Will the German bishops cross the Vatican’s line? And why are the ‘good’ bishops still participating? Here are storylines to follow during the ongoing assembly in Frankfurt.
The fifth and final assembly of the controversial Synodal Way in Germany began Thursday in Frankfurt. The March 9-11 gathering will complete a phase that first began in December 2019. But could this conclusion merely be the opening chapter of a problematic style of “synodality” in the Catholic Church in Germany?
Most significantly at the Frankfurt assembly, synodal delegates are expected to vote on taking steps to establish a permanent, partially lay-led Synodal Council to govern the German Catholic Church, despite emphatic opposition from the Vatican. On the assembly’s final day, delegates are slated to elect 20 members to join 27 already-selected laypeople and 27 bishops on a Synodal Committee, which will be responsible for defining and establishing the Synodal Council over the next three years.
But the Synodal Council is not the only controversial topic on the agenda at the three-day assembly, which is being held at the Kap Europa convention center in the heart of Germany’s fifth most populous city. Delegates will vote on a document called “Priestly Existence Today,” a “foundational” or theological text that, among other things, challenges the legitimacy of the male-only priesthood and the discipline of celibacy, among other factors. Ten “implementation texts” — which include motions to bless same-sex sexual relationships and establish diocesan councils that can overrule a bishop’s decision with a two-thirds majority — will also be voted on at the Synodal Way.
Although the Holy See has confirmed that the Synodal Way is not a canonically valid synod and cannot make binding decisions regarding doctrine and practice in Germany, a combination of ideological agreement and significant pressure facing the German episcopacy will likely lead to the de facto implementation of the measures adopted by the Synodal Way in most German dioceses. Concerned lay groups have warned that, barring sufficient intervention from the Holy See, the situation in Germany could deteriorate into a “dirty schism,” in which faithful German Catholics are excluded from institutional Catholic life in much of Germany.
Here are five key storylines to follow as the controversial proceedings in Frankfurt unfold.
Will the Synodal Way Cross the Vatican’s Line — and If So, What Will Happen?
Of all the controversial elements proposed by the Synodal Way, the Holy See has been especially emphatic about one: Do not attempt to establish a synodal council.
Three major Curial leaders — Cardinals Pietro Parolin, Luis Fadaria and Marc Ouellet — made this clear in a Jan. 16 letter sent to the German bishops, writing that “neither the synodal path nor any body appointed by it nor a bishops’ conference have the authority to set up the ‘synodal council’ at the national, diocesan or parish level.” The cardinals also indicated that Pope Francis “approved the letter in forma specifica and ordered its transmission.”
More recently, Archbishop Nikola Eterović, the papal nuncio to Germany, told the German bishops at the start of their Feb. 27-Mar. 3 meeting in Dresden that he had been “commissioned ex officio” to specify that, “according to a correct interpretation” of the Jan. 16 letter, “not even a diocesan bishop can set up a synodal council at diocesan or parish level.”
But at the same time, the Vatican has drawn its line in the sand, Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German bishops’ conference, has been just as clear that the Synodal Way was willing to cross it. In his response to the Holy See’s Jan. 16 letter, the Limburg bishop dismissed the Vatican’s concerns and wrote that the bishops’ conference “has reaffirmed the will to implement” the Synodal Council’s preparatory committee. Later that month, he criticized Pope Francis as holding a style of synodality that is not “viable in the 21st century.”
In a letter sent to the Curial cardinals published March 1, the German bishop said he would be open to conversations about the Synodal Council — but only “after the final meeting of the German Synodal Way in Frankfurt.” He also described the papal nuncio’s address to the German bishops as “almost unbearable to listen to” and emphasized at a March 2 press conference that “the broad majority of the bishops support the reform proposals of the German Synodal Path and want to see change.”
If Bishop Bätzing is right, the key votes to watch will be Friday’s vote on the implementation text, “Joint Consultation and Decision-Making,” and the Saturday election of Synodal Committee members.
Emphatic support for the former and widespread participation in the latter among the German bishops will indicate that the Vatican’s message has not landed among the bishops, pushing this game of ecclesial chicken to even higher stakes and placing the ball squarely back in the Holy See’s court.
Up to this point, Pope Francis has shown an unwillingness to take any action against the German bishops beyond words, though the rhetoric coming from the Holy See has ramped up in recent months. But if the German bishops move forward with plans to establish a permanent Synodal Council, it will be a clear indication that even the strongest pronouncements from the Holy Father are not enough to deter them. Therefore, if this red line is crossed over the next three days in Frankfurt, how the Vatican responds may be indicative of whether or not the Pope will ever be willing to intervene, not just with words, but with decisive action.
How Much Legitimacy Is Left?
In the lead-up to the fifth synodal assembly, the Synodal Way process has been marred by a handful of significant defections.
Father Wolfgang Picken, who had been representing the presbyterate of the Archdiocese of Cologne, one of the most influential centers of Catholicism in Germany, resigned his position as a synodal delegate in late February, criticizing the Synodal Way for having a predetermined agenda and not sufficiently taking into consideration corrective guidance issued by Rome.
“Reforms and changes are needed in the Catholic Church,” wrote Father Picken in a letter explaining his resignation. “However, I cannot support the lack of openness with which many debates are conducted in the ‘Synodal Path’ and numerous reform proposals that too lightly give up unity with the universal Church.”
Father Picken’s decision came on the heels of the Feb. 22 resignation of four prominent delegates — two of them recipients of the prestigious Ratzinger Prize for theology, and all of them women — who announced that they were opting out of the Synodal Way over concerns that it was “casting doubt on central Catholic doctrines and beliefs.”
“The resolutions of the past three years have not only called into question essential foundations of Catholic theology, anthropology as well as Church practice, but have reformulated and in some bases completely redefined them,” wrote theologians Katharina Westerhorstmann and Marianne Schlosser, the philosopher Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz, and the journalist Dorothea Schmidt. “We cannot and will not share responsibility for that.”
Schmidt, in an interview published March 8, continued her criticisms of the synodal process, stating that the Catholioc Church in Germany “is neither the synodal path nor the Central Committee of German Catholics (Zdk), which “may think it speaks for all Catholics but it does not.” And Maria 1.0, a lay movement of which Schmidt is a member, issued a call the same day for “all synod members to resign their mandate.”
Five resigned delegates out of the more than 200 who make up the Synodal Way’s body is perhaps not numerically significant. But for a process that purportedly aims to give voice to the whole of the German Church, the defection of any number of participants — and especially four women — raises further questions about the Synodal Way’s ongoing legitimacy, which now faces doubts from across the German ecclesial landscape.
Why Have the ‘Good’ Bishops Not Bailed?
Despite these synodal defections, and the call for others to follow suit, perhaps the five most significant critics of the Synodal Way are still participating in the final assembly: Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki (Cologne), Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer (Regensburg), Bishop Stefan Oster (Passau), Bishop Bertram Meir (Augsburg) and Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke (Eichstätt).
The five bishops wrote a Dec. 21 letter to the Holy See asking if they were required to participate in the synodal committee being assembled, or abide by the authority of the proposed synodal council, which prompted the Jan. 16 letter sent from Cardinals Parolin, Ladaria and Ouellet to the German episcopacy.
Given their clear concern with the seemingly inevitable trajectory of the Synodal Way, and given that others who share their concerns have already opted out of the process, it’s an open question why these five bishops are still participating in the final assembly. Does their presence risk giving credence to its conclusions and the move to establish a permanent synodal council? And what do they hope to accomplish by continuing to participate in a process that Rome has tried to stop and other critics have already quit?
Concerned Catholics in Germany will likely want to hear answers to these questions from these prominent leaders, who have so far shown a willingness to challenge the Synodal Way. A spotlight will certainly be on them during the Frankfurt assembly’s proceedings.
Has the Vatican Done Enough to Support Dissenting Voices?
The five aforementioned bishops aren’t the only ones who have signaled their disagreement with some of the major propositions being advanced via the Synodal Way. As CNA Deutsch has documented, public records of the bishops’ votes at the September assembly show that 15-17 bishops consistently voted against proposals that deviate from the Church’s traditional teaching and practice.
For instance, on the controversial document proposing a “reassessment of homosexuality,” eight bishops rejected the text, while an additional eight abstained from voting on it.
However, the total number of bishops who did not support this document was eight less than the number who had previously either rejected or abstained from voting on the “base” text on sexuality, which failed to gain the necessary two-thirds support of the German bishops to be accepted by the synodal assembly. The failure to pass the measure prompted Synodal Way leadership to change voting procedures to do away with private ballots.
In other words, after changes were made to ensure that votes were made public, eight bishops who had not approved of the Synodal Way’s theological reflections on sexuality voted to accept the call for action grounded in that very text.
This is a possible indication of what the synodal-critical lay movement Neuer Anfang (New Beginning) has observed: A significant minority of German bishops may be resistant to the agenda of the Synodal Way but are unlikely to stand up to significant pressure from within ecclesial institutions — including the Catholic media — to accept the proposal unless the Holy See sufficiently intervenes.
The Vatican has certainly upped its rhetorical criticisms of the Synodal Way since the September assembly. At the German bishops’ November ad limina visit to Rome, Cardinals Ladaria and Ouellet issued strong criticisms of the process and called for a moratorium (which the German bishops rejected). In a January interview with the AP, Pope Francis issued his strongest criticism of the Synodal Way to date, describing the process as “neither helpful nor serious,” and characterizing it as run by elitists. And in his general audience given March 8, the Holy Father stressed that evangelization must always be an ecclesial enterprise in union with the whole Church and should not fall into “easier pseudo-ecclesial paths” or “adopt the worldly logic of numbers and polls,” a possibly critique of the Synodal Way’s constant claim that it is pursuing its radical changes in order to make the Church more viable in the present day.
However, it’s unclear if all this talk will be enough to alter dynamics at the Synodal Way assembly and give bishops with reservations about the process the cover they might need to speak out in the face of enormous pressure.
This is especially the case considering that proponents of the Synodal Way agenda have taken further steps to limit dissenting voices. The bishops’ meeting in Dresden was reported to be an attempt by Bishop Bätzing to secure a “common line” among the bishops on blessing same-sex sexual relationships, and avoid another failed vote, although he subsequently tried to dampen expectations that all proposals would be passed. And just yesterday, it was confirmed that the Presidium of the Synodal Way, which includes Bishops Bätzing and Franz-Josef Bode, as well as DbK officials Irme Stetter-Karp and Thomas Södling, has controversially rejected a request from the German bishops to reinstate secret ballots.
The outcome of votes in Frankfurt will be significant — not simply to see whether controversial texts related to the Synodal Council, women’s ordination, and same-sex blessings are passed, but to note if any differences in voting patterns among the bishops are detectable. Will additional bishops join the 15-17 who consistently voted against or abstained from supporting heterodoxical proposals in September? Or will their number fall?
The answer to that question could, more than anything else, indicate the state of the German episcopacy and where the bishops stand in relation to the Holy See. What might it suggest about the Vatican’s next needed steps to preserve unity in faith and morals in the Church universal?
Jonathan Liedl is a senior editor with the National Catholic Register based in St. Paul, Minnesota. He holds an MA in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas (MN) and a BA in Political Science and Arabic Studies from the University of Notre Dame, and is currently completing a MA in Theology at the Saint Paul Seminary and School of Divinity (MN). His background includes state Catholic conference work and three years of seminary formation.