Germany’s bishops are meeting in Fulda, a town in the center of the country, this week ahead of a crucial trip to the Vatican.
Their fall plenary meeting, which began on Monday, is dedicated to two major themes: the controversial “synodal way” and the bishops’ November ad limina visit to Rome.
The stakes are high: The Vatican has repeatedly expressed misgivings about the synodal way - the multi-year German initiative bringing together bishops and lay people to discuss four main topics: power, the priesthood, women in the Church, and sexual morality.
In July, the Vatican’s Secretariat of State underlined 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.”
Earlier this month, the bishops attended an acrimonious session of the synodal way at which they endorsed documents proposing new ways of governance and new approaches to doctrine and morals.
The votes pave the way for a potential showdown between the German bishops and Vatican officials in Rome.
What will the German bishops say in Rome?
Bishops’ conference chairman Bishop Georg Bätzing gave an insight into the German bishops’ strategy for the ad limina visit on Monday.
He explained that the bishops would use the trip to promote understanding of the synodal way at the Vatican. Their last ad limina trip, in November 2015, took place four years before the initiative’s launch.
Bätzing said that there would be 11 focused discussions with Vatican dicasteries, with a representative of the German bishops’ conference appointed as a spokesperson for each session.
He added that the program would include an innovation: “a format in which we German bishops will sit together with the pope and several prefects and will once again take an intensive look at the synodal way.”
Bätzing is likely to place great hope in Pope Francis’ participation in the discussions. He has appeared irritated at suggestions that the pope is opposed to the process. In a Sept. 26 interview with Bayerischer Rundfunk, he insisted: “The pope himself is a great reformer, after all, so it is not a good perception to say he is an opponent of the synodal way.”
Pressed on the pope’s frequent observation that the initiative should focus more on evangelization than tinkering with structures, Bätzing commented: “But we say that we first have to build the structures in such a way that people can accept the Gospel again. We must always seek an understanding with the pope about this.”
What are Vatican officials likely to say?
We got a foretaste of the Vatican’s likely message to the bishops when Archbishop Nikola Eterović, the apostolic nuncio to Germany, addressed the plenary assembly in Fulda on Monday.
He appeared to comment indirectly on the synodal way session in Frankfurt earlier this month, which descended briefly into chaos when a text calling for a revision of Catholic sexual ethics failed to win a two-thirds majority among bishops.
The assembly resumed after protests, but later votes were taken by name, rather than secretly — a move that critics claimed was intended to increase pressure on the minority of bishops opposed to the synodal way’s direction.
Eterović highlighted the pope’s warnings that synodality must not be confused with “parliamentarism.”
He said: “There is no need to fall into a parliamentarism where majorities and minorities are established and undue pressure is used to achieve the desired goals.”
The nuncio emphasized that “secret voting is one of the Church’s methods, practiced for centuries in important votes, in elections of superiors in many orders and congregations, right up to the election of the pope in a conclave.”
“A high level of approval of draft resolutions in a secret ballot depends on the depth of dialogue in the assembly hall and the working groups, as well as on the willingness to accept changes in the draft texts,” he said.
Eterović is not a lone voice: last weekend, the Swiss Vatican official Cardinal Kurt Koch expressed alarm at the proceedings in Frankfurt.
The president of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity told the Neue Zürcher Zeitung that it was “largely functionaries who are now shaping the discussions.”
“How is meaningful, truly synodical discussion possible when speaking time is limited to one minute? There is too little space to really discuss controversial points,” he said.
What’s the likely outcome?
How the German bishops fare on their ad limina visit will depend above all on the attitude of Pope Francis — from which Vatican officials will take their cue. Will the pope welcome them as brothers motivated by “a pastoral desire” to seek radical changes or treat them as shepherds who have “lost the smell of the sheep”?
His public comments on the synodal way over the past year suggest it could go either way. While there is evidence that he has deep misgivings about the process, he has not directly intervened in it since his letter to German Catholics in 2019, which he spent a month crafting. The letter stressed the importance of unity, evangelization, and the role of the Holy Spirit.
“This is the papal magisterium on the synodal way,” Francis said in July.
He has made it clear that the letter is the baseline by which the initiative will be judged. If he feels the German bishops have ignored it, they could have a frosty reception in November.