Delegates at the fifth assembly of the German Synodal Way, meeting in Frankfurt, Germany, on March 10, 2023, applaud after the he passage of a measure to establish official blessings for same-sex sexual relations. The motion passed with only 14 of 202 delegates opposing. / Jonathan Liedl/National Catholic Register

Frankfurt, Germany, Mar 10, 2023 / 15:36 pm (CNA).

The German Synodal Way has voted to adopt “implementation texts” related to same-sex blessings, lay preaching during Mass, and a request for Pope Francis to reexamine the discipline of priestly celibacy in the Latin-rite Catholic Church.

The votes took place during the first two days of the fifth synodal assembly in Frankfurt, Germany. The assembly, which has one day remaining, will conclude a three-year process March 11 that many observers have said is advancing heterodoxical ideas and may prompt a schism between most German dioceses and the universal Church.

Delegates to the Synodal Way also voted on Friday evening to delay addressing perhaps the most controversial topic: establishing synodal councils at the parish and diocesan level. Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, a supporter of the Synodal Way, introduced the motion to delay.

While the Vatican has not explicitly condemned the Synodal Way’s promotion of heterodox proposals related to same-sex blessings and women’s ordination, the Holy See has been increasingly clear about its rejection of this form of ecclesial governance, which involves bishops and laity “sharing responsibility.” In the German proposal, laity could even overrule a bishop (or bishops at the national level) with a two-thirds majority.

“Neither the Synodal Path nor any body appointed by it nor a bishops’ conference have the authority to set up the ‘synodal council’ at the national, diocesan, or parish level,” three cardinals with significant leadership roles in the Roman Curia wrote to the German bishops in a Jan. 16 letter, with explicit papal approval. In an address to the German bishops at their Feb. 27 meeting, papal nuncio Archbishop Nikola Eterović affirmed that this prohibition also applied to diocesan bishops. 

The decision to pass on voting is likely an indication that the Vatican’s warning has had some effect. Now the matter will be taken up by the synodal committee, whose members are set to be elected Saturday.

The resolution to provide Church blessings to same-sex sexual unions passed on Friday afternoon. Titled “Blessing ceremonies for couples who love each other,” the measure was opposed by only nine of 58 bishops, while 11 bishops abstained. If the 11 abstaining bishops had joined in opposing the measure, it would have failed to reach the required two-thirds support of the bishops.

The measure also calls for blessing the relations of the divorced-but-civilly-remarried and couples that aren’t married.

During floor debate preceding the vote, the measure was vocally opposed by Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau, Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstätt, and Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg.

“It is foreseeable that after the blessing has been approved, the question will very quickly arise as to whether the blessing is not also discriminatory if the marriage is then refused,” Bishop Voderholzer said.

In fact, several other delegates did call for sacramental marriage for same-sex unions. Gregor Podschun, the president of the League of German Catholic Youth (BDKJ), an official Church group that supports women’s ordination, gay marriage, and abortion access, said that blessings of same-sex unions were “a minimum” and that “we need [sacramental] marriage for everyone.”

Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp, Belgium, also spoke to the synodal assembly as a distinguished guest. Bonny and the other Flemish bishops of Belgium introduced a blessing of same-sex couples in September 2022. The Antwerp bishop told the synodal delegates that during the Belgian bishops ad limina visit in November 2022, Pope Francis had neither approved nor denied the blessing but said it was the pastoral domain of the Flemish bishops so long as they were all united.

With the approval of Pope Francis, the Vatican’s doctrine office had previously confirmed that the Church did not have the power to give blessings to unions of persons of the same sex.

Lay preaching, priestly celibacy, and women’s ordination

Earlier on Friday, the synodal assembly approved moving forward with officially endorsing lay preaching and lay-led baptism and marriage assistance, though language calling for lay-led confession and anointing of the sick was removed through an amendment introduced by the bishops’ conference.

“The bishops commission the pastoral staff to preach at the eucharistic celebration” as part of their ecclesial mission, “so that they can carry out their preaching service officially and in the name of the Church,” reads the adopted text, titled, “Proclamation of the Gospel by laypeople in word and sacrament.”

During floor debate, Bishop Ansgar Puff, an auxiliary bishop of Cologne, said that while he approved of laypeople providing scriptural reflections outside of the Mass, “the homily and the presiding of the Eucharist belong together.”

But the bishop was immediately countered by Bishop Peter Kohlgraf of Mainz, who said he had grown up in Cologne at a time when lay preaching was practiced and “it never hurt anyone.”

Several religious sisters also called for lay preaching and sacramental faculties. One even suggested that women in her religious community would not go to a priest for confession because they wanted to engage in the sacrament with someone who could “accompany them.”

The previous day, the assembly approved a measure to ask Pope Francis “to reconsider the link between the conferral of ordinations and the obligation to be celibate.” The measure received support from 44 bishops out of 60. Eleven abstained, while only five voted no.

A fierce debate preceded the final vote over whether the Synodal Way should ask the Holy Father to “reexamine” or “rescind” the discipline of priestly celibacy.

Some voices argued that failing to demand an end to the requirement would not be strong enough, but adopting “reexamine” ultimately prevailed.

“We need to be smart,” said Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, suggesting that the “reexamine” language was the best option for both having the measure adopted by the synodal assembly and being considered by Pope Francis.

None of the measures adopted by the Synodal Way have any binding effect in the dioceses of Germany without implementation by the local ordinary. However, observers believe that the measures will likely be implemented in most dioceses, in some cases because bishops support them, but in others due to intense pressure upon bishops from Church employees, Catholic media, and even brother bishops.

“base text” expressing views on the priesthood that included the claim that “gender-based admission to the priesthood … is discriminatory and must be abolished” was also passed on Thursday. A vote on a related implementation text calling for women’s ordination did not take place on Friday morning due to time constraints. It will be taken up by the synodal committee, a transitory body tasked with establishing the parameters of the permanent synodal council. Synodal committee members are scheduled to be elected tomorrow.

Opening press conference sets tone

The stage for the assembly was set with an opening press conference on March 9 with members of the Synodal Way’s presidium, or leadership council.

“We want to make this Church fit for the future,” said Irme Stetter-Karp, president of the powerful Central Committee of German Catholics (Zdk), which is co-implementing the Synodal Way with the German Bishops’ Conference (DBK).

Presidium members also addressed a recent slew of defections from the Synodal Way. Four laywomen left the process in late February, stating that adopted resolutions were incompatible with the Catholic faith and cast doubt “on central Catholic doctrine and beliefs.” A priest of the Archdiocese of Cologne also resigned from the Synodal Way, criticizing the process for having a prearranged agenda and limiting debate.

“The will to and ability to integrate has limits,” said Stetter-Karp, implying that those who left the process did not have open minds or a willingness to participate by the established rules.

But minutes after Stetter-Karp’s comments about abiding by the rules, Thomas Söding, vice president of Zdk, stated that his group would “not accept” the assembly outcomes if proposals failed to receive the necessary support of two-thirds of the voting bishops. 

At the previous synodal assembly in September, a text that affirmed a vision of human sexuality contrary to the Catholic faith failed to pass after 22 of 55 bishops voted against it. In response, organizers altered procedural rules to make voting public, a practice that continued for the fifth assembly.

Stetter-Karp also said that she expected more transparency from bishops “in communicating their own convictions,” discouraging bishops from abstaining from voting.

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