'Synodality must once again become a structural practice in the church,' German cardinals and theologians insist

Pope Francis has "given the bishops' synod back its freedom" so that this freedom not only applies to the synod but "particularly to the participation of the laity at consultations on the future of the faith," German Cardinal Karl Lehmann of Mainz said at a three-day international theological congress entitled "Opening the Council -- Theology and Church under the Guiding Principle of the Second Vatican Council" Dec. 6-8 in Munich.

The church's synodal structure must be strengthened at all levels, Lehmann said, adding that Francis has made repeated appeals for a synodal church. For Lehmann, who was ordained during the Second Vatican Council and became Karl Rahner's assistant, this "synodality" was more important than possibly holding a Third Vatican Council. There are great opportunities for the church in a globalized world as long as it discards its centralist approach, he emphasized.

The council decrees have not always been adequately applied or implemented, Lehmann said. The fact "that we didn't take the societal changes that occurred after Vatican II, most particularly those of 1968, and the deep effect they had on people, seriously enough," was one the church's gravest failures.

German bishops' conference president, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, cautioned against merely safeguarding Vatican II texts as treasures, but said they must be used as sources for further developing church reform today.

"They are an impulse to think further and to pick up the thread anew," he told the participants of the conference in his sermon at a Pontifical Mass in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Vatican II. Many of the council's ideas and suggestions "have not yet by any means been thrashed out," he said.

Marx recalled what Rahner said after Vatican II, that despite the fact that the council was over, in reality it was only now about to begin.

"When we look back at the council texts, at the spirit of the council and the theological debates that took place, we must of course be deeply grateful but we must not stop there," he said. "The council gave us the gift of new departures which we can and must take up in a new way today."

The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, brings to mind that all Catholics have a vocation and that there is no class society in the church, Marx said, recalling Francis' recent speech on a synodal church Oct. 17.

The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, was not thought through "nearly enough." It dealt with a living tradition, "not with a demarcated topic or a collection of statements," Marx said.

Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, calls Christians to a vibrant contemporaneity.

"The church is not only a teaching but a learning church. It is open to history and to the signs of the times," Marx underlined. The call to a vibrant contemporaneity also included a deep awareness of poverty and suffering, climate change and refugee problems, he said.

In their final five-page declaration, the 200 leading theologians from all over the world call for fundamental changes in the church. Reform of the Roman Curia must be expanded to a reform of the whole church and of church offices. Greater participation must be given to the laity and the synodal structures strengthened.

"Synodality must once again become a structural principle in the church," the text underlines. It must be fully implemented legally, must be enforceable and "practiced at all church levels." Important church decisions must not be made behind closed doors. The theologians recall Francis' words that "Everyone must have a say in what concerns everyone."

Christoph Böttinger, a fundamental theologian from Eichstätt who presented the declaration, said it was addressed to all theologians but also to the general public.

[Christa Pongratz-Lippitt is the Austrian correspondent for the London-based weekly Catholic magazine The Tablet.]

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