ROME – After a series of frank conversations with Vatican officials over the German church’s controversial “Synodal Path,” Germany’s bishops have assured officials in Rome but are pushing forward with their reform process.
In a statement Saturday, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, President of the German Bishops’ Conference, stressed that “the Church in Germany is not going its own way and it will not make any decisions that would only be possible in the context of the universal church.”
However, the Church in Germany wants to and must provide answers to the questions being asked by the faithful,” he said, insisting that the country’s abuse crisis “shattered trust and called into question the authority of the bishops to such a degree that new paths are necessary in order to confront the crisis in the Church.”
Bätzing said the bishops wish to “initiate the tasks that we bishops can implement in the local Church” while also punting issues “relating to the magisterium” into the global synod process that is unfolding as part of Pope Francis’s Synod of Bishops on Synodality.
“The serious test of synodality is, therefore, very real for us and will continue to be so in the coming weeks,” he said.
Bätzing’s statement comes at the close of the German bishops’ ad limina visit to Rome, made by bishops’ conferences every few years in which they have face time with the pope and meet various Vatican departments to provide an update on local church affairs.
As part of this week’s meetings, the 62 German bishops who participated in the ad limina met with various Vatican departments, had a private meeting with Pope Francis, and had what was described as a “open” and “frank” discussion on concerns regarding their “Synodal Path” with several Vatican department heads.
In that meeting, Vatican officials suggesting issuing a “moratorium” on the Synodal Path process, however, that proposal was not accepted.
Convoked in 2019 to respond to the clerical sexual abuse crisis in Germany, the Synodal Path was launched with the stated aim of giving laypeople more prominent roles in church leadership, however, the process quickly became contentious over outspoken calls from prominent participants, including laypeople and bishops, for women to be ordained priests and for priests to administer blessings to same sex couples.
There have also been proposals to end mandatory priestly celibacy and allow clergy to marry, and to formally approve of same-sex marriage. The process has also insisted that laity have a greater say in the election of bishops.
Over the summer, the Vatican issued a statement warning the German bishops against stoking division and insisting that the process holds no authority on matters of doctrine and morals.
In his statement, Bätzing said this week’s visit was “challenging” and was a time in which “all – without exception all – subjects were discussed.”
“All issues were discussed, above all the question as to how evangelization can succeed when faced with the challenge of a secularized age,” he said, stressing the importance of spreading the Gospel “in the here and now, and not just looking to the past.”
Recalling their audience with Pope Francis, Bätzing said the conversation “encouraged us,” and that while differing opinions about the Synodal Path within the German bishops’ conference were expressed, “the Holy Father made it clear to us that tension is necessary.”
Pope Francis “spoke of the tension he experiences and the fact that courage and patience are needed to find a solution,” he said, describing their conversations in Rome as “tough but civil and we sensed that dialogue can – and indeed did – succeed in this way.”
Bätzing described their meeting with Vatican department heads, which was presided over by Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, as a “serious test of synodality.”
The process involved “listening, weighing up and accepting that the other has his opinion,” he said, adding, “It is not about deciding who has the privilege of interpretation, but about honest reflection about where we are as a Church and what the other person’s viewpoint is.”
“I am grateful that the reservations that exist in Rome were openly expressed. I am also grateful that the worries and opinions of our Bishops’ Conference – on the full range of topics – were heard,” he said, calling the meeting “a sign that we will – despite our contradictory viewpoints – continue on our path together.”
A follow-up phase to the visit is now beginning, he said, saying the experience in Rome will continue to be pondered in a meeting Monday of the Permanent Council of the German Bishops Conference as well as a meeting that will happen shortly after with the Extended Synodal Committee of the Synodal Path.
Bätzing said another point discussed in their meetings was the situation in the Archdiocese of Cologne, which has been in crisis for over a year after controversy surrounding the publication of a report on clerical abuse in the archdiocese that culminated with Cardinal Ranier Woelki, who was present for the ad limina, taking a papal-mandated sabbatical.
After returning to his post as archbishop of Cologne in March amid mass calls for him to step down over his handling of the abuse report, Woelki offered his resignation to Pope Francis, who has yet to accept it.
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