Pope Francis named two new archbishops Saturday for the Catholic Church in Germany, with the appointments challenging the idea that the Vatican was taking undue time to fill episcopal slots for Germany.
The Vatican announced Dec. 9 that the pope had chosen Bishop Herwig Gössl as the next Archbishop of Bamberg and Bishop Udo Markus Bentz as the new Archbishop of Paderborn. Both men are 56 years of age and have served as auxiliary bishops since 2014 and 2015 respectively.
The Bamberg archdiocese, in the southern German state of Bavaria, had waited for a new leader since Archbishop Ludwig Schick’s resignation on Nov. 1, 2022, while the Paderborn archdiocese, in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, had been vacant since Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker stood down on Oct. 1, 2022.
The apparent delay in appointments prompted suggestions in Germany that Rome might be slow-walking episcopal appointments, possibly as a consequence for its controversial “synodal way,” which brought together bishops and select lay people from 2019 to 2023 to discuss sweeping changes to Church teaching and practice.
But Germany has not waited significantly longer for new bishops than other European countries. Other factors, such as the country’s complex concordat system and the synodal way’s demand for greater lay involvement in appointments, may be lengthening the process.
Archbishop-elect Gössl was born in Munich, Bavaria’s capital, in 1967. He was ordained a priest of the Bamberg archdiocese in 1993 and named an auxiliary bishop by Pope Francis in 2014.
Archbishop-elect Bentz was born in Rülzheim, in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate, in 1967. He was ordained a priest of the Mainz diocese in 1995. Three years later, he was named secretary to Mainz’s influential Cardinal Karl Lehmann, who served as chairman of the German bishops’ conference from 1987 to 2008. Bentz was named a Mainz auxiliary bishop in 2015.
Both Gössl and Bentz took part in the synodal way. In a congratulatory message, bishops’ conference president Bishop Georg Bätzing noted that Gössl was “personally engaged” in the initiative and expressed his theological convictions in both working groups and plenary assemblies.
Gössl was one of the 21 bishops who voted “no” to a synodal way document calling for a change in the Church’s approach to sexual ethics. The text was spiked after it failed to gain the required two-thirds majority among the bishops, prompting protests in the assembly hall.
Explaining his decision at the time, Gössl said: “I have remained true to myself. There are statements in the basic text on sexual ethics that I cannot support — such as the tendency to abolish the bipolarity of the sexes. The entire style of the text is repugnant to me. In the end, there are no more moral rules, it boils down to arbitrariness.”
In an interview published Dec. 11, Gössl said he thought that the Latin Church’s approach to priestly celibacy could change in the coming years.
“But when it comes to other issues such as the ordination of women or when it comes to the structure of the Church, the question of the episcopate, I can’t imagine people saying that this is regulated differently in Germany than in Spain and Poland,” he said. “It’s about the core. We have to agree on that.”
In his message of congratulation, Bätzing also thanked Bentz for his commitment to the synodal way, “in the discussions, in the text work, and especially for your dedicated moderation of the synodal meetings.”
“The Archdiocese of Paderborn is known for having supported and accompanied the synodal way in a good way,” Bätzing wrote. “I am firmly convinced that you will continue on this path with your synodal experience.”
Throughout the synodal way, Bentz stressed the need for authentic listening and lamented failures to mediate opposing points of view.
Both Gössl and Bentz voted in favor of a synodal way text calling for the creation of a synodal committee to prepare the way for a permanent synodal council with governing powers over the German Church.
Senior Vatican officials said in January that the German Church had no authority to establish a synodal council. Pope Francis seemed to cast doubt on the legitimacy of both the synodal committee and council in a November letter to four former synodal way participants.
Membership of the synodal committee is reserved for Germany’s 27 diocesan bishops, rather than auxiliaries, but Gössl has been a member since the body was established in his capacity as administrator of the Bamberg archdiocese.
At a Dec. 9 press conference, Bentz declined to say whether he would participate in the synodal committee or join the four diocesan bishops who are boycotting it. He said that he would first gauge how the Paderborn archdiocese approached the issues raised by the synodal way and then make a common decision about how to proceed.
Germany’s bishops will meet in Augsburg in February to discuss whether to approve the synodal committee’s statutes.
Following the Dec. 9 appointments, two of Germany’s dioceses are awaiting new leaders.
The Diocese of Osnabrück has been vacant since Bishop Franz-Josef Bode’s resignation in March. A successor is not expected to be appointed until Easter 2024.
The Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart became vacant Dec. 4, when the long-serving Bishop Gebhard Fürst turned 75 years of age.
The appointments of Gössl and Bentz fit a pattern that Pope Francis has established this year of appointing relatively inexperienced figures in their 50s to metropolitan sees, bypassing prelates in their 60s with more established track records.
Sees filled in this way in 2023 include Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Toronto, Canada, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Madrid, Spain, and Mechelen-Brussels, Belgium.