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German plan for permanent 'synodal council' sparks backlash

The second synodal assembly in Frankfurt, Germany, on Oct. 1, 2021. © Synodaler Weg/Maximilian von Lachner.

A concerted effort to extend the controversial German “synodal way” indefinitely through the creation of a powerful permanent “synodal council” is facing pushback among some German Church leaders.

The proposed “advisory and decision-making body,” consisting of both bishops and lay people, would mark a radical change in the structure of the Catholic Church in Germany.

The idea’s advocates say that it would ensure that the hierarchy and laity share responsibility for the Church’s future, against the background of a mass exodus of German Catholics.

But theologian Cardinal Walter Kasper told the newspaper Die Tagespost that the proposal threatens to destroy the structure “that Christ wanted for his Church.”

The booklet of the first synodal assembly in Frankfurt, Germany, on Jan. 31, 2020. © Synodaler Weg/Malzkorn.

A permanent ‘synodal council’

The idea of a permanent “advisory and decision-making body” guiding the German Church is outlined in a draft document that will be discussed at the synodal way’s next plenary session in Frankfurt on Sept. 8-10.

Since 2019, the synodal way has brought together Germany’s bishops and lay people to discuss four topics: power, priesthood, women in the Church, and sexuality. There are four corresponding “forums” responsible for producing texts expected to be put to a final vote in 2023.

The forum on “Power and separation of powers in the Church” prepared the text proposing a synodal council.

The document, “Sustainable strengthening of Synodality: A Synodal Council for the Catholic Church in Germany,” will have its second reading in September.

The first reading of the “synodal council” proposal took place at the synodal way’s second synodal assembly in the fall of 2021. The synodal assembly is the synodal way’s supreme decision-making body.

The reading initially passed the notice of most observers, given the synodal way’s other eye-catching draft texts, which called for women priests, married priests, same-sex blessings, and the revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on sexuality.

But without much fanfare, the proposal was endorsed by 138 votes in favor, 32 against, and 9 abstentions (with a total of 212 delegates present), then passed to a working group for further consideration.

The text recommends that “the bishops establish a synodal council of the Catholic Church in Germany against the backdrop of can. 127 and can. 129… which is closely linked to the bishops’ conference and which maintains a close dialogue with the dioceses.”

The synodal council should be “composed in a similar manner” to the synodal assembly (ie, of bishops and lay people), and “should have a gender- and generation-appropriate composition,” the text explains.

“With the exception of the members of the German bishops’ conference, the members of the synodal council are to be elected in free, equal, and secret elections for a term of five years. The members of the synodal council have equal voting rights,” it explains.

The synodal council would meet at least twice a year, and be supported by a permanently staffed secretariat.

The council would have the power to make “fundamental decisions on budgetary issues that are not decided at the level of the dioceses, as well as on pastoral planning and future perspectives of supra-diocesan significance.”

It would also promote “the social, catechetical and missionary relations of the Catholic Church in Germany with the local churches throughout the world and with the Holy See.”

The council would adopt resolutions “with a two-thirds majority of the members present, carried by at least two-thirds of the members of the German bishops’ conference present, and on the motion of two-thirds of the female members of the synodal assembly present,” the proposal explains.

A revised version of the document will be discussed by synodal way members in September.

The revised text calls for a kind of intermediary body - the “synodal committee” - which would lay the groundwork for the creation of the synodal council, while making “fundamental decisions” on budgetary issues at a national level.

The document says that to prepare the way for a synodal council, the synodal assembly should establish a “synodal committee” consisting of 27 diocesan bishops, 27 members elected by the influential lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), and 10 members elected by both the bishops and the ZdK.

The revised version also lays out the features of the synodal council, saying that its decisions would have “at least the same legal effect as the resolutions of the synodal assembly.”

The council would meet in public and be chaired jointly by the chairman of the German bishops’ conference and ZdK president. It would also be “supported by a permanent secretariat, adequately staffed and financed.”

Irme Stetter-Karp, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics. Christian Pulfrich via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

A concerted push

With discussion on the proposal looming, support for the idea of a synodal council has gained traction among some synodal way participants in recent weeks.

Katholisch.de, the German Church’s official web portal, reported on July 3 on an interview with ZdK president Irme Stetter-Karp, who said the council would build on the discussions between bishops and lay people during the synodal way.

“Since the beginning of the synodal way, we have seen how successful synodal deliberations are. We see that it is good to decide together,” she commented.

The website also highlighted Stetter-Karp’s hope that the Association of the Dioceses of Germany, a legal entity of the German bishops’ conference, would support the council financially.

The Zdk, which is funded by the country’s federal church tax, has campaigned for years for changes to Church teaching and discipline. The prospect of a permanent synodal council would appear to enhance its already considerable power within the German Church.

On July 4, katholisch.de noted that a body representing around 130 German Catholic organizations had endorsed the idea of a synodal council, adding to a sense of momentum behind the idea.

The site also noted criticism from Vienna-based theologian Jan-Heiner Tück, who said the council would bring the Catholic Church in line with “synodal practices of the Evangelical Church in Germany.”

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Cardinal Kasper, pictured on May 23, 2010. Mazur/catholicchurch.org.uk.

‘An extraordinary interruption’

Amid growing support, the push for the synodal council has also generated a backlash in Germany, with Cardinal Kasper leading the criticisms.

While the former president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity is widely seen as a liberal theologian, he has emerged as a leading opponent of the synodal way.

The former professor of dogmatic theology believes the initiative could undermine the nature of the Church as established by Christ.

“Synods cannot be made institutionally permanent,” he said recently, describing a synod as “an extraordinary interruption” to everyday proceedings.

Adding to the criticisms, canon lawyer Fr. Stefan Mückl told Die Tagespost that the draft text’s references to canon 127 and canon 129 of the Code of Canon Law were dubious and unclear.

Canon 127 recognizes that a “college or group of persons” can be involved in administrative decisions in Church law- at times requiring even their consent. But Mückl said the canon refers to pastoral councils or the councils of religious congregations, “not those which a legally non-existent body thinks up."

Canon 129 reserves the power of governance to “those who have received sacred orders,” while “lay members of the Christian faithful can cooperate in the exercise of this same power.”

Mückl underlined that the canon allows the participation of lay people but does not require it. He suggested that the draft text “reversed” the relationship between the laity and those in sacred orders.

The statue of St. Peter in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. © Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk.

What’s next?

The proposed synodal council is likely to be fought over in the German Catholic media in the weeks leading up to the September meeting.

If the text is endorsed by members of the synodal assembly in Frankfurt, the proposal would become the subject of discussion among the ZdK, the German bishops, and the Vatican - which most observers expect would be tense.

Flashpoints are likely to include the synodal council’s funding, its status in Church law, and disagreement about the exercise of authority in the Church.

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