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Germany’s influential lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) issued a stern warning Tuesday to the country’s bishops.

The four members of the German synodal way’s executive committee at a March 11, 2023, press conference in Frankfurt. © Synodaler Weg/Maximilian von Lachner.

The ZdK, which co-sponsored Germany’s “synodal way,” accused the bishops in a May 28 statement of putting the contentious reform project in jeopardy. 

In a sharply worded message, ZdK said that the bishops had “cast doubt on the extent to which they respect the central resolutions of the synodal way, commit themselves to them, and see them as a central component of their leadership actions.” 

How, precisely, have the bishops antagonized the ZdK? And what does the strain mean for the “synodal committee,” the body created to advance the synodal way’s agenda over the next few years?

The Pillar takes a look.

Scouts honor

The Catholic Church in Germany is losing hundreds of thousands of members a year. But it still has an impressive network of organizations, ranging from Caritas Germany, one of the country’s biggest welfare institutions, to the German Catholic Scout Association, the nation’s largest scouting group.

The association, known by its German initials DPSG, has around 95,000 members, including both boys and girls. It welcomes children from all religious backgrounds, while encouraging members “to discover their spirituality and their relationship with God.”

The DSPG has a three-member national executive board, consisting of a chairman, a chairwoman, and a person known as the Bundeskurat (literally, the “national curate”), who is responsible for pastoral care and serves as the association’s spiritual adviser.

The current national curate is Fr. Matthias Feldmann, a priest of the Diocese of Essen, who was elected for a three-year term in 2018 and re-elected in 2021.

According to the DSPG’s statutes, the national curate’s appointment must be approved by the German bishops’ conference. That provision triggered the current dispute.

Feldmann did not wish to continue in the role and, with his second term drawing to a close, a sole candidate emerged for the post: Viola Kohlberger, a 32-year-old doctoral student, who has served as a DSPG curate in the Diocese of Mainz since 2021.

On April 22 this year, the German bishops’ permanent council met in Bonn, discussing, among other topics, Kohlberger’s candidacy for the national role. The news quickly spread that she had failed to gain the approval of the necessary majority of bishops in a secret ballot.

The German Catholic institutional world responded with outrage. Denunciations poured in from bodies such as the German Catholic Women’s Association (KDFB) and Federation of German Catholic Youth (BDKJ). What was soon dubbed the Fall Kohlberger (“Kohlberger case”) dominated the German Catholic media. 

Why did the bishops reject Kohlberger? Some commentators suggest they wanted a priest, rather than a lay woman, for the post. But given the absence of any official statement on the ballot, the reason remains unclear. 

Reports consistently highlight Kohlberger’s role in the synodal way. She took part in the assemblies that brought together Germany’s bishops and select lay people between 2019 and 2023, producing 150 pages of resolutions calling for radical changes in Catholic teaching in practice.

German Catholic media recall that Kohlberger was involved in a dispute with Cologne’s Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki on the sidelines of a synodal way assembly in 2021, after she accused him of seeking to “protect the system.” She also reportedly clashed with Regensburg’s Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer in 2023 over comments he made on the abuse crisis.

As diocesan bishops, both Woelki and Voderholzer are members of the permanent council. They are also boycotting the synodal committee, which brings together bishops and an even more select group of lay people to implement the synodal way’s resolutions.

But it’s unclear how the disagreements with Woelki and Voderholzer — who belong to a small minority of conservative-leaning bishops — would account for Kohlberger’s failure to win the support of the majority of German bishops.

At the ZdK’s May 28 plenary meeting in Erfurt, 80% of participants approved a motion denouncing the bishops’ rejection of Kohlberger.

“With its decision, the permanent council has severely jeopardized constructive, trusting cooperation within the synodal committee,” the ZdK said.

It added: “With its decision, the bishops’ conference is responsible for a renewed loss of trust and credibility among believers. Believers and especially future employees ask themselves under what conditions they can and want to live out their calling or whether they still want to work in this Church at all.”

The statement noted that the ZdK is an “equal partner” with the bishops’ conference in the synodal committee and demanded that the bishops answer six pointed questions before the committee’s next meeting in June:

1. How can trustworthy and joint action on the synodal way succeed if bishops’ decisions of comparable significance continue to be made in a non-transparent manner and without explanation?

2. How and when will the decisions already made on the synodal way be implemented in the dioceses?

3.  How do the bishops guarantee the seriousness of future deliberations and the binding nature of decisions on the synodal way in the bishops’ conference, as well as in the individual dioceses?

4. How will the bishops contribute to the substantive work of the synodal committee?

5. How will the bishops deal with Roman reservations/resistance?

6. How will the bishops discuss and communicate their actions in the synodal committee?

The six questions to the German bishops could arguably be condensed into a single query: Are you with us or not?

Synodal committee strains

The far-reaching nature of the ZdK’s questions shows how much uncertainty continues to surround the synodal committee.

That’s significant because it’s more than a year since the synodal way’s closing Mass and yet the body created to further its work is still struggling to establish itself.

Although the synodal committee held its inaugural meeting in November 2023, the German bishops did not endorse its statutes and regulations until April this year, after the Vatican urged them to delay a vote until after a meeting with curial officials.

At the Rome summit, German bishops and Vatican officials agreed to “a regular exchange” on “the further work of the synodal way and the synodal committee.” That commitment may have unsettled ZdK members who want the synodal committee to be free to make decisions with as little Roman input as possible.

This week’s ZdK statement also seemed to carry an implicit threat that it could pull out of the synodal way project, leaving the bishops to bear the blame.

The lay group said that it reserved “the right to decide on further cooperation,” depending on the bishops’ responses to its six questions and the substance of future synodal committee discussions.

It would not be the first time the ZdK has suggested it could walk away. 

When the bishops unexpectedly rejected a text calling for a revision of Catholic sexual ethics at an assembly in 2022, ZdK leader Irme Stetter-Karp said she questioned why she bothered to take part in the initiative. After a controversial change in voting rules, a majority of bishops endorsed all subsequent resolutions. 

At every point since 2019, the ZdK has successfully cajoled the majority of bishops into advancing its vision of the synodal way. What the ZdK has achieved so far has been possible because it formed a delicate coalition with the episcopal majority and managed to hold it together under pressure. 

As it fights to secure its gains, the ZdK is relying on its tried-and-tested tactic of publicly berating the bishops. But the downside of the approach is that it can erode trust. 

That a seemingly small matter such as a Scouts association appointment can provoke such a fierce response suggests that Germany’s “synodal coalition” is as fragile as ever.

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