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Synodal way’s call for lay role in choosing bishops hits snags

Synodal way’s call for lay role in choosing bishops hits snags

A resolution adopted by Germany’s “synodal way” to give lay people a clearly defined role in choosing bishops is proving hard to enact.

The Archdiocese of Bamberg said last Friday that it saw no way of implementing the decision because it seemed incompatible with a concordat governing the appointment of bishops.

Participants in the synodal way — a multi-year initiative bringing together bishops and select lay people — endorsed a document in February entitled “Involvement of the faithful in the appointment of the diocesan bishop.”

The text called on cathedral chapters — which play a significant role in selecting German bishops — to work with an elected body representing “the entire people of God in the diocese” to determine the list of suitable candidates that the chapter sends to the Vatican.

But dioceses are bound by different rules because individual German states signed concordats with the Holy See both before and after the unification of Germany in 1871.

Bamberg archdiocese, which was founded in the year 1007, operates under the Bavarian Concordat of 1924. Pope Francis accepted the resignation of the archdiocesan leader, 73-year-old Archbishop Ludwig Schick, on Nov. 1.

Under the Bavarian Concordat, bishops and cathedral chapters submit a list of suitable candidates every three years. When a see falls vacant, the chapter draws up and sends another list. The pope then selects one candidate from the lists. The Bavarian state government can theoretically veto the appointment but usually rubber-stamps nominations.

An archdiocesan spokesperson told the German Catholic Church’s official website on Nov. 11: “Due to the currently existing legal situation in the dioceses subject to the Bavarian Concordat, the cathedral chapter unfortunately sees no possibility of implementing the decision of the implementation text ‘Involvement of the faithful in the appointment of the diocesan bishop’ when drawing up the lists.”

Subscribe Now reported that Bamberg’s cathedral chapter supported the involvement of lay people in principle, but believed that it would require a change in the law. The chapter hoped to “explore options” with the local diocesan council, the archdiocese said.

Bamberg is not the only German archdiocese seeking to put the synodal way decision into practice.

The Archdiocese of Paderborn, a see in central Germany established in the year 799, has formed a group of 14 lay people to work alongside 14 cathedral canons to draw up an initial list of candidates after the pope accepted the resignation of its 74-year-old Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker on Oct. 1.

The Paderborn archdiocese operates under the Prussian Concordat of 1929, which gives its cathedral chapter a leading role in selecting a new archbishop. The chapter submits its list of candidates to the pope, who sends back three names. The canons select one of the candidates as archbishop in a secret ballot.

The archdiocese wants its 28-member group of lay people and canons to choose from the three names identified by the pope. But laity would only be able to assist in the selection of an archbishop from the final three candidates if the pope extended pontifical secrecy to the whole group.

The concordat also requires that the new archbishop is elected by a majority of cathedral chapter members. Therefore, the initial list of candidates drawn up by the 28-person group would only be valid if it was explicitly approved by a majority of canons.

The synodal way text recognized that concordats are an obstacle to lay participation in the selection of bishops. But it suggested that cathedral chapters could undertake voluntarily to involve lay people in the process.

“Under the Church’s current law and concordats, the following forms of participation are open to the diocesan people of God: a right of co-decision in the preparation of the list of candidates, and a right to be heard prior to the selection being made from the list of candidates. These two rights can be realized through a voluntary undertaking on the part of the respective cathedral chapter,” the document said.

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Supporters of the change point to a recent move by Pope Francis at the Dicastery for Bishops, the Vatican department overseeing bishops’ appointments, arguing that innovation is possible. The pope named three women as members of the dicastery in July.

Thomas Söding, the vice president of the influential lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), insisted that the synodal way text should be applied in dioceses regulated by the Bavarian Concordat.

“The decision is binding, also for Bavaria,” he told the Catholic paper Neuen Ruhrwort.

He added that it was up to Bamberg’s cathedral chapter “to find a form in which the agreed participation of churchgoers is guaranteed.”

In an analysis of the situations in Bamberg and Paderborn for, editor Christoph Brüwer noted that German canon lawyers were divided over the scope for lay involvement.

He quoted Georg Bier, a canon lawyer based in Freiburg, as saying: “The implementation text, like much of what has been decided in the synodal way deliberations, is presumably well-intentioned — but in the end a self-deception on the participants’ part with regard to what is legally possible and enforceable.”

The German bishops have clashed with the Vatican over the synodal way since the initiative began in 2019.

The Vatican in July 2022  issued a declaration stating that the synodal way has no power “to compel the bishops and the faithful to adopt new ways of governance and new approaches to doctrine and morals.”

“Prior to an agreed understanding at the level of the universal Church, it would not be permissible to initiate new official structures or doctrines in the dioceses, which would represent a wound to ecclesial communion and a threat to the unity of the Church,” the document said.

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