Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German bishops’ conference in St. Peter’s Square, June 27, 2020. / Deutsche Bischofskonferenz/Matthias Kopp.

CNA Newsroom, Jan 23, 2023 / 15:45 pm (CNA).

On Monday, the president of the German Bishops’ Conference said he welcomed a new letter from the Vatican detailing concerns about the push for a permanent synodal council — a new controlling body of the Church in Germany.

In a statement published on Jan. 23, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg said the German diocesan bishops had discussed the letter and would seek to discuss the matter further “in the near future.”

At the same time, Bätzing dismissed concerns that a German synodal council would have authority over the bishops’ conference and undermine the authority of individual bishops as “unfounded.” 

As CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner, reported, these concerns were addressed in the latest letter from the Vatican because five German bishops asked Rome to do so. 

The bishops of Cologne, Regensburg, Passau, Eichstätt, and Augsburg wrote to the Vatican on Dec. 21, 2022. They raised what Bätzing acknowledged on Monday were “justified and necessary questions” — in particular, whether bishops could be compelled to abide by such a council’s authority. 

This was not the case, the Vatican’s latest letter noted. The message, written in German, reminded Bishop Bätzing that according to Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council teaches “that episcopal consecration, together with the office of sanctifying, also confers the office of teaching and of governing, which, however, of its very nature, can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and the members of the college.”

Running to four pages, the latest Vatican letter to Germany said it was approved by Pope Francis. It was signed by the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin; the prefect of the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Luis Ladaria; and the prefect of the Dicastery of Bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet. 

Warning of a threat of a new schism from Germany, the Vatican already intervened in July 2022 against a German synodal council. 

The latest missive, dated Jan. 16, informed Bätzing “that neither the Synodal Way, nor any body established by it, nor any bishops’ conference has the competence to establish the ‘synodal council’ at the national, diocesan, or parish level.”

In his public statement on Monday, Bishop Bätzing said the latest “document from Rome will have the consequence for us in Germany that we will think much more intensively about the forms and possibilities of synodal consultation and decision-making in order to develop a culture of synodality.”

Bätzing said this was “helpful” with a view to how the council would be brought about. This would be discussed in further dialogue with Rome.

Participants of the German Synodal Way in September 2022 voted to create a controlling body that would permanently oversee the Church in Germany.

According to this document, such a synodal council would come about after a “synodal committee” was formed, which then would deliberate the details of the new national governing body.

Though the letter from Rome explicitly states that bishops are not required to participate in such a committee, Bätzing noted on Jan. 23 that the concept of such a committee itself “is not called into question by the [latest] letter from Rome.”

According to the Synodal Way’s plans, the synodal committee would consist of the 27 diocesan bishops, 27 members elected by the lay organization ZdK, and 10 members jointly elected by them. 

The committee would be chaired by the president of the bishops’ conference and “the president(s) of the ZdK.”

The permanent synodal council would function “as a consultative and decision-making body on essential developments in the Church and society,” the German proposal states. 

More importantly, it would “make fundamental decisions of supra-diocesan significance on pastoral planning, questions of the future, and budgetary matters of the Church that are not decided at the diocesan level.”

Critics of the plan have drawn comparisons to communist Soviets and accused the German bishops of reinventing existing Protestant structures.

In June 2022, Cardinal Walter Kasper, a theologian considered close to Pope Francis, said there could be no “synodal council,” given Church history and theology: “Synods cannot be institutionally made permanent. The tradition of the Church does not know a synodal Church government. A synodal supreme council, as is now envisaged, has no basis in the entire history of the constitution. It would not be a renewal, but an unheard-of innovation.”

Kasper has previously accused the organizers of the German Synodal Way, also known as the “Synodal Path,” of using a “lazy trick” that constituted a coup d’etat.

The president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, who was bishop of the Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart from 1989 to 1999, said the German process had invited comparisons to communist structures in the Soviet Union: “It was a political scientist, not a theologian, who recently expressed this notion somewhat strongly, referring to such a synodal council as a supreme soviet.”

The cardinal continued: “‘Soviet’ is an old Russian word that means exactly what we call a ‘Rat,’ a council in German. Such a supreme soviet in the Church would obviously not be a good idea. Such a council system is not a Christian idea, but an idea coming from quite a different spirit or un-spirit. It would choke off the freedom of the Spirit, which blows where and when it wants, and destroy the structure that Christ wanted for his Church.”

Further concerns were raised by a professor of theology from the University of Vienna. 

The dogmatist Jan-Heiner Tück warned that a German “synodal council” would transfer leadership authority “from sacramentally ordained persons to bodies, a conversion of power that shows a clear closeness to synodal practices in the Protestant Church in Germany.”

From the outset, the German Synodal Way, which is not a synod, has courted controversy.

In June 2019, Pope Francis sent a 19-page letter to Catholics in Germany urging them to focus on evangelization in the face of a “growing erosion and deterioration of faith.” 

The president of the German bishops’ conference, Bishop Bätzing of Limburg, has repeatedly rejected concerns and instead expressed disappointment in Pope Francis in May 2022.  

In November of last year, following an encounter with Pope Francis and the Roman Curia, Bätzing said Rome might once again summarize “its objections, its concerns” of the German process. However, the Synodal Way had made its decisions, also concerning a permanent synodal council, Bätzing added.

In an interview published one month later, in June, Pope Francis reiterated that he told Bätzing that the country already had “a very good Evangelical [Lutheran] Church” and “we don’t need two.”

Pope Francis lamented the “erosion” of the faith in Germany at the visit of the German bishops to Rome in 2015. 

“Excessive centralization, instead of helping, can complicate the life of the Church and her missionary dynamic,” the pope warned the German prelates in November 2015.

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