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Rome says ‘nein’ to German bishops’ synodal committee vote

The German bishops’ conference dropped plans to hold a vote on the statutes of the country’s “synodal committee” during their meeting on Monday, after an intervention from the Holy See on the eve of their plenary assembly in Augsburg.

A worker sets up the stage for the final session of the synodal way in Frankfurt, Germany, on March 7, 2023.  © Synodaler Weg/Maximilian von Lachner. 

A spokesman told the German Catholic news agency KNA that the bishops’ conference had received a letter from the Vatican Feb. 17.

“This letter asks that the plenary assembly — also due to upcoming talks between representatives of the Roman Curia and representatives of the German bishops’ conference — not vote on the statutes of the synodal committee,” he said.

The spokesman added that the bishops’ conference’s chairman had informed colleagues that the item would be removed from the agenda — at least for now.

“Everything else will be decided during the plenary assembly in Augsburg,” the spokesman said.

The spokesman did not, however, confirm that plans for the controversial committee would be abandoned altogether.

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In the Feb. 16 Vatican letter — addressed to conference president Bishop Georg Bätzing — the prefects of the Dicasteries for the Doctrine of the Faith and Bishops, and the Holy See Secretary of State, expressed the Holy See’ continued concern over plans to approve the “synodal committee” in a move towards the larger project of creating a permanent “synodal council” for the Church in Germany.

“Such an organ is not provided for by the applicable canon law and therefore a decision by the DBK in this respect would be invalid – with the corresponding legal consequences,” wrote Cardinals Víctor Manuel Fernández, Robert Francis Prevost and Pietro Parolin on Saturday.

“The approval of the statutes of the Synodal Committee would therefore be contrary to the instruction of the Holy See, which was given on a special mandate by the Holy Father, and would once again present him with a fait accompli,” the cardinals warned.

It is rare but not unprecedented for the Vatican to intervene in the agendas of bishops’ conference meetings.

In 2018, Rome asked U.S. bishops to postpone a vote on measures to address the clerical abuse crisis. In 2020, the Vatican also intervened to spike a U.S. bishops’ conference statement on the election of President Joe Biden.

The Vatican has intervened repeatedly in the German synodal process, beginning even before the synodal way was formally launched in December 2019. Pope Francis wrote an extensive letter in June that year to German Catholics, cautioning against a focus on “purely structural or bureaucratic reforms.” 

The synodal committee is a body of diocesan bishops and select lay people that emerged from Germany’s contentious “synodal way,” which ended in March 2023 with calls for women deacons, a re-examination of priestly celibacy, lay preaching at Masses, a revision of the Catechism on homosexuality, and a greater lay role in choosing bishops. 

The committee’s two main tasks are to ensure that synodal way resolutions are implemented in Germany’s dioceses and to prepare the way for the creation in 2026 of a permanent “synodal council” of bishops and lay people with decision-making powers over the Church in Germany.

At the synodal committee’s inaugural meeting in November 2023, participants approved the body’s statutes and rules of procedure

In a controversial move, the statutes abandoned the synodal way’s principle that decisions required the support of two-thirds of bishops as well as two-thirds of lay people. The synodal committee can pass resolutions with a simple two-thirds majority. 

After four of Germany’s 27 diocesan bishops said they would not participate in the synodal committee, there are only 23 bishops among the committee’s 70 members. This means that non-bishops could form a two-thirds majority without needing the support of a single bishop.

In a January 2023 letter approved by Pope Francis, three Vatican cardinals said that no bishop was obliged to take part in synodal committee meetings and the German Church had no authority to establish a permanent synod council.

Pope Francis criticized both the synodal committee and the synodal council in a letter to German critics of the synodal way dated Nov. 10, 2023.

“This committee aims to set up a consultative and decision-making body,” he wrote. “However, as outlined in the corresponding [synodal way] resolution, its proposed structure is not in alignment with the sacramental structure of the Catholic Church.” 

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A Vatican document leaked in November 2023 suggested that ongoing discussions between German bishops and curial officials would continue in January, April, and June 2024. There has been no official confirmation of whether talks took place last month.

The synodal committee’s statutes say that they can only “enter into force by resolution of the synodal committee, the German bishops’ conference, and the ZdK,” the influential lay Central Committee of German Catholics.

The ZdK approved the statutes on Nov. 25, 2023, weeks after they were endorsed by the synodal committee.

But the German bishops have not yet discussed the statutes at a plenary assembly. They were expected to do so at their Feb. 19-22 gathering in Augsburg.

But an official preview of the spring assembly did not mention either the statutes or the synodal committee. 

It said only that the 60 attending bishops would “discuss further considerations regarding the synodal way of the Church in Germany and the global synod in Rome, the second part of which will take place in October 2024.”

Germany’s bishops failed to agree in June 2023 on the use of a common fund to finance the synodal committee. No alternative funding mechanism has been announced, but reports suggest the committee could be funded by an association underwritten by the dioceses of Munich-Freising, Münster, Limburg, and Würzburg.

The synodal committee is due to hold its second plenary meeting June 14-15 in Mainz.

Following the Augsburg meeting, the German bishops’ are likely to hold their next plenary meeting in September.

The Vatican announced Feb. 17 that the second and final session of the synod on synodality will take place in Rome on Oct. 2-27.

It’s possible that Rome is seeking to slow the synodal committee’s momentum ahead of the finale of the global synodal process. 

In November 2022, a senior Vatican cardinal appealed unsuccessfully to the German bishops to impose a moratorium on the synodal way ahead of the synod on synodality.

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