ROME – Amid an ongoing back and forth between the Vatican and the German bishops conference over a controversial new ecclesial body, four of the nation’s prelates have refused to participate in the planning process, opting instead to wait for direction from Rome.

In a statement released simultaneously April 24, Bishop Gregor Maria Franz Hanke of Eichstätt, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau and Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg said they wish “to continue on the path to a more synodal Church in harmony with the universal Church.”

The reference is to Pope Francis’s ongoing Synod of Bishops on Synodality, launched in 2021 and set to conclude this October with a second Rome-based gathering, and which is touching on several of the same issues as Germany’s own national synodal process, referred to as the “synodal way.”

In their statement, Hanke, Woelki, Oster and Voderholzer said that Vatican objections to the German Synodal Way have repeatedly made it clear that a proposed Synodal Council, a new governing body for the church in Germany consisting of both bishops and laypeople, is not acceptable.

Specifically, they said the proposed Synodal Council, “as envisaged and formulated in the resolution of the Synodal Way, was not compatible with the sacramental constitution of the Church.”

On these grounds, the bishops said they “still do not want to take part” in a special Synodal Committee, whose goal is to formally establish the Synodal Council, and the statutes for which were set to be voted on earlier this year, until the vote was halted at the request of the Vatican.

The four bishops who signed the statement also cast doubt on the German Bishops’ Conference’s status as the official sponsor of the Synodal Committee, since four of its members do not support the entity.

According to the statement, the four bishops in question said they “will first wait for the end of the world Synod of Bishops and its outcome in order to then decide how implementation steps towards a more synodal Church can be taken in harmony with the universal Church.”

The statement comes after the Permanent Council of the German Bishops’ Conference, to which all 27 diocesan bishops belong, on Monday approved the statutes for the Synodal Committee, despite repeated warnings from Rome against establishing an entity not in keeping with Church law.

Amid a years-long back and forth over German national reforms, Vatican officials and representatives of the German Bishops’ Conference held and all-day meeting in Rome to discuss Germany’s national reform process, culminating in a promise from the German bishops that their reforms would be in keeping with Canon Law and would not move forward without the Holy See’s approval.

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The German church’s Synodal Path was launched in 2019, with the aim of reforming Church structures to better respond to the national clerical abuse scandals.

However, it quickly turned controversial over proposals, among other things, for women to be ordained priests and to administer the Sacrament of Baptism, for the Church to change its teaching on homosexuality, and for an end to priestly celibacy.

As part of this reform process, which was also aimed at involving more laypeople in Church life and governance, the idea of a Synodal Council was pitched in 2022 as a new national governing body composed of 70 members, both bishops and laypeople.

At the same time, a “Synodal Committee,” to be co-chaired by Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, president of the German Bishops’ Conference, and layperson, was also approved with the specific task of establishing the Synodal Council so as to be active by 2026.

However, the proposal for a Synodal Council was met with immediate backlash, as it would be able to pass resolutions with a simple majority. With just 23 bishop-members on the committee, after four refused to participate, over half of the body’s 70 members are laypeople, meaning resolutions could theoretically be passed without the approval of any of the country’s bishops.

In January of last year, the heads of several Vatican major departments wrote a letter to the German bishops vetoing the Synodal Council on grounds that it constituted a new form of ecclesial authority not canonically recognized, and which would essentially usurp the authority of the national bishops’ conference.

At the time, the German bishops ignored the Vatican’s warnings, announcing during their March 2023 spring assembly that plans for establishing the Synodal Committee were still moving forward.

However, the bishops refrained from holding the vote after receiving a letter from the Vatican threatening punitive measures if they proceeded.

RELATED: Vatican orders German bishops to halt vote on disputed ‘Synodal Committee’

Both Pope Francis and other Vatican officials have repeatedly intervened in the German synodal process from the beginning, cautioning them against making any unilateral moves that fracture Church unity.

In 2019, Francis wrote a letter to the German bishops warning that their reform process risked fracturing Church unity. He later criticized proposals for both the Synodal Committee and the Synodal Council in a November 2023 letter to German theologians critical of the national reform process, saying these bodies “cannot be reconciled with the sacramental structure of the Church.”

The Vatican and the German bishops agreed to hold regular meetings to discuss the Synodal Path reforms during the bishops’ November 2022 ad limina visit to Rome.

During the most recent working meeting last month, it appeared that the Vatican had, for the time being, drew a hard line in the sand by ensuring that German Church reforms would not breach canon law and that they would have the final approval of any changes made.

Monday’s approval of the statutes implies that regardless of the Vatican’s repeated criticism of the Synodal Committee and Council, the German bishops intend to proceed as planned, with the Synodal Committee’s second meeting scheduled for June 14-15 in Mainz.

It is unclear what impact the decision of Hanke, Woelki, Oster and Voderholzer, who from the beginning have resisted the move, to opt out of the Synodal Committee planning process will have.

Another meeting between Vatican officials and German bishops, during which the approval of the Synodal Committee’s statutes is bound to be a point of discussion, is expected to be held prior to the summer, however no dates for that discussion have yet been announced.

Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen