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ROME – In the latest twist in an ongoing showdown between the Vatican and the German bishops, three top Vatican officials have seemingly shot down a proposal endorsed by the country’s prelates for a new legislative body governing the church in Germany.
In a letter earlier this week, the three officials told German bishops they were not authorized to establish a new “Synodal Council,” a governing body composed of both bishops and laypeople that would permanently oversee the church in Germany, which was proposed as part of German Catholicism’s controversial “Synodal Path” process.
The Synodal Path “has no authority to oblige bishops and the faithful to adopt new forms of government and new doctrinal and moral orientations,” the Vatican said, insisting this would be “a violation of ecclesial communion and a threat to the unity of the church.”
The Vatican letter, specifically approved by Pope Francis, who ordered it to be sent, was signed by Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin; Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Dicastery for Bishops; and Spanish Cardinal Luis Ladaria, head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The idea to create a new governing body was approved during the fourth plenary assembly of Germany’s “Synodal Path” last September, when two-thirds of participants voted in favor of the council’s establishment.
The council is intended as an “advisory and decision-making body on essential developments in the church and in society,” and would be composed of 27 diocesan bishops, 27 laypeople appointed by the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZDK), and 20 members to be elected by the Synodal Path at its next Synodal Assembly.
Together, the members would make “fundamental decisions of supra-diocesan importance.”
A “Synodal Committee” will be tasked with preparing the establishment of the council, which would be active as of 2026. The committee would be chaired by the president of the German Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, and the lay president of the ZDK.
In December several German bishops, including Cardinal Ranier Woelki of Cologne and the bishops of Eichstatt, Augsburg, Passau and Regensburg, wrote a letter to the Vatican asking for clarification about what canonical status such a Synodal Council would hold, and whether they would be obliged to participate in establishing the council simply because the Synodal Assembly had appointed them.
In their response, Parolin, Ouellet, and Ladaria said bishops are “not obliged to participate” in the synodal committee, which they said, “cannot limit the authority” of the national bishops’ conference, and they cautioned that bishops themselves are not authorized to create a governing or decision-making synodal body for their country.
The Synodal Council, they said, 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.
“We would like to make it clear that neither the Synodal Way, nor any body set up by it, nor a bishops’ conference, has the competence to set up a Synodal Council at the national, diocesan, or parish level,” they said.
The Jan. 16 letter was sent to Bätzing, and it asked that Bätzing share it with bishops no later than Jan. 23.
This is not the first time the Vatican has intervened in Germany’s disputed “Synodal Path” process.
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. 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.
Last 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 response, Germany’s bishops said they were surprised, and hoped to discuss the process further.
That opportunity presented itself when the German bishops traveled to the Vatican for their regular ad limina visit – in which all members of a national bishops’ conference visit Rome and the Vatican to meet with the pope and various Vatican departments every few years – in November.
While they were in Rome, 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, some Vatican officials suggested issuing a “moratorium” on the German Synodal Path process was proposed, but that proposal was ultimately rejected.
Both sides agreed to move forward in close and open dialogue, with Germany’s bishops being urged to fold their Synodal Path conclusions into Pope Francis’s wider Synod of Bishops on Synodality unfolding at the global level.
In a Jan. 23 statement responding to Parolin, Ouellet, and Ladaria’s most recent letter, Bätzing said the issues they were responding to were “legitimate and necessary questions” about the Synodal Committee and Synodal Council but argued that their concerns were “unfounded.”
This, he said, is because it was already agreed in a special resolution that the synodal assembly that approved the establishment of the council held no power to undermine individual bishops.
To this end, Bätzing insisted that the Synodal Council “will therefore move within the applicable canon law in accordance with the mandate contained in the resolution.”
Bätzing voiced surprise at the Vatican’s letter, saying they had not yet spoken with Rome about the content and objectives of their national Synodal Path deliberations, and that while the Vatican sees the process as a potential weakening of the authority of individual bishops, he sees the Synodal Path and proposed Synodal Council as “a positive strengthening of this office.”
“In view of synodality, it is not primarily about dogmatic questions, but about questions of lived synodal culture in joint consultation and decision-making. No one questions the authority of the episcopacy,” he said, saying the Vatican’s letter will make them think “more intensively” about the form this consultation will take.
This latest back-and-forth takes place amid fresh controversy over rumors that Bishop Heiner Wilmer of Hildesheim, a vocal supporter of the German Church’s “Synodal Path,” could be tapped to take over for Ladaria, who is 78, as head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Some unconfirmed rumors suggest the appointment had been blocked several weeks ago by conservative-leaning cardinals, though others suggest Wilmer is still in contention for the post.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen