The leaders of Germany’s “synodal way” asked in June for face-to-face talks with Pope Francis, in a letter setting out the initiative’s demands for sweeping changes to Church teaching and practice.
The letter to the pope was made public Sept. 22 when the German bishops’ conference (DBK) and the lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) — the synodal way’s co-sponsors — released the six-page text.
The letter, dated June 22, presented the results of the three-year initiative, which brought together Germany’s bishops and select lay people to discuss four main topics: power, the priesthood, women in the Church, and sexuality.
Is it unclear whether the pope has responded to the June letter and there is no public record of an audience between Francis and the letter’s signatories, the synodal way’s co-presidents Bishop Georg Bätzing and Irme Stetter-Karp, respectively the chairman of the DBK and president of the ZdK.
Pope Francis has repeatedly criticized the German project, suggesting that it failed to take into account the criteria for authentic reform set out in his 2019 letter to German Catholics. The pope has also described the initiative as “elitist,” and joked that it is seeking to replicate the Evangelical Church in Germany. He also authorized a series of Vatican interventions in the project, but did not prevent it from taking place.
Bätzing and Stetter-Karp sought to assuage the pope’s concerns, stressing in the letter’s opening lines that synodal way participants were grateful for his 2019 message and had reflected on its admonitions “again and again in the course of the process.”
They also suggested that the synodal way was based on broad consultations, “in the dioceses, the parishes, the associations, in the assemblies of the Central Committee of German Catholics, in the synodal forums, in the bishops’ conference and, last but not least, in the synodal assemblies.”
They said that the initiative’s resolutions had been “recognized by a vast majority of the assembled bishops, priests, religious, and laity as significant perspectives for the future.”
The letter noted that according to the synodal way’s statutes, resolutions that could not be enacted at a local level should be presented to the pope. Bätzing and Stetter-Karp said they hoped that Francis would give the resolutions his “favorable consideration and review.”
They emphasized that they were available for further discussions with Vatican dicasteries and noted that the synodal way’s conclusions would be raised at the synod on synodality in Rome.
“We have noticed with great interest that many of these concerns are also mentioned in the Instrumentum Laboris [working document] for the world synod in October,” they wrote.
They added: “We are aware that the concerns presented here, as far-reaching as they may be in detail, can nevertheless all only be helpful if they are seen quite explicitly in the service of a Church that takes the Gospel to heart again and again and remembers its mission to proclaim this Gospel to the people.”
The letter concluded with a three-page summary of the synodal way’s resolutions. It covered nine points:
1) Referring to a resolution calling for the creation of a permanent synodal council of bishops and lay people to oversee the Church in Germany, it said that “a strengthening of synodal structures will also be a great support for bishops and priests in the exercise of their ministry.”
The Vatican has objected to the synodal council’s creation, but synodal way organizers are pressing ahead with plans to establish it by 2026, although German bishops were unable to reach a consensus on funding.
2) The letter cited a resolution calling for the laity’s role in the selection of diocesan bishops to be strengthened and formalized. “The goal is to better hear the voices from the people of God,” it said.
3) It also asked for permission for “appropriately trained lay people” to preach homilies at Masses, “given the steadily increasing shortage of priests in Germany and in view of the competences and charisms of many baptized and confirmed Catholics in our country.”
The Vatican has underlined its opposition to a synodal way resolution appealing for lay homilies “on Sundays and feast days by theologically and spiritually qualified faithful commissioned by the bishop.”
4) The letter also cited a resolution calling for the synodal way to “re-examine the link between the conferral of ordination and the commitment to celibacy.” It said: “Pending a possible implementation of this request, we ask that married men (viri probati) who have the personal abilities and sound theological training also be admitted to priestly ordination.”
5) The letter welcomed the pope’s decision to establish a second commission to study the possibility of women deacons in 2020, asking “that all possibilities be exhausted to make the diaconate accessible to women.”
6) Citing another resolution, the letter asked for a review of whether the statements in Ordinatio sacerdotalis — Pope John Paul II’s 1994 apostolic letter reaffirming that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone — “are not open to further theological discussion.”
7) It also noted the synodal way’s appeal to “revise the statements of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on sexuality and especially on people with a non-heterosexual orientation, since they repeatedly give rise to misunderstandings and also to injuries and rejections.”
“At the same time, this is connected with the request to further promote the differentiation of Church teaching with regard to the bipolarity of human sexuality, especially with an appreciative view of those persons who do not correspond to the assignment to one of the two sexes,” the letter said.
8) The letter noted that “for some time now, the German bishops’ conference has been discussing and negotiating with the competent dicasteries of the Holy See about the establishment of an ecclesiastical administrative jurisdiction in the German dioceses.” It said that the synodal way expressed the hope that the discussions would have a positive conclusion.
9) Finally, the letter said that “a clear and comprehensible canon law at the level of a contemporary understanding of the law could make a very significant contribution to the further development of the Church and its governance structures.”
“We have become aware of the fact that a careless handling of ecclesiastical legal provisions harbors the great danger of paving the way for cover-ups and injustice. For this reason, we believe that a reform of ecclesiastical law and the administration of ecclesiastical justice is also an important project for the future of the Church,” it said, citing a synodal way resolution.
“In particular, we would like to reintroduce the idea of a ‘Lex ecclesiae fundamentalis’ into the discussion. We are convinced that here lies a great opportunity for canon law, which in this way could make its contribution to a credible Church as a proclaimer of the Gospel.”
Following Vatican II, scholars created several drafts of a Lex ecclesiae fundamentalis, or “Fundamental Law of the Church,” that would be applied across the world. Some provisions were ultimately included in the 1983 and 1990 Codes of Canon Law.