The German “Synodal Path” 

By Salvatore Cernuzio

Feb 21 2024

Three Vatican Cardinals have written a letter to the Bishops of Germany calling on them to cancel a planned vote on a “Synodal Committee” and to postpone further decisions pending talks between the German Bishops’ Conference and the Roman Curia.

After the Pope had already expressed his concern on the matter in a letter to four German women theologians, the Vatican intervened through another missive signed by Cardinal Pietro Parolin and two Dicastery heads to halt, for the time being, the project in the Catholic Church of Germany to approve the statutes of a Synodal Committee (formed in November), aimed at preparing for the introduction of a Governing and Decision-making Council. The latter body – the result of the reform process of the “Synodale Weg,” the much-discussed German “Synodal Path” launched in 2019 – would bring together some 27 bishops and almost 50 lay people to continue discussions and make possible decisions on issues of ecclesiastical authority, the role of women, sexual morality, and priestly life.

The Pope’s Concerns

In the November 2023 letter to the four theologians, Pope Francis stressed that such a council – approved last year by a two-thirds majority of bishops and members of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) – “cannot be harmonized with the sacramental structure of the Catholic Church.” The Pope also recalled that the establishment of the council has already been “interdicted by the Holy See in a letter dated 16 January 2023, which I approved in forma specifica.”

Postponing the vote

The latest letter is signed by Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin and Cardinals Victor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Robert Prevost, prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops. It is addressed to the German bishops, who are attending their spring plenary in Augsburg.

The letter reiterates the Vatican’s previously expressed position, while also calling for a scheduled vote on the statutes of the proposed Committee to be postponed until after the talks between representatives of the Vatican and the German Bishops’ Conference (Deutsche Bischofskonferenz, DBK). The previously scheduled talks will follow discussions held in Rome in November 2022 and July 2023 between the DBK and representatives of the Roman Curia. The date of this meeting is not yet known, but the letter from the Vatican – which was “brought to the attention of the Pope and approved by him” – emphasizes that “if the statute of the Synodal Commission were to be adopted before this meeting, the question of the purpose of this meeting, and the ongoing process of dialogue in general, would arise.”

Contrary to the Pope’s recommendations

As reported by the German Catholic News Agency (KNA), the letter from Cardinal Parolin and the two Dicastery heads also points out that such a Council is not contemplated by current Canon Law; therefore, a decision adopted by the Bishops’ Conference on such a Council would also be null and void because it would have no authority to approve its Statute.

That problem had already been highlighted by the Pope: “Approving the statute of the Synodal Committee would therefore be contrary to the Holy Father’s command and would once again confront him with faits accomplis,” the Vatican letter reads.

In the wake of this recommendation, the vote on the statute of the Synodal Committee was removed from the agenda of the Plenary Assembly of the bishops of Germany.

Bätzing: no desire to weaken the episcopate

At a press conference in Augsburg on Monday, the president of the German Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing, spoke about the letter, explaining that the Catholic bishops in Germany intend to move forward on the path of reform, despite the recent warning. This should be done through dialogue with Rome, the Bishop said, stressing that it is “a matter of course” to coordinate fundamental church reforms with the Vatican.

That, he explained, is why, “out of respect for the Roman authorities” the item regarding the creation of a synod committee for Germany was removed from the program of the bishops’ plenary. “We neither want to nor can we ignore” Rome’s positions, Bätzing stressed, while announcing a discussion on the issue would take place.

At the same time, the DBK chairman explained that the concerns expressed in the letter from Cardinals Parolin, Fernández, and Prevost could be refuted from the point of view of content since, he said, a joint body of bishops and laity would not weaken the authority of the bishops, but rather strengthen it.

“We do not want to limit the authority of the bishop or bishops in any way,” Bätzing said. “We want to place them on new ground because this authority has been undermined by the abuse and scandal we have experienced… And that’s why we need new, binding and transparent advice that really flows into decisions. This is the path we are looking for.” – Vatican News