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Four of Germany’s 27 diocesan bishops have refused to fund a committee created to implement the resolutions of the country’s controversial “synodal way.”

The synodal way’s logo at the final assembly in Frankfurt, Germany, on March 9, 2023.  © Synodaler Weg/Maximilian von Lachner.  


Cologne’s Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, Regens­burg’s Bishop Rudolf Voder­hol­zer, Passau’s Bishop Stefan Oster, and Eich­stätt’s Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke vetoed the release of money from a common fund known as the Association of the Dioceses of Germany (VDD), which requires the unanimous approval of the country’s diocesan bishops.

Their decision means that supporters of the synodal way must find an alternative source of funding for the “synodal committee” ahead of its scheduled first meeting in November.

The committee, which is composed of diocesan bishops and lay people, is intended to pave the way for the creation of a permanent “synodal council” overseeing the Church in Germany — a proposal explicitly rejected by Rome. 

Divided from the start 

Soon after the four bishops’ stance was made public, Irme Stetter-Karp, president of the influential lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), insisted that the synodal committee’s deliberations would go ahead as planned.

Recalling the origins of the synodal way, she said: “It was the bishops who, in unity, asked the ZdK in 2019 to begin this way with them.” 

“In view of the inconceivable abuse scandal in the ranks of the Church, we started together with the aim of organizing radical change and renewal. Apparently, there is a lack of seriousness among individual diocesan bishops.”

But while it is true that the German bishops’ conference and the ZdK jointly launched the synodal way in December 2019, the bishops were not as united as Stetter-Karp appeared to suggest. 

From the outset, Bishop Voderholzer and Cardinal Woelki were concerned that the synodal way’s statutes failed to reflect Pope Francis’ appeal for the initiative to recognize evangelization as a priority in his June 2019 letter to German Catholics.

The two churchmen drafted alternative statutes for the synodal way sharply focused on evangelization. But in August 2019, the German episcopate’s permanent council, which brings together the country’s 27 diocesan bishops, rejected the text by 21 votes to 3 in favor and 3 abstentions.

So, even before the initiative was officially launched, there were fundamental differences among the diocesan bishops. Roughly 80% were fully onboard, 10% opposed, and the final 10% undecided.

In September 2019, the wider German bishops’ conference voted to adopt the original statutes by 51 votes in favor, 12 against, and 1 abstention, again indicating the lack of unanimity.

A session of the final plenary meeting of the synodal way in Frankfurt, Germany, on March 10, 2023.  © Synodaler Weg/Maximilian von Lachner.

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A ‘German way of proceeding’

The synodal way’s organizers could have tried to win over the skeptics in the bishops’ ranks. Instead, they seemed to go out of their way to alienate them. 

During the synodal way’s five plenary assemblies, which took place over three years, speakers belonging to the initiative’s minority repeatedly berated the episcopal minority, equating their reservations about issues such as women deacons, lay preaching at Masses, and ending priestly celibacy with a refusal to draw the lessons of the abuse crisis.

But efforts to shame opponents into joining the majority were unsuccessful. Organizers seemed taken aback in September 2022 when a resolution calling for sweeping changes to the Church’s approach to sexual ethics failed to gain the necessary two-thirds support among bishops. 

Stetter-Karp responded with scathing criticism of the bishops who rejected the text. 

“There is one point in which I am particularly disappointed: that there are bishops in this assembly who are not prepared to voice their opinions,” she said, seemingly unable to recognize that the assembly’s intimidating atmosphere may have discouraged participants from expressing minority views.

Organizers reacted to the setback by insisting that all future votes would be cast by name, rather than anonymously — a measure that seemed to contradict the synodal way’s statutes and further ratchet up the pressure on dissenters. 

Sure enough, all remaining resolutions passed with the requisite two-thirds majority. But the incident left an enduring bitterness. 

Bishop Oster said in a June 20 interview that he had rejected funding for the synodal committee partly because of the atmosphere at the synodal assemblies. 

“I did not experience these as ‘synodal’ in the sense that Pope Francis understands,” he said. “Each time it was very much politically motivated with clear objectives for very specific reform proposals — which in essence were in the minds of the vast majority from the beginning.”

Speaking on the same day at a Vatican press conference, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich suggested that the acerbity on display at the German assemblies did not encourage truly synodal exchanges.

Hollerich, the general rapporteur of this October’s synod on synodality, said that, following the Second World War, German culture had encouraged confrontation as a way of avoiding authoritarianism. Having lived for decades in Japan, Hollerich noted that this way of speaking sometimes struck him as “very rude.”

“This is also a particular German way of proceeding. It’s not the way of proceeding of the synodal process and of the Synod of Bishops. We are more for harmony,” the cardinal from Luxembourg said.

A decisive intervention

As the synodal way entered its final stretch at the end of 2022, the price of failing to attend to the episcopal minority’s concerns became clear. 

On Dec. 21, five diocesan bishops — Cardinal Woelki, Bishop Voder­hol­zer, Bishop Oster, Bishop Hanke, and Augsburg’s Bishop Bertram Meier — wrote to the Vatican, asking whether they were obliged to take part in the synodal committee that would meet after the synodal way ended in March 2023.

Three Vatican cardinals replied in a Jan. 16 letter that the bishops were under no such obligation. 

While synodal way organizers insisted that the letter presented no objection to the creation of the synodal committee, the Vatican intervention helped to undermine the proposed body by making clear that participation was optional. 

This freed the episcopal minority to opt out of the body that was supposed to be composed of all 27 diocesan bishops, an equal number of ZdK members, and 20 others elected at the final synodal assembly.

Workers set up the stage for the final session of the synodal way in Frankfurt, Germany, on March 7, 2023.  © Synodaler Weg/Maximilian von Lachner. 

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Drifting apart

Following the four bishops’ veto, German Catholic commentators suggested that the bishops’ conference was now more divided than ever.

Benjamin Leven, editor of the magazine Herder Korrespondenz, said that bishops’ conference chairman Bishop Georg Bätzing had led the conference “into probably the most serious crisis since its existence.”

Felix Neumann, editor of the German Church’s official news site, wrote that even though the synodal committee may find an alternative source of funding, “if all the bishops of the episcopal conference are not involved, this weakens the authority of the new body, which can then only be an institution of some bishops and the ZdK.” 

The funding decision had “an ecclesiological component,” he wrote, and the collapse of the consensus on financing “harbors the potential for the bishops’ conference to drift even further apart than it already is.”

Even before the bishops’ veto was announced, German Catholic media noted that synodal way organizers were considering a Plan B.

Christoph Renzikowski of the news agency KNA reported that the notion of a “coalition of the willing” was doing the rounds. In other words, the majority of diocesan bishops who favored the synodal committee would dig into their pockets, bypassing the VDD common fund.

In the affluent German Church, synodal way supporters should be able to find the rumored “higher six-figure euro sum” required to fund the synodal committee. 

But the creation of a “coalition of the willing” would explicitly affirm that the synodal way has divided the German episcopate and failed to offer a vision of reform that unifies bishops and lay people. The facade of unanimity would be well and truly shattered.

The synodal way would therefore arguably leave the Catholic Church in Germany in a worse position than when it started in 2019 — perhaps sending a chilling message ahead of this October’s synod on synodality, despite organizers’ repeated efforts to distance the global process from the German initiative.

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