DENVER – In response to a letter from four female German theologians who resigned from the German Church’s Synodal Way over concerns with various aspects of the process, Pope Francis has said the German initiative risks breaking unity with the global Church and cited several aspects he found particularly troubling.
The pope’s reply was dated Nov. 10, the same day that a meeting was held in Essen to begin developing a controversial new joint governing body for the German Church involving both bishops and laity, a possibility the Vatican has rejected and which the pontiff himself said “cannot be reconciled with the sacramental structure” of the Church.
“You have come to me with your concerns about the recent developments in the Church in Germany,” the pope wrote.
“I, too, share these worries about the numerous and concrete steps that have now been taken by large parts of this local Church which threaten to deviate further and further from the common path of the universal Church,” he said.
The four women to whom the letter was addressed included Dr. Katharina Westerhorstmann, professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, who works in the university’s study abroad program in Gaming, Austria; Dr. Marianne Schlosser, professor of theology at the University of Vienna, Austria, and member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission; Dr. Hanna-Barbara Gerl-Falkovitz, professor emeritus of philosophy of religion and comparative religious studies at the Technical University Dresden in Dresden, Germany; and Dorothea Schmidt, a freelance journalist and book author.
Germany’s Synodal Way is a multi-year gathering of bishops and laypeople launched in 2019 amid fallout from the country’s massive clerical abuse crisis with the intention of reevaluating Church structures.
Other topics evaluated were the priesthood and the role of women and sexual morality. Proposals were made to end priestly celibacy, to allow women’s priestly ordination and for women and laypeople to be able to perform baptisms, for blessings to be given to same-sex couples, and for laypeople to have a greater role in the selection of bishops.
The process has been a source of deep controversy within the Catholic Church in Germany, and has seen the repeated intervention of Vatican officials cautioning German Church officials against taking the process too far.
Amid an ongoing back and forth between German church leaders and Vatican officials that has lasted over a year, in January the Vatican vetoed the Synodal Way’s proposal for the creation of a new “Synodal Council,” a local governing church body composed of both bishops and laypeople that would permanently oversee the Church in Germany.
In a letter to the German bishops in January, Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, former head of the Dicastery for Bishops, and Spanish Cardinal Luis Ladaria, former head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, argued that the Synodal Council would usurp the role of the national bishops’ conference, thus casting doubt on the bishops’ authority and leadership according to the Church’s apostolic succession.
Westerhorstmann, Schlosser, Gerl-Falkovitz, and Schmidt resigned from the Synodal Path in February over concerns they had with the direction the process was taking.
At the time, they said they made the decision because they could not in good conscience continue to participate in a process seeking to “completely redefine” the “essential foundations of Catholic theology, anthropology, as well as Church practice.”
They decided to write Pope Francis vocalizing their concerns, and did so in a Nov. 6 letter that was delivered to Rome by a friend, who gave the letter to the pope two days later.
Though the women did not publish their initial letter to Pope Francis, they published the entirety of his Nov. 10 response, in which he said that he also shared concerns over “the formation of the Synodal Committee that you have mentioned.”
The Synodal Committee “is meant to prepare an advisory and decision-making council in a form that cannot be reconciled with the sacramental structure of the Catholic Church,” Francis said.
“For this reason,” he said, “the establishment of this council was prohibited by the Holy See in a letter approved by me in forma specifica on January 16, 2023.”
Pope Francis cautioned against “seeking ‘salvation’ in various new councils and committees and discussing the same topics in a certain insular fashion,” and pointed to a letter he wrote to the Church in Germany last summer stressing the need to focus on “prayer, penance, and adoration.”
By focusing on these things, the invitation is thus “to go out and meet our brothers and sisters, especially those who are abandoned at the threshold of our church doors, on the streets, in prisons, in hospitals, on squares and in cities,” he said.
“I am convinced: it is there where the Lord will show us the path,” the pope said, voicing gratitude for the women’s theological and philosophical work, “and for your witness of faith.”
“May the Lord bless you and may the Blessed Virgin Mary protect you. Please continue to pray for me and for our common concern of unity,” he said, closing the letter.
In a press release from the Franciscan University of Stubenville about the exchange, Westerhorstmann voiced gratitude for the pope’s rapid response and for his “clarity, especially regarding the sacramental structure of the Church.”
“I’m convinced the clarity of his words will help not just the Church in Germany, but the entire Church to keep listening to the Holy Spirit within the communion of the universal Church. It can also remind the majority of the German bishops of their oath to remain in union with the successor of Peter,” she said.
According to the press release, Pope Francis sent a follow-up letter voicing support for the decision to publish his Nov. 10 response, but the text of that follow-up letter was not provided.
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