Tensions are rising in the Catholic Church in Germany ahead of this week’s final assembly of the controversial “synodal way.”
Speaking days before the March 9-11 gathering in Frankfurt, the initiative’s co-president Irme Stetter-Karp expressed surprise at the German bishops’ plan to submit changes to documents that may struggle to gain a two-thirds majority of episcopal votes.
“All delegates, bishops and laity alike, had several weeks to make amendments, and now the deadline has passed,” she said in a March 5 report published by Germany’s Welt newspaper.
Stetter-Karp, the president of the powerful lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), suggested that participants in this week’s assembly should decide whether further alterations are permitted before texts are put to the vote.
Bishop Georg Bätzing announced March 2, at the end of the bishops’ plenary assembly in Dresden, that the bishops intended to propose the amendments.
The bishops’ conference chairman noted that the bishops had set aside a day of their meeting to seek consensus on the final synodal way documents. They took the step after they narrowly failed to approve a text on sexual ethics at the initiative’s last plenary meeting in September, provoking protests and forcing organizers to tear up the tight voting schedule.
Among the texts facing crunch votes this week is a paper advocating same-sex blessings, in defiance of a 2021 Vatican declaration that “the Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex.”
The text, “Blessing ceremonies for couples who love each other,” is due to have its second reading March 10, after which it could be formally adopted as a resolution of the synodal way.
Also facing a vote is a document on gender issues described by German Catholic media as potentially “even more controversial” than the same-sex blessings text. The paper, “Dealing with gender diversity,” which will also have its second reading March 10, says that “all ordained ministries and pastoral vocations in the Church should be open to the intersex and transgender baptized and confirmed who sense a calling for themselves.”
Summing up the bishops’ “study day” devoted to the synodal way documents last Thursday, Bishop Bätzing said: “We looked intensively at the texts for which many bishops, in particular, had expressed a need for discussion and agreement.”
“I very much hope that the struggle of the past few days has enabled us to break down barriers to the approval of the texts, although changes are still necessary, which we intend to introduce as motions in the deliberations next week.”
Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, the deputy chairman of Germany’s bishops’ conference, described the meeting in Dresden as “one of the most difficult bishops’ conferences I have experienced in my long time of episcopal ministry.”
Writing on his diocesan website, the bishop of Osnabrück said that tension had built up following the German bishops’ ad limina visit to Rome in November and a recent Vatican intervention ruling out the creation of a permanent “synodal council” of bishops and lay people governing the German Church, and ahead of the synodal way’s finale.
“It led us into very serious and deep discussions and showed the diversity of approaches and opinions,” Bode wrote March 4.
“However, this made it an exercise in synodality, albeit quite challenging, both between Rome and us in Germany, and among ourselves. More questions than answers still remain. An exciting synodal assembly in Frankfurt can be expected next week. The Holy Spirit will have all sorts of things to do.”
The synodal way, officially launched in December 2019, has brought together the German bishops and select lay people to discuss four main topics: power, the priesthood, women in the Church, and sexual morality. The Vatican has sought repeatedly to intervene in the project but with limited effect.
After the fifth and final plenary meeting of the synodal way ends March 11, a “synodal committee” composed of 27 diocesan bishops, 27 members chosen by the ZdK, and 20 members elected jointly by them will begin its work.
The synodal committee is expected to draw up plans for the creation of the synodal council by 2026. According to a resolution adopted by the synodal way in September, the synodal council will be “an advisory and decision-making body” that will “advise on major developments in the Church and in society, and shall take fundamental decisions of supra-diocesan significance on pastoral planning, future perspectives and budgetary issues of the Church that are not decided at the level of the dioceses.”
In an interview with the Rheinische Post published March 5, Irme Stetter-Karp criticized Vatican officials for only communicating about the synodal way with Germany’s bishops, rebuffing appeals to include the initiative’s lay leaders in discussions.
She suggested it would be “a failure, not least for the German bishops themselves, if an act of coercion and obedience ultimately prevented a synodal council.”
“It would certainly cause great disappointment if that were to happen,” she said.