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The elephant in Augsburg: Bishops to weigh synodal committee’s fate

When Germany’s bishops gather in the city of Augsburg Monday, there will be an elephant in the room.

The Basilica of Sts. Ulrich and Afra in Augsburg, Germany. Gnomad by Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The metaphorical pachyderm is a body known as the “synodal committee,” which met for the first time in November 2023. The committee, composed of diocesan bishops and select lay people, has a twofold task.

The first is to ensure that the controversial resolutions of the 2019-2023 “synodal way” are put into effect in dioceses across Germany. 

The second is to prepare the way for a permanent institution known as the “synodal council,” through which bishops and laity will make far-reaching decisions about the Church in Germany.

But while the Catholic media are sharply focused on the “synodal committee” ahead of the Augburg meeting, the event’s organizers seem reluctant to acknowledge it. An official preview of the Feb. 19-22 gathering does not mention the body by name. 

All it says is that the 60 attending bishops will “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.”

That’s curious given that the bishops are all but certain to discuss the synodal committee during their four-day meeting at the Haus Sankt Ulrich, a swish convention hotel beside Augsburg’s Gothic Basilica of Sts. Ulrich and Afra.


Germany’s ‘hot iron’

Why are the plenary meeting’s organizers being coy about whether the synodal committee is on the agenda? Perhaps because it has become what Germans call “ein heißes Eisen” (literally a hot iron, less literally, a hot potato). 

Synodal way participants passed a resolution in September 2022 establishing a synodal committee as an intermediate body leading to the creation of a permanent synodal council by 2026.

At the synodal committee’s inaugural meeting, participants approved the body’s statutes and rules of procedure. Controversially, they abandoned the synodal way’s principle that decisions were only valid with 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. 

To grasp what a major shift this represents, consider that the synodal committee is meant to be composed of 27 diocesan bishops, 27 delegates chosen by the influential lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), and 20 elected by synodal way participants.

To achieve a two-thirds majority, a resolution needs the backing of 50 of the 74 participants. The 47 non-bishops would need to persuade just three bishops to side with them to pass a resolution, even if it was opposed by the remaining 24 bishops.

So a resolution affecting the future of the German Church could be passed with the support of just 11% of diocesan bishops.

And that’s just in theory. In practice, the bishops are likely to have even less voting strength because at least four diocesan bishops have said they will have nothing to do with the synodal committee.

In reality, there will be no more than 23 diocesan bishops out of a total of 70 participants. This means that only 47 votes are needed for a two-thirds majority. So if all the non-bishops approve a resolution, they will not need any episcopal support at all. 

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The synodal committee could therefore bypass the bishops entirely, shaping the post-synodal landscape without any episcopal constraints.

Flags at the third plenary assembly of Germany’s synodal way in Frankfurt on Feb. 3, 2022. © Synodaler Weg/Maximilian von Lachner.

Out of alignment

The synodal committee’s two-thirds rule is almost certainly unacceptable to the Vatican.

We know this because Rome has insisted again and again that the bishops are the only ones who can legitimately guide the German “reform process.” 

In a January 2023 letter approved by Pope Francis, three Vatican cardinals underlined that no bishop was obliged to take part in synodal committee meetings. 

Citing Vatican Council II’s teaching on episcopal authority, the letter added “that neither the synodal way, nor any body appointed by it, nor any bishops’ conference has the competence to establish the ‘synodal council’ at national, diocesan or parish level.”

In a letter dated Nov. 10, 2023, Pope Francis directly criticized both the synodal committee and the synodal council.

“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.” 

The synodal committee’s statutes must be endorsed separately by members of the ZdK and the German bishops.

The ZdK gave its thumbs up on Nov. 25, 2023, days after Pope Francis’ letter was published. So that just leaves the bishops. 

The bishops’ meeting in Augsburg is the first plenary assembly since the synodal committee’s inauguration. It stands to reason that the bishops will discuss the committee’s statutes, however reluctant organizers are to acknowledge the fact.

But what are their options?

Germany’s synodal committee holds its inaugural meeting in Erfurt on Nov. 10, 2023. © Synodaler Weg/Matthias Kopp.

Outright endorsement

The most obvious step would be for the bishops to approve the synodal committee’s statutes.

After all, the synodal committee’s participants adopted the statutes unanimously, which means that the 19 out of 27 diocesan bishops present at the inaugural meeting must have voted in favor.

A significant number of German bishops, therefore, don’t seem concerned that the synodal committee’s voting rules mean they could potentially be cut out of the picture.

But while a majority of bishops would likely endorse the statutes, the four bishops who have refused to take part in the synodal committee would oppose the step, perhaps along with a few other conservative-minded prelates. So Germany’s bishops would be unable to endorse the rules unanimously. 

Let’s say that the majority of bishops decide that unanimity isn’t necessary: a simple majority is enough.  

The statutes say that they “enter into force by resolution of the synodal committee, the German bishops’ conference, and the ZdK.” If only a majority of bishops endorse the statutes, can they truly be said to have the approval of the “German bishops’ conference”?

A question mark would hang over the synodal committee’s legitimacy if the larger bloc of bishops went down the majority-approval path.

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Delegates vote at the synodal committee’s inaugural meeting on Nov. 10-11, 2023, in Erfurt, Germany. © Synodaler Weg/Ewelina Sowa.

Outright rejection

A much more surprising step would be for the bishops to reject the statutes. 

It’s hard to see how this would happen, given the large number of bishops who have already signaled their support. But let’s imagine that they were persuaded to reverse their positions, perhaps through debate with their fellow bishops or via pressure from Rome. 

The synodal committee would be brought to a juddering halt. The ZdK, which has already endorsed the statutes, would likely furiously denounce the bishops. The German media would almost certainly join the pile-on.

When the bishops previously wavered during the synodal way, the threat of ZdK denunciation and media pillory was enough to persuade them to back down. There is nothing so far to suggest it will be different this time.

It’s possible, of course, that the Vatican could insist that the bishops reject the statutes. If so, the bishops might be quietly pleased that Rome is willing to resume its traditional fall guy role in the German Catholic world. The bishops could then blame the Vatican without ever having to defy either Rome or the ZdK.

But it’s unclear what Rome would have to gain from allowing this face-saving option.

Irme Stetter-Karp and Bishop Georg Bätzing, the co-presidents of the synodal committee. © Synodaler Weg / Maximilian von Lachner.

Delaying tactics

A third option is for the bishops to say neither “yes” nor “no” to the statutes. Perhaps they could simply say they need more time to form a common position. They could delay a vote until their next plenary meeting in the fall. 

That meeting is likely to take place in September, weeks before the second and final session of the synod on synodality at the Vatican. If the bishops punted again at their fall meeting, they wouldn’t have to come to any decision until after the synod on synodality, by which time a different wind might be blowing from Rome.

If the bishops were worried that delaying tactics might slow the synodal committee’s momentum, there might be another option. They could approve the statutes but insist loudly that the text doesn’t detract in any way from their episcopal powers. 

This might enable the committee to establish “facts on the ground” while the Vatican engages in drawn-out efforts to convince the bishops that the statutes do indeed undermine the episcopal office. 

If that sounds too cynical, consider that one of the synodal way’s architects has said that the initiative consciously employed similar tactics to ensure that it remained one step ahead of Rome’s objections. 

We should have a better idea of which strategy the bishops are adopting as early as Monday, when bishops’ conference chairman Bishop Georg Bätzing is due to address the media at the start of the four-day Augsburg meeting. 

Bätzing is co-president of the synodal committee, so he is heavily invested in its success. Can he find a way of keeping the initiative alive, despite the opposition of a minority of bishops and the negative vibes from Rome?

Or will this be the moment when the synodal way finally runs out of road?

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