If the condition of a patient does not improve at all, despite the most protracted and determined therapy, but on the contrary the deterioration even accelerates, there are two possibilities. Either the patient is simply so seriously ill that any treatment can at best slow things down, but not stop them or even reverse them. Or else: The therapy is wrong.
One can and must expect every responsible team of doctors to at least consider option two at a certain point, instead of stubbornly going through with the first approach. The Catholic Church in Germany is in exactly this position. It is all the more disappointing how their bishops react to the latest exit numbers.
It is clear that the church is in trouble. The 2021 statistic, released Monday, is staggering even by Catholic standards. 359,338 people left the church – that is an increase of almost a third compared to the previous record year 2019.
If those responsible were able to point out then and, with decreasing plausibility, also for 2020 that they are currently changing course and daring a liberal reform process, the “synodal path”, which should lead to more trust in the church again in the medium term, then the The Bishops’ Conference and the laity of the “Central Committee of German Catholics” must now put up with the question: what if the synodal path, which hardliners ridiculed early on as the “suicidal path”, is not the panacea that it has been touting for years? Has it just not stopped the decline so far – or is it actually in the process of accelerating it?
From the beginning, the Synodal Path, which has been running since December 2019, suffered from two problems. On the one hand, he aroused hopes in the reformer camp for a democratization and liberalization of the Church, which sooner or later will have to be dashed anyway (e.g. anyone who seriously questions the need for ordained priests, as happened last October, already knows in advance that the Vatican will follow this course cannot and will not support).
How cautiously Rome is reacting to the German debates was shown again in a recent interview by Pope Francis: “There is a very good Protestant church in Germany. We don’t need two.”
On the other hand, since the beginning of the synodal path, the liberal voices that have set the tone have marginalized those forces for whom some reform ideas go too far. They were and are being systematically suggested: your church is yesterday’s, it needs a new one, and a completely new one at that.
In the long run, the synodal path threatens to frustrate both believers who enjoy renewal and those who love tradition. Has the way in which the great reform project is being pushed forward been reflected in the most recent church statistics? Certainly, most of the 359,338 defectors in 2021 will once again have been alienated from their church by the despicable abuse scandal. But: Is it really so absurd to assume that some of them also went because of the synodal path, and how could the – urgently needed – reform work find more acceptance again?
It would be a sign of real critical ability if the bishops would now at least discuss these questions internally. It’s not particularly likely. Instead, the chairman of the bishops’ conference, Georg Bätzing, spoke undauntedly of the “departure that we are taking with the synodal path” and that “apparently it has not yet arrived in contact with believers”. So keep going. Hopefully the patient will survive.