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Vatican Obstructs German Church’s ‘Synodal Path’ by Tristan Vanheuckelom

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Vatican Obstructs German Church’s ‘Synodal Path’

German organizers of the ‘Synodal Path’ are objecting to being bridled by the Holy See. The source of their malcontent is a July 21st Vatican statement which points to their lack of authority in introducing “new ways of governance and new approaches to doctrine and morality.” 

It marks the first time that the Vatican has come out with such stridence against this ‘Synodal Path.’ Known in Germany as the ‘Synodaler Weg,’ it is a process with the declared aim of addressing the Church’s clerical sexual abuse crisis by debating and passing resolutions on whether, or how, Catholicism needs to change its teaching regarding questions of sexuality and the exercise of power, including doctrine and the sacraments. 

Members of the ‘Synodal Path,’ a group made up of equal numbers of German bishops and lay Catholics, meet regularly. In early February, they called on the Catholic Church to allow priests to marry, women to become deacons, and same-sex couples to receive the Church’s blessing. 

The matter is highly controversial among clerics as well as laity, who fear it might trigger yet another schism within Germany—half a millennium since Martin Luther’s 1517 publication of his Ninety-five theses.

Wary of the risk, Rome therefore asserted its preeminence by saying that “it would not be lawful” to initiate in such dioceses, “prior to an agreed understanding at the level of the universal Church, new official structures or doctrines, which would represent a wound to ecclesial communion and a threat to the unity of the Church.” 

According to the Vatican statement, any changes to teaching on morals or doctrine must be taken up by the Church’s own synodal path. Preliminary consultations are already being held globally in preparation for a meeting of bishops next year in Rome. 

To further bolster its argument, the statement also cited the words of Pope Francis contained in his earlier ‘Letter to the Pilgrim People of God in Germany,’ wherein the Pontiff warns about the specter of disunity:

The universal Church lives in and of the particular Churches, just as the particular Churches live and flourish in and from the universal Church. If they find themselves separated from the entire ecclesial body, they weaken, rot and die. Hence the need always to ensure that communion with the whole body of the Church.

Careful to maintain the appearance of obeisance, the two presidents heading the ‘Synodal Path’ publicly stated they appreciated the statement coming out of Rome. In a joint statement released later that day however, they did not shirk from voicing irritation at Rome’s unwillingness to adequately communicate on the ongoing process, first started by Cardinal Reinhard Marx in 2019.

The two presidents, Chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference (DBK), Bishop Georg Bätzing, and the president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) Irme Stetter-Karp, said they were stunned by Pope Francis’ intervention. “In our understanding, a synodal Church is something else!” they declared, adding their disgust at the statement’s impersonal manner:“this also applies to the way today’s communication has been handled, which has been a source of astonishment for us. It does not testify to a good style of communication within the Church if statements are published that are not signed by name.”

“We never tire of emphasizing that the Church in Germany will not go a ‘German special way’,” Bätzing and Stetter-Karp went on. “Nevertheless, we see it as our duty to clearly state where we believe changes are necessary. We already feel that the problems and questions we have identified are similar worldwide.” Bätzing has previously expressed disappointment with Pope Francis’ unwillingness to budge on the issue of homosexuality and the role of women within the Church.

At least one German prelate, Bishop Bertram Meier of Augsburg, welcomed Rome’s intervention; he recognized the German way as clearly “virulent,” CNA Deutsch reports. Publicist and co-founder Bernhard Meuser of the ‘New Beginning,’ a German initiative critical of the ‘Synodal Way,’ said that the Vatican had pulled the “emergency brake,” voicing relief that “the danger of a schism is over.” 

In 2021, at least 359,000 Catholics formally left the German Church, leaving about 26% of Germans officially registered as Catholics. Partly from the revenue obtained by church taxes, the Church in Germany however still remains among the wealthiest ones, raking in €6.45 billion every year. 

The dramatic decline in membership as well as church attendance has spooked leading clerics such as Bätzing. In order to retain its people as well as draw others in, he believes the Church needs to keep pace with the times—and its cultural norms. 

Yet this approach also risks a backlash from fast-growing South American and African congregations, in which current western cultural norms are far less in vogue. 

With a next ‘Synodal Path’ gathering scheduled for 8-10 September, it remains to be seen whether German clerics—historically prone to theological innovation—will remain in concord with their monarch across the Tiber. 

Tristan Vanheuckelom writes on film, literature, and comics for various Dutch publications. He is an avid student of history, political theory, and religion, and is a News Writer at The European Conservative.