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Bishops’ gambit: Have the Germans lost their bet on reform?

As opposition to the controversial German “synodal way” solidifies, the country’s bishops seem intent on doubling down in favor of a revisionist ecclesial agenda which has already been criticized by the Holy See. 

But with more bishops around the world lining up to express “concern” at their process, the prospect of inspiring a global call for revision to Catholic doctrine seems now quashed, and the process now likely to leave the German bishops isolated, and in danger of breaking communion with the universal Church.

Georg Bätzing, Bishop of Limburg and President of the German Bishops' Conference. Credit: Credit: Arne Dedert/dpa/Alamy


The bishops of the Nordic nations of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Iceland signed last week an open letter to their brother bishops in Germany, expressing their “anxiety” and “concern” at the ongoing “synodal way” in Germany. 

The intervention was notable: the Church in the Nordic countries has been, for much of its history, dependent on German largesse to supply money, clergy, and even bishops. While their letter was fraternal in tone, it was also clear: “The orientation, method and content of the Synodal Path of the Church in Germany fill us with worry.”

Key among their concerns, the bishops said, was the apparent desire of their German confreres to adhere more closely to the zeitgeist than to the communion of the Church. 

The Nordic letter warning against the German plans came after a similar dispatch from the bishops of Poland and, significantly, was reported on the Vatican’s official media site. Indeed, the concerns expressed by both the Nordic and Polish bishops essentially echo those expressed by Pope Francis in his own letter to the Church in Germany.

For his own part, the president of the German bishops’ conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing, has previously said that the Church needs to find “solutions” that are “suitable for their cultural context and prevent the gap between the Gospel and the respective culture from becoming ever wider.” 

Last week he called for the Catechism of the Catholic Church to be amended to accept any kind of sexual relationship, in or out of marriage, provided it is “done in fidelity and responsibility.”

Cardinal Reinhardt Marx of Münich celebrated last weekend an special Mass marking “20 years of queer worship and pastoral care” in which he renewed calls for a “dynamic of openness” in readdressing “the question of what we have to say about sexuality” — in short, for openness to the prospect of doctrinal change on the matter.

While the German bishops might seem undeterred, support for their agenda from across the global Church has always been key to their plans for their “synodal process”. Their texts and preparatory documents have always been issued in several languages, and many German bishops have been clear that they see themselves as beating a path for others to follow.

But international episcopal opinion seems now to be hardening against the German synodal agenda, after push-back from the Vatican and a failure to make clear headway at recent synodal sessions in Rome.

In June 2019, Francis warned the Germans against continuing down a path of doctrinal and disciplinary independence from the universal Church, saying “Every time an ecclesial community has tried to get out of its problems alone, relying solely on its own strengths, methods and intelligence, it has ended up multiplying and nurturing the evils it wanted to overcome.”

The Vatican’s own Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts and the Congregation for Bishops later informed the Germans that their “synodal way,” which it is pursuing in partnership with the Central Committee of German Catholics, a radical lay group which dissents from Church teaching on abortion, women’s ordination, and human sexuality, wasn’t a synod at all and is “not ecclesiologically valid.”

But between the pope’s initial warning and letters from brother bishops, the German bishops have continued, championing the causes of ending clerical celibacy, blessing same-sex unions in churches, and ordaining women. 

They’ve done so at home, through the synodal way’s “fundamental text” and the statements of individual bishops, but also abroad — making efforts to fold their agenda into the discussions of recent meetings of the Synod of Bishops in Rome, on the family, young people, and the Amazonian region. 

The German investment of time and money in promoting a revisionist agenda for the global Church has been considerable, and impatience with the Vatican and Pope Francis has been marked. 

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When the CDF responded with a papally-approved “no” to their request to bless same-sex unions in churches, German clergy staged a nation-wide protest of defience against Rome. When Pope Francis did not adopt German-led calls for married priests and women deacons following the synod on the Amazon, the Central Committee of German Catholics — who are co-chairs of the synodal way — accused the pope of a "lack of courage for real reforms."

But, even as senior Churchmen in Rome have warned of the potential for schism coming from the German synodal agenda, the bishops there have pressed ahead, apparently trusting that the Vatican will show a similar “lack of courage” to respond to German defiance.

The German bishops’ bet seems to have been that Rome would say “no”, but do nothing, meanwhile support for their reforming calls would mount as bishops’ conferences around the world adopted the German agenda in their own synodal sessions. 

But that support has failed to materialize. Instead of leading a global march, the German bishops look increasingly like they are taking a lonely walk. 

But their situation doesn’t mean the bishops will fold their reforming hand — indeed, they may already be pot committed.

The Church in Germany has long relied on its financial resources to give it outsized influence in global Church affairs. It takes in around 7 billion euros a year via the national Church tax, giving it the ability to be generous benefactors to the Church in other places, like the Nordic countries and the Amazonian region. 

But that financial stability is under threat from a precipitous decline in vocations and an exodus of Catholics from the pews.

According to a 2019 survey, 30% of German Catholics said that they were “a member of the Church and can imagine leaving the Church soon.”

The German bishops have gone all-in on the synodal way’s reforming agenda as a means of closing “the gap between the Gospel and the culture,” as Bätzing has called it, and trying to walk back from a demographic cliff face. 

The result of all that could be that, even if the global Church lines up behind Rome to condemn their synodal conclusions, the German bishops might face a choice between a Church in schism and no Church at all.

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