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Did Friday’s long-awaited meeting between German bishops and Vatican officials result in a breakthrough?

Vatican officials and German bishops in the Vatican's Sala Bologna on March 22, 2024. © Deutsche Bischofskonferenz / Matthias Kopp.

The question has preoccupied Church watchers since a March 22 summit in Rome to discuss the source of ongoing tensions between the groups: namely, the German “synodal way.”

Opinions vary, but what are the facts? They are outlined in a brief joint statement issued at the end of the day’s talks.

The statement noted that this was the third installment in a series of talks over the synodal way that began during the German bishops’ ad limina visit to Rome in November 2022 and continued with a July 2023 meeting.  

Describing the latest encounter as “positive and constructive,” the statement said that both sides discussed “some of the open theological questions raised in the documents of the synodal way of the Catholic Church in Germany.” 

Participants identified “differences and points of agreement,” following the example of last October’s synod on synodality,  

The statement said that the German bishops and Vatican officials had agreed to “a regular exchange” on “the further work of the synodal way and the synodal committee.”  

Before the synodal way formally ended in March 2023, it established the synodal committee, a transitional body of bishops and lay people paving the way for the creation of a permanent “synodal council.”

The joint statement added: “The German bishops have promised that this work will serve to develop concrete forms of synodality in the Church in Germany that are in accordance with the ecclesiology of Vatican Council II, the requirements of canon law, and the results of the global synod, and will subsequently be submitted to the Holy See for approval.” 

Views from Germany

That’s what the Vatican and the German bishops’ communiqué said. But what does it amount to? Has either side emerged from the talks as a clear winner?, the German Church’s official website, suggested that the Vatican and German bishops had “reached a compromise.” 

A report provided by the German Catholic news agency KNA said that the Roman Curia and the German bishops had “agreed on a procedure for the creation of new advisory bodies for the Catholic Church in Germany.”

“The German bishops have thus de facto committed themselves to not creating any new governance structures for the Catholic Church in Germany against the will of Rome,” KNA said.

In a commentary at, KNA’s Joachim Heinz argued that the statement’s reference to the synodal committee — a body whose status is currently unclear — implied that the German bishops had emerged from the meeting with “a victory on points.”

“The bottom line is that both sides are saving face, at least on the outside. For the time being, the Vatican has given the green light for further work in the synodal committee,” Heinz wrote.

New Beginning, a German group critical of the synodal way, said that Rome had proposed a “path to reconciliation,” but “under clear conditions.”

“The joint communiqué published yesterday by the Vatican and the German delegation leaves no doubt that Rome expects, but also trusts, the Germans to return their own course to the track of the Second Vatican Council and the teachings of the Church — despite the numerous maneuvers of the past five years,” it said in a March 23 statement

The group added that it welcomed “the additional — decisive — stipulation that, with immediate effect, all results from the German side ‘must be submitted to the Holy See for approval.’”

Renardo Schlegelmilch, an editor at Cologne’s, concluded that neither side had achieved victory, but both had succeeded in saving face.

“It remains to be seen whether further reform efforts will lead to new disputes,” he wrote. “However, the most important finding is that people are talking to each other again and both sides are willing to listen to each other and look for compromises. Both sides can certainly be satisfied with this type of synodality for the time being.”

Unresolved questions

German bishops and curial officials have agreed to meet again before the Vatican’s summer break.

Meanwhile, Germany’s bishops may announce the creation of an association to finance the synodal committee, following a veto on the use of a common fund. That would put the committee on a sure financial footing after months of uncertainty. 

The German bishops’ permanent council is due to meet in April. That could be when the majority of bishops signal their approval — delayed at the Vatican’s request — of the synodal committee’s statutes. But it’s unclear whether they can do so unanimously given the well-established opposition of a minority of bishops to any further steps toward a synodal council.

Another unresolved question is whether the synodal committee will be able to achieve its main task of establishing a permanent synodal council by 2026, as demanded by synodal way participants.

A.C. Wimmer, the editor-in-chief of CNA Deutsch, noted that the joint statement did not explicitly mention the synodal council, a body of bishops and lay people with broad decision-making powers that is currently opposed by the Vatican.

He said it was “unclear whether this controversial project has now been scuppered, suspended, or could ultimately be submitted to the Holy See for approval.” 

The synodal committee’s members will be hoping that when the body meets for a second time, in Mainz on June 14-15, the doubts about its financing and status will be resolved.

But questions are likely to remain over its central goal — the creation of the synodal council — for the foreseeable future.

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