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Is Germany’s ‘synodal committee’ dead or alive?

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This is shaping up to be a big week for German Catholicism.

On Wednesday, bishops and lay leaders will attend an extraordinary meeting to discuss the future of the “synodal way” project. 

The inaugural plenary meeting of Germany’s synodal committee in Essen on Nov. 10, 2023. © Synodaler Weg/Matthias Kopp.

And on Friday, German bishops will take part in a new round of talks with Vatican officials, who fear the project could lead to a breach between Rome and the Church in Germany. 

The two meetings may help to resolve a question that has hung over the German Church in recent months: Is the “synodal committee” — a body of bishops and lay people established after the synodal way ended a year ago  — dead or alive?

What’s the synodal way/committee/council?

First of all, a quick refresher on recent events. 

In 2018, a study commissioned by the bishops concluded that more than 3,600 children and young people were sexually abused within the Catholic Church in Germany between 1946 and 2014.

The bishops’ conference and the influential lay body the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) jointly launched the synodal way in 2019, in response to the abuse crisis and amid a mass exodus of Catholics.

The conference and the ZdK presented the synodal way as a necessary response to the study’s recommendations, which included “a change in clerical power structures,” greater attention “to the findings of modern sexual medicine,” and an increase in compensation payments.

From 2020 onward, the synodal way brought together bishops and lay people at five well-publicized assemblies to discuss four main topics: power, the priesthood, women in the Church, and sexuality.

The synodal way formally ended in March 2023 with the approval of resolutions supporting women deacons, a re-examination of priestly celibacy, lay preaching at Masses, same-sex blessings, and “gender diversity.”

Among the adopted resolutions — which run to 150 pages in English — was one dedicated to the “sustainable strengthening of synodality.”

The text, approved in 2022, called for the creation of an intermediate body called the synodal committee to prepare for the creation of a permanent “synodal council” of bishops and lay people “by March 2026 at the latest.”

The interim synodal committee would consist of 27 diocesan bishops, 27 ZdK members, and 20 others elected at the final synodal way assembly. 

The committee, composed in “a generationally and gender equitable manner,” would ensure that the synodal way’s resolutions were implemented in German dioceses, while laying the groundwork for the council, which would be both “an advisory and decision-making body.”

The council would “take fundamental decisions of supradiocesan significance on pastoral planning, future perspectives of the Church, and financial and budgetary matters of the Church that are not decided at diocesan level.”

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Roman challenge

In January 2023 — before the synodal way had even ended — Rome signaled its opposition to the synodal council, arguing that it would undermine bishops’ authority as outlined in the documents of Vatican Council II.

It said that bishops were under no obligation to take part in the synodal committee, but did not explicitly object to its creation.

In June 2023, four of Germany’s 27 diocesan bishops vetoed the use of a common fund to pay for the continuation of the synodal way project.

Despite the uncertainty over its funding, the synodal committee held its inaugural meeting in November 2023, at which members approved the body’s statutes and procedural rules

The statutes controversially abandoned a synodal way rule that decisions required a two-thirds majority among bishops, as well as lay people. In practice, this meant that lay members could pass resolutions without support from the bishops.

The ZdK endorsed the statutes, but they also needed the German bishops’ conference’s approval. In February this year, the Vatican asked the German bishops not to vote on the statutes, saying that further steps toward the creation of a synodal council would be invalid, “with the corresponding legal consequences.”

The German bishops heeded the request, but it was unclear what would happen next. Would the synodal way project come to a juddering halt? Without the bishops’ conference approval, what exactly was the synodal committee? 

Bishops’ conference chairman Bishop Georg Bätzing seemed to keep all options open in February, saying only that the bishops took the Vatican letter seriously.

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Meetings in Germany and Rome

The synodal committee’s status became a little clearer last week, when the German Church’s official website,, reported on a March 14 letter sent to its members.

The authors — Bishop Bätzing and ZdK president Irme Stetter-Karp — confirmed that a second committee meeting scheduled for June would go ahead as planned, “to build on the good discussions at the inaugural meeting.”

The synodal committee’s co-presidents also announced that an extraordinary meeting of a body known as the joint conference would be held this Wednesday, March 20. 

The joint conference’s members — 10 bishops and 10 lay people — typically meet twice a year to discuss tasks common to both the bishops’ conference and the ZdK.

The letter noted that the joint committee is “currently celebrating its 50th anniversary of existence and synodal work following its establishment in 1974 as a result of the Würzburg Synod,” a 1970s forerunner of the synodal way.

According to, the extraordinary meeting will address “the question of how to continue working on the content of the synodal committee’s tasks under the current circumstances.”

The meeting will be followed on Friday, March 22, by talks between German bishops and Vatican officials, within the red lines set out by Rome last October.

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The ‘path of lawlessness’  

The March 14 letter and the extraordinary meeting underline that the leadership of the German bishops’ conference and the ZdK remain fully committed to both the synodal committee and the synodal council. 

But the committee currently exists in an awkward gray area. Without the German bishops’ approval for its statutes, does the committee have any validity? Seemingly not, according to the Vatican’s February letter.

In a March 16 column for Die Tagespost, the retired canon law professor Heribert Hallermann argued that the committee was illegitimate.

“[The March 14 letter] now shows that the synodal committee intends to continue its work as originally planned — not only in contradiction to the current legal order of the Church, but also without a valid statute,” he wrote. 

“Bodies that otherwise constantly call for law, predictability, and transparency are thus embarking completely on the path of lawlessness, arbitrariness, and capriciousness.”

The synodal way’s architects, meanwhile, continue to insist that the synodal committee is in harmony with Church law, despite all appearances to the contrary, and the synodal council will be too.

A zombie committee?  

Since 2019, the synodal way’s architects have responded to every “no” from Rome with a “yes, but.” They have promised to take Roman concerns onboard while pressing ahead with their plans, establishing “facts on the ground” before the Vatican can prevent them.

In November, it looked like they had executed the strategy successfully once again. They had inaugurated the synodal committee despite the Vatican’s insistence that its central objective — the creation of the synodal council — was invalid.

A second meeting was scheduled for June, but presumably on the assumption that the bishops’ conference would endorse its statutes in the meantime. But without the bishops’ formal approval, the committee will have an air of invalidity when its members meet in Mainz on June 14-15.

The synodal committee therefore seems neither dead nor alive, but something in between: a kind of zombie that will be lurking in the background when German bishops and Vatican officials meet this week. 

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