Some European bishops have publicly voiced concerns about Germany’s Synodal Path process, warning it could divide the Catholic Church. But Limburg Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German bishops’ conference, has continued to defend it and believes German Catholics are on the same path Pope Francis has called for in his quest for a more synodal church.
After Polish Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki discussed the Synodal Path with Pope Francis March 28 and a subsequent Polish bishops’ conference news release said the pope “distances himself from this initiative,” the German Catholic news agency KNA asked the Vatican for a clarification.
Matteo Bruni, Vatican spokesman, told KNA Pope Francis had not changed his position since a June 2019 letter to Catholics in Germany. Bruni also said the contents of talks between Gadecki and Pope Francis remained confidential.
In his 2019 letter, Pope Francis emphasized that taking a synodal path is a process that must be guided by the Holy Spirit with patience and not a “search for immediate results that generate quick and immediate consequences.” Transformation “calls for pastoral conversion,” he said.
“Brothers and sisters, let us care for one another and be attentive to the temptation of the father of lies and division, the master of separation who, in pushing us to seek an apparent good or a response to a given situation, in fact ends up fragmenting the body of the holy and faithful people of God,” the pope said.
He also warned against a temptation to use evangelization as something that is adapted “to the spirit of the times.”
Concerns about divisions and responding to pressures of the times are some of the main issues cited by those European bishops who have voiced their concerns publicly.
In a March 9 letter to Bätzing published on the website of the Nordic bishops’ conference, bishops from Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland warned against “capitulation to the zeitgeist,” a term that means “the spirit of the age; trend of thought and feeling in a period.”
“The orientation, method and content of the Synodal Path of the church in Germany fill us with worry,” said the letter, signed by eight bishops, a cardinal and the conference general secretary. They acknowledged that the Germans felt the need to respond to the crisis in their country. The German bishops, responding to ongoing revelations of clerical sexual abuse and how bishops mismanaged such cases, see the Synodal Path process as addressing the exercise of power and authority in the church; sexual morality; the priesthood; and the role of women.
The Nordic bishops said the synodal process presupposes the image of the church as the People of God on pilgrimage, and “such a people needs to be sensibly organized.” But the bishops also urged the Germans to focus on the church’s sacramental mystery.
“We find that Catholics who constitute and carry the life of our parishes and communities instinctively sense this sacramental mystery but are not necessarily the ones inclined to fill in questionnaires or participate in group discussions,” the bishops said. “Let us not forget, in the context of the synodal process, to attend carefully to their witness, also.”
German bishops are keenly aware of concerns of others in the church.
At the end of their March meeting in Vierzehnheiligen, Bätzing said there were highly divergent opinions on issues such as blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples or the ordination of women as deacons or priests. KNA reported he pledged that the bishops would submit all the synodal reform decisions that can only be implemented at the universal church level to the worldwide synodal process launched by Pope Francis in preparation for the 2023 Synod of Bishops on synodality.
Earlier this year, Bätzing said he met with Pope Francis in January and that he is in dialogue with Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops. Bätzing said a discussion group between the synod secretariat and the executive committee of the Synodal Path in Germany will be established.
Similarly, Bätzing visited Gadecki in Poznan last November, and the two agreed that the reform projects to be launched in Germany, as well as the theological criticism of them, should be dealt with in depth in a contact group of the two bishops’ conferences. The group is chaired by Bishop Bertram Meier of Augsburg, chairman of the German bishops’ commission for the universal church, and Polish Bishop Jan Kopiec of Gliwice.
Because of these discussions, Bätzing said he was a little irritated when he discovered that Gadecki’s Feb. 22 letter to him had already been made public in Germany and Poland when he received it.
In the letter, Gadecki stressed that in being faithful to the teaching of the church, “we should not yield to the pressures of the world or give in to the patterns of the dominant culture, because this can lead to moral and spiritual corruption.”
Responding to Gadecki’s letter March 16, Bätzing rejected the accusation that the reform process in Germany was watering down church doctrine and bowing to the spirit of the times.
“We do not walk the path of conversion and renewal lightly, and certainly not outside the universal church,” the German bishop said. “Several times I had the opportunity to speak with Pope Francis about the Synodal Path.”
Bätzing said the German Church was doing exactly what Pope Francis asked of the nation’s Catholics in 2019, that is, embarking on a “spiritual journey in asking for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”
The head of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, told KNA in late 2020 the Synodal Path was “daring to ask very big questions.” He praised the process as a path “of which you don’t always know where it leads. One takes steps and together seeks out the next one.”
But many German lay Catholics are impatient for results, especially concerning the role of women in the church.
In a Berlin archdiocesan virtual forum in mid-January, Archbishop Heiner Koch expressed concern that the issue of women priests would split the German church. The Catholic Church teaches that women cannot be priests.
“It is one of the biggest … worries I have as a bishop — do we stay together, does it keep us together, or does such a decision lead to … a bit of disunity and even division? That is the biggest fear I have. In this state of tension I also stand, and I can’t get out of it, either.”
Contributing to this story were Anli Serfontein in Berlin and the staff of the German Catholic news agency KNA.