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Is Germany’s synodal council entering ‘development hell’?

Last Friday evening, the Holy See press office released a statement in finely crafted Vaticanese — a language with roughly the same number of fluent speakers as Klingon.

Participants in the June 28 Rome talks (from left to right): Bishop Stefan Ackermann, Matthias Kopp, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernandéz, Bishop Georg Bätzing, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Cardinal Robert Prevost, Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck, Cardinal Arthur Roche, Cardinal Kurt Koch, Fr. Johannes Palus, Bishop Bertram Meier, Archbishop Filippo Iannone, Msgr. Luciano Alimandi, and Beate Gilles. © Deutsche Bischofskonferenz.

The June 28 communiqué summarized a day-long gathering of German Church leaders and senior Vatican officials to discuss Germany’s controversial “synodal way” project.

In fewer than 500 painstakingly selected words, the joint statement suggested that the initiative in the five-year battle over the synodal way has shifted — perhaps decisively — in Rome’s favor.

The document is only available in German and Italian. But given the high stakes surrounding the synodal way, it’s worth reading carefully.


Starting line-ups

Let’s start at the end of the statement, with the eighth and final paragraph. 

This is the most straightforward because it simply states who took part in the talks, the third in a series of high-level discussions following the German bishops’ ad limina visit to Rome in November 2022. 

The line-up was as follows:

  • 🇻🇦 Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandéz, Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith prefect

  • 🇻🇦 Cardinal Kurt Koch, Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity prefect.

  • 🇻🇦 Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State.

  • 🇻🇦 Cardinal Robert Prevost, Dicastery for Bishops prefect.

  • 🇻🇦 Cardinal Arthur Roche, Dicastery for Divine Worship prefect.

  • 🇻🇦 Archbishop Filippo Iannone, Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts president.

  • 🇩🇪  Bishop Georg Bätzing, German bishops’ conference chairman.

  • 🇩🇪  Bishop Stephan Ackermann, chairman of the bishops’ liturgy commission

  • 🇩🇪  Bishop Bertram Meier, chairman of the bishops’ world Church commission.

  • 🇩🇪  Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck, chairman of the bishops’ doctrine commission

  • 🇩🇪  Beate Gilles, bishops’ conference general secretary.

  • 🇩🇪  Matthias Kopp, bishops’ conference spokesman.

Without disparaging the German contingent, it’s worth noting that the Vatican brought its A-team to the talks.

Heading back to the top of the statement, we read that the June 28 meeting took place at Pope Francis’ request and followed up from the most recent gathering on March 22. 

The statement reminds us that in March, both sides agreed that the talks’ goal is the “development of concrete forms of synodality in the Church in Germany in accordance with the ecclesiology of the Second Vatican Council, the requirements of canon law, and the results of the synod on synodality.” 

The March press statement said the results would be submitted to the Holy See for approval. The same phrase is repeated here, but with “recognitio” in brackets after “approval,” underlining that the German bishops’ must formally submit written plans to Vatican scrutiny.

As in March, the June meeting’s atmosphere is described as “positive” and “constructive.” But it also adds the adjective “open.” Make of that what you will.

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Deconstructing the ‘synodal council’

We then hit one of the denser paragraphs, which notes that the bishops presented the results of the most recent meeting of Germany’s “synodal committee.”

The synodal committee is a body of bishops and lay people intended to pave the way for the creation of a permanent “synodal council” with extensive powers over the local Church.

The synodal committee is described in brackets in the statement as “a temporary working committee.” While the body was always intended to be temporary and to make way for the synodal council by 2026, the phrasing seems to minimize its significance. That may be because the Vatican has lingering doubts about the committee’s legitimacy, given that four out of Germany’s 27 diocesan bishops are boycotting it.

The statement says that following the summary of the synodal committee meeting, the “theological foundations and possibilities for the legal organization of a national synodal body were discussed.” Note that the future national synodal body is not called the “synodal council.”

We see why if we skip a paragraph. We read that the Vatican officials want the name of the body to be changed and have reservations about “various aspects of the existing proposal for such a prospective national synodal body.”

“With regard to the position of this body, there is agreement that it is not above or equal to the bishops’ conference,” the statement says.

This is arguably the statement’s most important section. To understand why, we need to recall that the synodal way resolution appealing for the creation of the synodal council described it as a national “advisory and decision-making body.” 

According to that document, this body, consisting of bishops and lay people, will “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.”

The June 28 statement makes clear that the Vatican officials — who will decide whether the plan receives the recognitio — object to both the name and the proposed powers of the synodal council. 

The statement adds that both sides agree that the national synodal body should not be “above or equal to the bishops’ conference.”

What does this mean? The synodal way critic Martin Brüske says that, logically speaking, “what is neither superior nor equal is nothing other than subordinate.” 

If the future body is subordinate to the bishops’ conference, it will be quite different to the overarching synodal council envisaged by the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), which co-sponsored the synodal way along with the German bishops.

Peter Winnemöller, another synodal way critic, writes: “The synodal council must not be called that and it must not be structured like that and it must not be able to do what was planned. To put it simply: it will never exist.”

The communiqué notes that one of the synodal committee’s three commissions will focus on “the issues of synodality and the structure of a synodal body.”

“To prepare a draft for this body, the [German] commission will be in close contact with a corresponding commission composed of representatives of the relevant dicasteries,” the statement says.

This suggests that the Vatican is determined to be involved even in the drafting of the new blueprint for a national synodal body. This could be an attempt to disrupt the previously successful modus operandi of the synodal way’s organizers, of creating “facts on the ground” before Rome could respond and then dismissing any objections as ill-informed or irrelevant. 

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A ‘slap in the face’?

After addressing the synodal council debate, the communiqué makes an intriguing, somewhat cryptic statement. 

“The question of the future composition of the German delegation participating in the dialogue between the representatives of the Roman Curia and the German bishops’ conference was also discussed,” it says.

Peter Winnemöller interprets this as “the most resounding slap in the face of all time” for the German bishops’ conference. He suggests a more direct translation would be: “We don’t want to talk to those you bring with you. Bring others with you.”

Martin Brüske, meanwhile, sees it as a reference to the four bishops boycotting the synodal committee. 

“If the committee is really nothing more than a ‘temporary working committee,’ there is no way of understanding why bishops who are skeptical about this instrument should be excluded from future talks,” he writes. 

“On the contrary: they represent an important voice in an open process that can now finally be heard again.”

There’s another possibility: The sentence could refer to the ZdK’s persistent demand to be included in the Rome talks, given it’s a co-sponsor of the synodal way and synodal committee. Perhaps the ZdK will ultimately have a representative at the table.

Talks after talks

The statement ends with what seems to be a bit of housekeeping.

“After the end of the synod on synodality [in October], the talks will continue to discuss further topics of an anthropological, ecclesiological, and liturgical nature,” it says.

This suggests the Vatican is in no hurry to resume discussions. Instead of scheduling a meeting for immediately after the summer break, the next one could take place in the late fall.

It’s unlikely that any disagreements of an “anthropological, ecclesiological, and liturgical nature” will be resolved in a day. So we can expect a further meeting to follow that one, and then another, and another after that.

The synodal council proposal may therefore be entering what Hollywood screenwriters call “development hell” — a grueling period of preparation with no clear deadline for resolution. 

The synodal council’s proponents have their eyes set on 2026. The synodal way’s resolution insists that the body must be up and running “by March 2026 at the latest.” 

But it is now clear that this is subject to Rome’s approval. And Rome may be intending to remind the synodal way’s organizers that it thinks not in years but centuries. 

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