ROME – At the start of their spring plenary assembly, the leader of the German bishops’ conference told reporters that they are essentially ignoring a Vatican veto on a new governing body for the church in Germany, and that plans are moving ahead regardless.
From Feb. 27-March 2, 62 of German’s 67 bishops will be gathered in Dresden for the springtime meeting.
Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, president of the German bishops’ conference, started things off on a controversial note when on Monday, at the start of their plenary meetings, he told journalists that he had sent a letter to the Vatican responding to their earlier veto of the proposed new “Synodal Council” in Germany.
According to German Catholic news site Katholisch.de, Bätzing told reporters that in his letter, he explained again what the purpose of the Synodal Council is, and what the goal is of the Synodal Committee, which is expected to be rolled out next week and is tasked with forming the Synodal Council over the next three years.
Mention was also made of the German bishops’ ad limina visit to Rome in November of last year, during which a special inter-departmental meeting was held with the leaders of several Vatican offices to discuss the German church’s national “Synodal Path.”
Noting that both parties had agreed to stay in touch about the process, Bätzing in his comments to reporters said, “We are ready at short notice at any time to go to Rome and continue the talks there that we started at the inter-dicastery meeting,” and said communication with the Vatican, at this point conducted mostly through letters, has been “difficult.”
Bätzing also said his letter will eventually be published but did not say when.
His letter was addressed to Vatican Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin; Spanish Cardinal Luis Ladaria, head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the head of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Bishop.
Last month, the three wrote a letter to Bätzing that was endorsed by Pope Francis in which they essentially vetoed the Synod Council, which is intended as an advisory body that will be composed of roughly 80 people, divided more or less equally between bishops and laypeople.
The idea for the Synodal Council was approved during the fourth plenary assembly of Germany’s “Synodal Path” last September, and its task would be to make “fundamental decisions of supra-diocesan importance.”
A “Synodal Committee” set to be established next week will be tasked with formally establishing the Synodal Council so as to be active by 2026. The committee would be co-chaired by Bätzing and layperson.
The letter sent by Parolin, Ouellet, and Ladaria nixing the proposal was sent as a response to concerns voiced by several German bishops, who in December of last year wrote their own letter to the Vatican asking for clarification about what canonical status the Synodal Council would hold, and whether they would be obliged to participate if named a member.
In their letter, the three Vatican officials said no, and warned that the Synodal Council would “form a new leadership structure of the Church in Germany which…seems to place itself above the authority of the German bishops’ conference and actually to replace it.”
They said the proposal is contrary to the authority “of teaching and of governing” that a bishop receives at his ordination.
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Bätzing in his comments to journalists Monday reportedly said the Synodal Committee would be launched next week as planned, despite the Vatican’s concerns.
His remarks and letter are the latest in what has been a somewhat tense ongoing tug-of-war between the Vatican and the German bishops over the German church’s disputed “Synodal Path” process, in which the Vatican has intervened on numerous occasions.
The German Synodal Path was launched in 2019 as a response to the clerical abuse crisis in Germany with the stated aim of giving laypeople more prominent roles in church leadership.
However, the process quickly diverted and grew contentious over outspoken calls by leaders in the discussion including laypeople and bishops, for women to be ordained priests and for priests to administer blessings to same sex couples.
Proposals have also been made to end mandatory priestly celibacy, allowing priests in the Latin rite to marry, and to approve of same-sex marriage. Calls have also been raised for women to administer baptisms, and for laypeople to participate in the election of their bishops.
As debate over the proposals grew, the Vatican intervened last summer, issuing a statement cautioning the German bishops against stoking division and insisting that the Synodal Path holds no authority on matters of doctrine and morals.
In response, Germany’s bishops said they were surprised, and wanted to discuss the process further.
The opportunity for this discussion presented itself when the German bishops made their ad limina visit to the Vatican last November, when a special meeting was held between the 62 German bishops who came and the heads of several Vatican departments, including Ouellet and Ladaria.
During that meeting, it was suggested by some Vatican officials that “moratorium” be issued on the German Synodal Path, but that proposal was ultimately rejected, and both sides agreed to move forward while continuing to dialogue with one another about the process.
In his remarks to reporters Monday, Bätzing touched on the question of division and the Vatican’s warning against creating division through the Synodal Path, which will soon conclude.
He called the reform process of the German church a “serious, critical situation” that would not be resolved at this week’s plenary assembly, and referred to the objections made by the Vatican at various points in the process.
“So, we don’t go (along) the synodal path in peace,” he said, but rejected the notion that divisions over the Synodal Path and its proposals would lead to a fresh schism in the Catholic Church.
“Anyone who talks about division expects something from it (the Synodal Path),” Bätzing said, saying,
“I don’t talk about it because nobody wants it.”
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