Is the German synodal way banking on the Vatican-China deal?

Analysis

The Pillar reported Sunday that the “Synodal Way” undertaken by the German bishops’ conference in partnership with the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) is considering radical proposals to democratize the Church in Germany. The document, which is under review by the Vatican, is the latest development in a synodal process which has been repeatedly criticized by the Vatican and Pope Francis.

The document, titled the “Fundamental Text” of the synod’s Forum I, is the most systematic proposal yet for breaking with the Church’s traditional hierarchical structure and advancing a democratized and federal vision of the Church. This vision was previously rejected by the Vatican as “not ecclesiologically valid,” and specifically warned against by the pope in a pastoral letter to the entire Church in Germany in June, 2019.

In his letter, 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.”

So what do the Germans hope to achieve by pressing ahead with proposals Rome seems sure to reject?

The synodal way has been the subject of simmering tensions between Rome and Germany since 2019, when the Congregation for Bishops and the Pontifical Commission for Legislative Texts wrote to the German bishops rejecting plans for a “binding synodal process.”

That rejection was played off by the German bishops, who sent a delegation to meet with Cardinal Marc Oullet and Pope Francis in September 2019.

Since then, the Germans have pressed ahead with plans for wholesale change to Church teaching across a range of issues, including marriage, sexuality, and sacramental doctrine and discipline. 

The most recent document reiterates calls for the ordination of women, questioning the “validity” of previous definitive Church statements on the issue, and proposes that local Church members be able to veto the governance of bishops, and elect clergy to leadership positions.

In 2019, Archbishop Filippo Iannone, head of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts rejected the premise of a democratized Church, pointing out that it was against the Church’s own theological self conception, and against Pope Francis’ own clearly articulated vision for a “synodal Church.”

“Synodality in the Church, to which Pope Francis refers often, is not synonymous with democracy or majority decisions,” Iannone wrote in a legal assessment of earlier German proposals, noting that even when a Synod of Bishops meets in Rome “it is up to the Pontiff to present the results.”

“The synodal process must take place within a hierarchically structured community.”

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Despite the clear opposition of Rome, the Germans seem intent on pressing ahead, giving rise to speculation that the synodal way could trigger an actual schism and the birth of a German national Church. While Rome has downplayed these fears, the Germans seem intent on forging ahead. Is a confrontation now inevitable, and why do the Germans appear so confident of their eventual success?

The synodal process was begun under Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who led the bishops’ conference until 2020. Marx is a longstanding member of the pope’s C9 Council of Cardinal advisors, and widely credited as an influential figure in the ongoing drafting of a new governing constitution for the Roman curia. 

When a draft of that constitution was circulated in 2019, it contained proposals for enhanced recognition of national bishops’ conferences, including granting them “legitimate” doctrinal teaching authority. While that draft was subsequently shelved, some curial officials have suggested that Marx and the German bishops anticipate some version of it will be promulgated prior to the conclusion of their synodal process, creating a mechanism for them to enact their reforms.

Another reason for German confidence could be financial. Even while hemorrhaging practicing Catholics, the Catholic Church in Germany remains vastly wealthy. In 2019, its institutions posted aggregate tax revenues of more than $7 billion, more than a hundred million more than the previous year.

The German bishops’ financial resources allow them to fund entire regions of the Church’s work across the world, with many dioceses in Scandinavia and South America functionally dependent on Teutonic largesse. This generosity may lead to German expectations of international support for some aspects of the synod’s agenda.

Closer to Rome, the German Church also gives generously to Vatican projects. At least one senior figure in Vatican finances has estimated to The Pillar that Germany is now the largest single contributor nation to the annual Peter’s Pence collection.

But if the Germans are banking on their financial clout to lend weight to their reforming plans, they could be disappointed.

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The German bishops’ had an outsized presence at the recent synod on the Amazon, which was widely expected to produce a strong call for the ordination of married men to the priesthood and the ordination of women to the diaconate. In the months before the synod, several German bishops signaled their intentions to immediately avail themselves of any Roman exception to discipline and teaching granted to the Amazon. 

When the synod’s final document failed to call for, or receive, papal approval for a change in the requirements for ordination, leaders of the Central Committee of German Catholics effectively accused Pope Francis of cowardice.

But if curial reform has stalled, and money has - at least so far - failed to secure a Roman placet for the German agenda, it is possible that the “synodal way” is simply banking that the Vatican will, in the end, back down.

Some German bishops might be considering the Holy See’s relationship with the Chinese Communist Party in the wake of the 2020 renewal of the Vatican-China deal. That agreement, which was renewed in October for another two years, gives Beijing a voice, some have claimed an effective veto, on episcopal appointments in China.

The original 2018 agreement was heavily criticized by those who argued that the Chinese government’s long track record of arresting bishops, harassing underground Catholics, and attempting to stamp out religious practice in the Communist country, to say nothing of their serial abuses of human rights, made them unsuitable partners for the Church to compromise with.

The deal was struck to end the Communist government’s illicit consecration of bishops for the state-sponsored Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the effective schism between it and the underground Church and Rome.

The Vatican, through the Secretariat of State, reportedly considered ending the situation of a schismatic national Church worth the public criticism and the blow to the Church’s moral standing on the diplomatic stage.

Since then, the Chinese government has launched a systematic crackdown on human rights and civil liberties in Hong Kong, and mounted a campaign of mass internment and genocide against religious and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang Province. Yet, despite emerging testimony of crimes against humanity, Rome has continued to prioritize ecclesiastical union over overt confrontation.

It is possible the Germans have decided that they have, if not popular support on their side, at least enough of a Catholic minority in their corner -coupled with the financial dependence on Germany by large parts of the Church - to thumb their nose at the pope. 

It is also possible the German bishops have observed how much the Vatican is willing to publicly stomach from China rather than accept an overt schism, even one many Catholics would understand the moral case for, and decided to call the Vatican’s bluff.

So far, Rome has conspicuously played for time against the Germans as they continue on their synodal way. Time is now running out. Sooner, rather than later, Francis will have to decide if he is able to impose his authority on the German bishops, and if the Church in Germany is willing to accept it.