Pope Francis criticized a committee created to implement the decisions of Germany’s “synodal way” in a letter signed on the day of the body’s inaugural meeting.
In a Nov. 10 letter to four German Catholics who withdrew from the synodal way in protest at its direction, the pope said he shared concerns that elements in the local Church were taking steps “to steer it increasingly away from the universal Church’s common path.”
“This doubtlessly includes the establishment of the synodal committee you referenced,” he said, referring to the body that held its first meeting in the German city of Erfurt on Nov. 10-11.
Participants in the synodal way passed a resolution in September 2022 establishing the committee with the primary task of creating a permanent “synodal council” of bishops and lay people with governing powers over the German Church.
The Vatican said in January this year that German Catholics had no authority to set up the permanent “advisory and decision-making body,” which is earmarked for 2026.
“This committee aims to set up a consultative and decision-making body,” Pope Francis said in the letter. “However, as outlined in the corresponding resolution, its proposed structure is not in alignment with the sacramental structure of the Catholic Church.”
“Consequently, its formation was forbidden by the Holy See in a letter dated Jan. 16, 2023, which was approved in specific form.”
The pope’s Nov. 10 letter, which was typewritten in German and signed by hand, was addressed to the theology professors Katharina Westerhorstmann and Marianne Schlosser, the philosopher Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz, and the journalist Dorothea Schmidt, who sent him a Nov. 6 letter outlining their reservations about developments in the Church in Germany since the synodal way formally ended in March.
The synodal way brought together the country’s bishops and select lay people at five “synodal assemblies” held from 2020 to 2023 to discuss sweeping changes to Church teaching and practice following a devastating abuse crisis and amid a mass exodus of Catholics.
Synodal way participants endorsed texts calling for women deacons, a re-examination of priestly celibacy, lay preaching at Masses, same-sex blessings, a revision of the Catechism on human sexuality, and a greater lay role in choosing bishops.
Westerhorstmann, Schlosser, Gerl-Falkovitz, and Schmidt opted out of the initiative in February, saying that it was “casting doubt on central Catholic doctrines and beliefs.”
Westerhorstmann told The Pillar: “I am grateful for the letter, and I appreciate the pope’s clarity as it reveals his position unambiguously.”
“I was surprised about the promptness of his response, and I hope that it can help the Church in Germany not to deviate even further from the path of the universal Church,” she said Nov. 21 via email.
“We received his permission to publish the letter and we therefore hope this publication will serve the unity of the Church.”
In his letter, the pope referred to a June 2019 message to German Catholics in which he reflected on the nature of authentic Church renewal.
“In my ‘Letter to the Pilgrim People of God in Germany,’ I sought not to find ‘salvation’ in constantly evolving committees, nor to persist in self-absorbed dialogues rehashing the same themes,” the pope said, according to an English translation by the U.S. Catholic News Agency.
“Rather, I aimed to reemphasize the importance of prayer, penance, and adoration. I urged an openness and a call to action to engage with our brothers and sisters, especially those found at the thresholds of our church doors, in the streets, within prisons, hospitals, public squares, and cities (as mentioned in section 8). I firmly believe that in these places, the Lord will guide us.”
The pope concluded by thanking the four German Catholics for their “contributions to theology and philosophy” and “witness to the Faith.”
The synodal committee was supposed to consist of the country’s 27 diocesan bishops, 27 delegates chosen by the lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), and 20 elected by synodal way participants.
But four of the bishops are boycotting the body and a further four were absent from the inaugural meeting at a four-star hotel in the Diocese of Essen, in Germany’s Ruhr valley, due to competing commitments in their dioceses.
Committee members endorsed statutes and rules of procedure establishing that decisions can be made with a simple two-thirds majority. That marked a break with the practice of the synodal way, where a two-thirds majority of bishops was necessary to pass resolutions.
The statutes and rule must be approved by ZdK members, who will meet Nov. 24-25 in Berlin, and the German bishops, whose next plenary assembly is scheduled for Feb. 19-22 in Augsburg.
The lay German initiative New Beginning, which opposes the synodal way, welcomed the pope’s letter.
Writing on its website, the theologian Martin Brüske said: “Pope Francis would (still) like to avoid the sledgehammer of coercive measures. But he has now — in a way that is not atypical for him — given a clear signal: It could hardly be clearer or more forceful.”
“In other words, the flagship of Peter has given the German Church a shot across the bow. Those who do not want to have heard and seen this will bear full responsibility if they ultimately disappear into the maelstrom of division.”
Thomas Söding, the vice-president of the ZdK, which co-sponsored the synodal way, said it was the pope’s duty to be concerned about Church unity.
“You can rely on the Catholic Church in Germany: charitable and synodal,” he wrote on twitter.com Nov. 21.
“A synodal council will also find recognition in Rome. This is what we are working on. Sowing discord is not the way.”