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Where does the German bishops’ trip to Rome leave their ‘synodal way’?

Where does the German bishops’ trip to Rome leave their ‘synodal way’?

Germany’s bishops ended their ad limina visit to Rome last Friday with an unusual meeting in the auditorium of the Augustinianum Patristic Institute, near St. Peter’s Square.

The gathering was billed as a “showdown” between, on one side, the majority of the German bishops who support the country’s “synodal way” and, on the other, Pope Francis and top curial officials.

The synodal way is a multi-year project bringing together Germany’s bishops and lay people to discuss four main topics — power, the priesthood, women in the Church, and sexuality — amid a devastating abuse crisis. The initiative —  not to be confused with the global Synodal Process —  has repeatedly raised the hackles of curial officials.

The pope was a no-show on Friday, concluding perhaps that his nearly two-hour meeting with the German bishops the day before was sufficient.

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A photograph from Friday’s meeting showed Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and bishops’ dicastery prefect Cardinal Marc Ouellet staring down at the German bishops from a raised platform.

Did that photo ⁠— which depicted the curial titans looming over tiny bishops ⁠— accurately capture the meeting’s dynamic? It’s hard to say from the communiqué released hours later.

The roughly 600-word text, issued jointly by the Holy See and the German bishops’ conference, was written in the strange and sometimes impenetrable language favored by the Secretariat of State.

The German bishops at St. Paul’s tomb at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls on Nov. 17, 2022. © German bishops’ conference/Daniela Elpers.

The way not taken

Two points stood out in the joint statement. First, that Ouellet and Vatican doctrinal chief Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer “spoke frankly and clearly about the concerns and reservations regarding the methodology, content, and proposals of the synodal way, proposing, for the benefit of the unity of the Church and its evangelizing mission, that the requests that have emerged so far be included in the Synod of the universal Church.”

Second, that “a number of proposals were made, such as that of applying a moratorium to the German Synodal Way, which was not pursued.”

Both points require a bit of unpacking.

The first point offered a concise summary of the anxieties expressed in Vatican interventions since the synodal way began in 2019. The misgivings go beyond the synodal way’s resolutions  —  which call for changes to Church teaching and practice — and include the initiative’s methodology.

By “methodology,” the statement could mean its theological approach, as expressed in its “orientation text,” or its procedures, which critics argue are constantly tweaked to penalize the German Church’s conservative minority (or it could mean both).

The statement underlined that the Vatican cardinals critiqued the synodal way “for the benefit of the unity of the Church and its evangelizing mission,” perhaps an allusion to fears expressed by bishops outside Germany that the process could lead to schism, as well as Pope Francis’ exhortation in his 2019 letter to German Catholics that evangelization must be the “guiding criterion par excellence” for reform.

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The joint communiqué’s second point was its “buried lede”: that the Vatican side had proposed a moratorium on the synodal way but this was “not pursued.”

Various media reported that the pause was suggested by Cardinal Ouellet. Ludwig Ring-Eifel, of the German Catholic news agency KNA, said that “most of the German bishops firmly rejected” the idea.

Why did the Vatican call for a moratorium now, almost three years into an initiative that’s expected to end next spring?

Ring-Eifel reported that German bishops’ conference chairman Bishop Georg Bätzing saw the proposal as “an attempt by the Vatican to contain a feared ‘conflagration’ which, starting from the German demands for reform, could spread to large parts of the worldwide Catholic Church.”

But two obvious questions remain unanswered: Did Pope Francis support the moratorium? And why was it presented only as a request?

German Church officials with Cardinal Kurt Koch, prefect for the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, during the ad limina visit. © German bishops’ conference/Daniela Elpers.

Beyond the synodal way

The ad limina visit did not focus solely on the synodal way. Other critical topics were raised in the talks, including the fate of Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, who has faced sustained pressure to resign as archbishop of Cologne and submitted his resignation to Pope Francis in March. Woelki, a member of the German bishops’ conservative minority, remains in post, to the consternation of some fellow bishops.

The “Causa Woelki,” as it’s known in Germany, was discussed in the meeting with Pope Francis and during a session at the Dicastery for Bishops, reported, the German Church’s official website.

Another topic was a proposed “Eucharistic meal fellowship” between Protestants and Catholics. The idea, supported by a number of German bishops, was outlined in the 2019 document “Together at the Lord’s Table” by the Ecumenical Study Group of Protestant and Catholic Theologians (ÖAK).

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The Vatican’s doctrinal congregation issued a four-page critique of the document in 2020. An accompanying letter to Bishop Bätzing underlined that doctrinal differences between Protestants and Catholics ruled out “reciprocal participation in the Lord’s Supper and the Eucharist,” as envisaged in the theologians’ text.

German bishops reportedly debated the proposal during a meeting with Cardinal Kurt Koch, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity.

Bishops’ conference secretary general Beate Gilles told journalists that it was the “most theological conversation” of the visit, with clear differences between Cardinal Koch and German bishops who backed the proposal.

The German bishops visit the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran on Nov. 18, 2022. © German bishops’ conference/Daniela Elpers.

What’s next?

The synodal way’s fifth, and seemingly final, assembly is due to take place on March 9-11, 2023, months before the world’s bishops descend on Rome for the first session of the synod on synodality.

Both the Holy See’s most recent intervention in July and last Friday’s joint communiqué expressed the Vatican’s desire that the German bishops would not rush ahead with changes but keep pace with the global Church as it works its way through the Synodal Process.

The communiqué concluded, somewhat vaguely, that “mutual listening and dialogue should continue in the coming months, so that they may contribute to the enrichment of the German synodal way and the universal Synod of the Church.”

It’s unclear what form this dialogue will take — and whether the ad limina visit truly unblocked communication between the Vatican and German bishops who believe that the synodal way is the only possible course for a local Church that is hemorrhaging members and, in the memorable phrase of Munich Cardinal Reinhard Marx, has reached a “dead end” (“toten Punkt”).

The synodal way seems to be in an awkward limbo, its future hostage to the often volatile relations between Germany’s bishops and Rome.

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