The Catholic Church is increasingly diverse – and so are its controversies

There is a lot of talk about “synodality” in the Catholic church these days. Synodality refers to a process in which bishops and priests consult with lay Catholics about issues in the church.

In 2021, Pope Francis called for the “Synod on Synodality,” a worldwide discussion of issues that impact the church, which will culminate with a bishops’ meeting in Rome. A final report is scheduled for October 2023.

The Catholic Church in Germany has also moved forward with a national “synodal path” to restore trust after its own sexual abuse scandal.

The German synodal path has been controversial. On Sept. 8, 2022, a minority of German bishops blocked a motion to redefine Catholic teaching on homosexuality, bisexuality, gender identity and masturbation. In response, some proponents of these liberalizations warned they would “take it to Rome.”

Church leaders around the world and in the Vatican have closely watched the German meetings. There has been sharp debate over calls by German Catholics for priests to ordain women and bless same-sex unions. These proposals have been embraced by some German church bishops, but criticized by the Vatican as well as by an international group of 74 bishops.

As a scholar of global Catholicism, I believe this controversy reflects much wider tensions within Catholicism. In 1910, two-thirds of the world’s Catholics lived in Europe. Today, just one in four do. The church’s numbers have grown most quickly in Africa and Asia. As more power shifts to the global south, the church sometimes struggles to chart a path forward for all regions, each of which has its own distinct perspectives.

The German meeting spotlights particularly difficult topics about sexuality and women’s roles, where some Catholics in Europe, North America and Australia clash with Catholics elsewhere.

Continental divides

The Catholic Church is often assumed to look and feel the same everywhere. But Catholicism is culturally quite diverse.

The most public disagreement involves African Catholics and those in the United States and Europe. For example, Ghanaian Catholic bishops have criticized advocates for LGBTQ rights for imposing “their so-called values and beliefs.” Other African bishops have said they feel betrayed by liberal sentiments in European Catholicism, such as the push to allow Holy Communion for divorced church members.