference and the leaders of the Synodal Path on the other. Church and synodal leaders in Germany are facing opposition from a small group of five German bishops voicing the resistance of a minority of German Catholics to the structure and results of the synodal process so far. Tensions between Rome and the German synod reached a recent high point with a January letter from Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Cardinal Marc Ouellet (prefect of the dicastery for the bishops), and Cardinal Luis Ladaria (prefect of the dicastery for the doctrine of the faith)—and approved “in forma specifica” by Francis—in which they told the German Synodal Path that they do not have the competence to establish a nationwide permanent “synodal council.”

The interview and the letter reflect Pope Francis’s anti-elitist social, political, and ecclesiological culture. There have been previous examples. Visiting the University of Roma Tre in 2017, he excoriated so-called elite education while advocating popular education. In the 2018 exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, he called Gnostic and Pelagian religious elites “enemies of holiness.” In a 2018 book interview, he emphasized the importance of connection to a real, concrete people. Without those connections, the pope said, a sin can arise that “Satan, our enemy, likes so much: the sin of the elite…. The elite do not know what it means to live among the people. And when I speak of elite, I do not mean a social class: I speak of an attitude of the soul.”

The interview and the letter reflect Pope Francis’s anti-elitist social, political, and ecclesiological culture.

From the beginning of Francis’s papacy, there’s been a misperception that his constant criticism of clerical elites equates to a liberal ecclesiology paving the way for more democratic Church governance. This misunderstanding is evident in some of the critical reactions in Rome to the ongoing synodal process—even though it’s far too early to tell what the result of the process will be, and what Francis and the bishops will make of it.

Yet the pope’s criticism of the German synod as “elitist” is striking for three reasons. The first is that when Francis says “elites,” here he means German Catholic theologians—even though shrewd politicians and business figures in Germany have also taken an interest in the German Church’s situation: Germany’s church tax, collected by the state and handed over to the churches, raises several billion euros for Catholics and Protestants every year, making them major economic actors at home and abroad. When Francis’s identifies the synodal experience as a project of elites and dismisses it as hijacked by out-of-touch intellectuals, he fails to recognize the representation of those Catholics within the German Synodal Path. Whatever one thinks of the proposals made by the German synod (some of them going back fifty years to the Würzburg Synod of 1971–75) or the always-imperfect representativeness in Church structures, academic theology has a specific place in German Catholicism that it does not have anywhere else. Assemblies of the CELAM and the synodal culture of Latin American Catholicism embody the history, experience, practices, and characteristics of that part of the Catholic Church, and the same must be said for the German synod and the role Catholic academic theology plays in it, going back to the early nineteenth century.

Moreover, the admittedly innovative proposal for a nationwide permanent “synodal council” to be established only after the conclusion of the global synodal process—which Rome wants to prohibit—does not violate canon law. Additionally, the statutes of the Synodal Path already affirm that the decisions taken by the German Synod cannot limit the authority of individual bishops and are not binding on them.

Ironically, in opposing certain proposals of the German Synodal Path, the Curia seems to be turning the tables on the ecclesiology of the bishops’ conferences; today’s defense of the authority of bishops’ conferences by the Vatican against the institution of new synodal bodies sounds like a reversal of John Paul II’s motu proprio Apostolos suos of 1998, but still in protection of the institutional status quo. Without being open to the possibility of new forms of Church governance, “synodality would be nothing but a farce and a perfidious deception to reaffirm clericalism as the supreme law of the Catholic Church, only in a politically correct manner,” as Italian theologian Marcello Neri (who taught in Germany for many years) recently wrote.

From the beginning of Francis’s papacy, there’s been a misperception that his constant criticism of clerical elites equates to a liberal ecclesiology paving the way for more democratic Church governance.

The second reason the criticism is striking is that it fails to acknowledge that the German synod began as a response to the sex-abuse scandal, starting in 2010 with the revelations about an elite Jesuit high school in Berlin. This obviously predates both Francis’s own response to the crisis and his launch of the global synodal process, and it has provided the global Catholic Church (Roman academic institutions, the Vatican, and beyond) with a wealth of intellectual and financial resources that have not come from other Churches. The German Church’s “going forth” was prompted by pressure both from within and from without for a response to the abuse crisis, and this led German Catholics to think of a synodal path leading to an ecclesial and theological conversion, not just new posturing. This is important to note at a moment when some in Rome and the Vatican still seem stunningly impervious to understanding the abuse crisis, even now that it has touched the symbolic and administrative center of the global Catholic Church with the case of Jesuit Marko Rupnik.

The third reason is the inaccuracy of the “elite vs. people” construct. This is a late-nineteenth and twentieth-century understanding of the elite as an avant garde that misleads and ensnares the unsuspecting masses. But today, if there’s anything that’s clear across all social and political institutions, including churches, it’s the demise of the cultural and intellectual elites. The weakening role of academic theology and intellectual elites is part of a massive process of individualization and of “global deculturalization,” as French political scientist Olivier Roy recently called it. Synodality is not democracy, but it is not demagoguery either: there are different roles in it, and academic theology has a role to play. The fact is, there is simply not an established teaching on synodality. There is only a theology of synodality (both lived and academic) and an embryonic magisterial teaching on synodality, and they are trying to speak to one another during the synod. Academic theology is part of it, but some in the clerical hierarchy clearly resent that fact.

In the past, a clerical theology of pyramidal Catholicism determined the thinking about synods. But that’s the past. Surely, synodality can’t be led by an individualistic and narcissistic culture oblivious to the sensus fidei of the people of God. And yes, there is an elitism among theologians. But we can’t pretend it's that elitism that still dominates the Catholic Church.

Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is The Oxford Handbook of Vatican II, co-edited with Catherine Clifford (Oxford UP). Follow him on Twitter @MassimoFaggioli.

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