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After Germany’s ‘synodal way,’ a power struggle

The final assembly of Germany’s synodal way ended in March with the overwhelming endorsement of all but one resolution proposed by its organizers.

But the synodal way’s co-president Irme Stetter-Karp is not celebrating victory. 

ZdK president Irme Stetter-Karp and German bishops’ conference chairman Bishop Georg Bätzing speak at the end of a synodal way meeting in Frankfurt, Germany, on March 11, 2023. © Synodaler Weg/Maximilian von Lachner.

On the contrary, in a May 5 speech to members of the powerful lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), which she leads, she announced that she was furious.

“We are witnessing in recent weeks a Church in which leading men are cementing their power, refusing developments, and further deepening the rifts between the Church and the world,” she said at a ZdK meeting in Munich.

Her list of unwelcome events included Vatican liturgy prefect Cardinal Arthur Roche’s rejection of a synodal way resolution endorsing regular lay baptisms and lay preaching at Masses.

She also cited what she called the “absolutely unjustified defamation” by “a few bishops” of the synodal way’s successor body, the synodal committee. 

This body consisting of Germany’s 27 diocesan bishops, 27 ZdK representatives, and 20 other delegates is due to begin its deliberations in November, shortly after the synod on synodality’s first session in Rome. The committee’s main task is to prepare the creation of a permanent synodal council of lay people and bishops with governing powers over the Church in Germany, despite a clear Vatican veto.

In her speech, Stetter-Karp also expressed disgust at the findings of an inquiry into the handling of abuse cases in the Archdiocese of Freiburg. The report concluded that Archbishop Robert Zollitsch displayed a chilling indifference to abuse, despite insisting that the Church was committed to tackling the crisis while serving as chairman of the German bishops’ conference from 2008 to 2014.

“I am angry and shocked,” Stetter-Karp declared. “But today more than ever it is clear: This Church as an absolutist system of power must come to an end.” 

In a sign of her determination to challenge the “absolutist system,” Stetter-Karp announced that the ZdK would no longer accept a rule that had bound the synodal way: That decisions were only valid with the approval of two-thirds of bishops. 

Stetter-Karp said that the “painful learning experience” of the synodal way — where just one text failed to win two-thirds of episcopal votes — had convinced her that the rule should not apply to the synodal committee’s decisions.


Cardinal Reinhard Marx censes the synodal way candle and cross at a service on Jan. 30, 2020, at Frankfurt Cathedral. © Synodal Way/Malzkorn.

Half full or half empty?

The challenge to the two-thirds rule might seem like a minor procedural quibble. But it points to the ZdK’s overarching goal of obtaining a permanent share of decision-making power within the Catholic Church in Germany. 

That is why its leadership is not taking a victory lap following the relatively smooth conclusion of the synodal way. While the three-year initiative called for sweeping changes to Catholic teaching and practice, it had no power to introduce them. 

From its inception, the synodal way was a joint project of the German bishops’ conference and the ZdK, a body with around 230 members that receives 94% of its $2.8 million annual funding from the Association of the Dioceses of Germany (VDD), a legal entity of the bishops’ conference. 

When the initiative was unveiled in 2019, then bishops’ conference chairman Cardinal Reinhard Marx described it as “a process sui generis” bringing together bishops and lay people to pass resolutions that would be “binding” on the Church in Germany. 

The Vatican stepped in — in the first of many interventions — to clarify that the plan was “not ecclesiologically valid.” 

Ultimately, the synodal way’s statutes made clear that its decisions did not “of themselves have legal effect.”

“The power of the bishops’ conference and the individual diocesan bishops to enact legal norms and to exercise their teaching office within the scope of their respective competences remains unaffected by the resolutions,” the document said.

Yet organizers were reluctant to concede that the initiative’s decisions would be merely advisory. They took steps to invest them with as much significance as possible. 

As Thomas Sternberg, Stetter-Karp’s predecessor as ZdK president, explained in a candid December 2022 interview, the synodal way’s architects used techniques drawn from the political world to build momentum.

Sternberg, a member of Germany’s CDU political party, said he was “a politician to the extent that I know that it takes processes and developments to make topics worthy of discussion in the first place.” 

He argued that the synodal way’s resolutions on the role of women in the Church, homosexuality, and clericalism “opened up” the issues so that they were “now being discussed internationally, not only in Germany.”

But Sternberg’s “glass half full” verdict contrasts with Stetter-Karp’s “glass half empty” reading of the synodal way. 

In her May 5 address, she didn’t celebrate what might be seen as breakthroughs for the ZdK: Resolutions backed by large majorities (including of bishops) supporting women deacons, a re-examination of priestly celibacy, lay preaching at Masses, and same-sex blessings.

Instead, she complained that “the resolutions are not far-reaching enough.”

She made clear that she was interested in the future of the synodal way, rather than its recent past. And when she looked ahead she saw obstacles: Individual diocesan bishops refusing to implement synodal way resolutions, the sheer difficulty of introducing changes such as a greater lay role in bishops’ appointments, and the Vatican’s continuous objections. 

Stetter-Karp seems to have concluded that the most significant battles lie ahead — and the odds of success are narrowing. 

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Thomas Sternberg, then president of the ZdK, speaks at synodal way regional conference in Dortmund, Germany, on Sept. 4, 2020. © Synodal Way/Bezem Mashiqi. 

From bonhomie to bluntness

While Sternberg came across as a cheerful ally of the German bishops — enjoying a particularly good rapport with Cardinal Marx — Stetter-Karp has shown considerably less bonhomie toward the episcopate. 

At critical points in the synodal way, Stetter-Karp openly berated bishops who were less than fully signed up to the synodal way organizers’ agenda. 

When the text calling for a change in the Church’s approach to sexual ethics failed to win two-thirds episcopal approval in September 2022, she accused bishops of failing to disclose their true opinions.

In March this year, Stetter-Karp, the former head of Rottenburg-Stuttgart diocese’s Caritas department, suggested that bishops were exploiting lay members’ “willingness to compromise” by seeking to water down documents so they would pass the two-thirds test.  

“At times some of us feel blackmailed into getting anything done,” she said.

Each time she confronted the bishops, they fell into line. This might explain why she is taking the same adversarial approach over the two-thirds rule at the synodal committee. 

Nevertheless, it is a gamble: Bishops may feel that the ZdK has moved too far from collaboration to confrontation, and refuse to bow to its demands. But there is no sign of that yet.

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Irme Stetter-Karp and Bishop Georg Bätzing at the synodal way's closing press conference on March 11, 2023. © Synodal Way / Maximilian von Lachner.

Unresolved questions

Little is currently known about the synodal committee beyond a few basic facts: It will be led jointly by Stetter-Karp and current bishops’ conference chairman Bishop Georg Bätzing, have 74 members, and hold its first sitting in Essen on Nov. 10-11.

It is unclear how it will be financed, which is creating unease in the ZdK. While the Association of the Dioceses of Germany is expected to provide the money, it has made no decision on financing six months away from the synodal committee’s launch.

Some reports suggest the question will be resolved at a June meeting of the German bishops’ permanent council, which brings together the country’s diocesan bishops. A small number of bishops will be reluctant to fund an initiative intended to pave the way for a synodal council that has been ruled out by the Vatican.

Perhaps the June meeting will also be where the bishops discuss Stetter-Karp’s call for the abolition of the two-thirds rule, which is likely to raise a further red flag in Rome, which has consistently expressed concern at the dilution of episcopal responsibility in Germany. 

The Vatican has refused to hold talks with ZdK leaders, pointedly refusing to discuss the synodal way with anyone other than the German bishops. 

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The end game

Writing on the website of the New Beginning, a German initiative opposing the synodal way, the journalist Birgit Kelle suggested that the bishops were already at a disadvantage on the synodal committee.

“There are currently 27 bishops on the list of participants, so the remaining 47 members of the committee, who were elected from the ranks of the ZdK and by the synodal way’s plenary assembly, have a structural majority from the very first minute,” she wrote. 

“The bishops would only have anything to report if they had a right of veto – and that is exactly what they want to nip in the bud.”

With storm clouds gathering in Rome, and a handful of German bishops able to act as a “blocking minority,” Stetter-Karp may have concluded that the synodal way revolution will never be realized unless the ZdK gains full control of the process.

With her challenge to the two-thirds rule, she is forcing the bishops into a new corner, in which they have two unpalatable options. First, they can accept the change, knowing that Rome is likely to intervene. Second, they can reject it, perhaps prompting the ZdK to fulfill its oft-invoked threat of pulling out of the initiative.

In either case, it would likely be the bishops — and not the ZdK — who are blamed for the synodal way’s ultimate failure.

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