Bishop Bätzing: Most German Catholics Support Synodal Way, No Danger of Schism

The bishop of Limburg and chairman of the German bishops’ conference said he sees no Vatican obstacles getting in the way of German Synodal Way ambitions.

The chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Georg Bätzing, speaks at a press conference in Bonn, Germany, on Feb. 25, 2021.
The chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Georg Bätzing, speaks at a press conference in Bonn, Germany, on Feb. 25, 2021. (photo: Sascha Steinbach / AFP via Getty Images)

VATICAN CITY — In a new interview, Bishop Georg Bätzing has said he believes the “vast majority” of Catholics in Germany support the decisions of the Synodal Way and that he sees no danger of a schism as a result of the path being taken by the Church in Germany. 

The president of the German bishops’ conference said he “definitely” doesn’t see this risk, believing that in his view, most people want to build “bridges to the social and cultural realities of our time,” and he has the impression that those “who are particularly fond of talking about” the risk of schism “obviously long for it.”

At the same time, he acknowledged that “fears and concerns” about the Synodal Way have grown, but believes that is “precisely why we need more synodality, in the sense of a common search for what the Spirit of God is telling us today and where it is leading us.” 

“Polarizations are a great danger,” he said, “not only in society but also within the Church, especially when the relevant protagonists and groups no longer talk to each other.” 

In the interview with his diocesan newspaper published on Monday, the bishop of Limburg also said he sees no fundamental Vatican obstacles getting in the way of their Synodal Way ambitions, despite Rome’s explicit opposition to German plans to form a permanent synodal council which would effectively consolidate the radical changes to emerge from the Synodal Way. 

The Vatican believes such a body, through which bishops and laity would govern the Church in Germany, would override decisions made by bishops in their respective dioceses and so undermine their authority. 

However, Bishop Bätzing said Rome “did not block the work of the synodal committee” which is to meet in November to prepare, over a three-year period, the permanent synodal council, adding that the Vatican “only made it clear that there can be no synodal council that undermines episcopal authority.” 

“But we’re not looking for that either,” the bishop insisted, adding that he thought the Vatican’s concerns were unfounded, but questions still needed to be clarified. “Even if we move toward joint consultation and decision-making on certain questions between bishops and others in the Church, this does not weaken the bishops’ authority; it only strengthens it,” he contended. 

He believes such cooperation with the bishop cannot undermine his authority as his episcopal office is “far too fundamentally anchored in the Catholic conception of the Church and also valued by the faithful.” What is important, he believes, is that such a new relationship is handled transparently as he argued that abuse of power can only be countered “through participation, transparency, accountability and control. It’s all about this.” 

The Vatican has stated that neither the Synodal Way, nor a body appointed by it, nor a bishops’ conference, “have the competence to establish the ‘synodal council’ at the national, diocesan, or parish level.” Such a body has also been opposed by German Cardinal Walter Kasper who has argued that synods, acting like a “supreme council,” have no basis in the entire history of the Church nor in theology. “It would not be a renewal but an unheard-of innovation,” he said last June.

Bishop Bätzing also commented on a letter Cardinal Arthur Roche, prefect of the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, sent to the German bishops’ conference in March rejecting allowing laity to preach and baptize. The Synodal Way called on the bishops’ conference to develop regulations to permit such a novelty, but Bishop Bätzing said Cardinal Roche’s letter only reiterated what he had already told the bishops in November during their ad limina visit.

Still, he said the bishops would ask Rome for an indult, or special dispensation, to allow laity to preach at Mass given “the special situation in our country.” He also stressed that, at the end of his letter, Cardinal Roche said the bishops must “seek further discussion on the matter,” inferring that he believes the cardinal saw the matter as still open. 

In any case, Bishop Bätzing maintained, “theologically qualified and pastorally competent” men and women have been preaching in Germany “for a long time” and he believed “not only should this practice not be limited or withdrawn,” but that they should be allowed to do so knowing they have the bishop’s consent and in “accordance with applicable law.”


Bätzing’s Blessings 

Also in the interview, Bishop Bätzing stressed that, following Synodal Way participants voting to approve same-sex church blessings in March, he will allow such blessings in his diocese. He said “a good liturgical-pastoral handout” is still necessary, also “making it clear that a blessing celebration cannot be a marriage ceremony or a sacrament. This is where the boundary lies.” His plans contradict a 2021 Vatican ruling that said the Church does not have the power to conduct such blessings because, among other reasons, God “does not and cannot bless sin.” 

On the role of women in the Church, he said he hopes they will have access to “all decision-making processes of Church life,” that he supports a diaconate for women, and does not want to “close the doors” to a female priesthood. 

But Bishop Bätzing appears to be aware that the radical resolutions that came out of Synodal Way that he so favors are unlikely to ever be fully taken up by the universal Church. He said it weighs on him heavily that he and his brother bishops were unable to “win over a dissenting minority right to the very end,” and that although the Synodal Way meetings have ended, the path is “far from over” as questions have to be clarified at the level of the world Church and so “have to be brought to Rome.” He also acknowledged that the Synodal Way’s vision for joint consultation and decision making with bishops must be “in accordance with the possibilities of canon law.” 

Lastly, Bishop Bätzing underscored his belief in the synodal process, saying he believed there was “no alternative to continuing genuine, honest and effective synodality to create a good future for our Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” That is why, he added, he is “very excited” about the upcoming world synod on synodality in October, at which he will be a participant. 


Cardinal Grech’s Comments

But in an interview this week with EWTN News, Cardinal Mario Grech, the secretary general of the Synod of Bishops, stressed that the German Synodal Way was not analogous to the Synod on Synodality, and that the October meeting would not be based on the decisions recently made by the German Church.

“They are two different ecclesial experiences,” Cardinal Grech stressed. “One in Germany is trying to address issues that are recurrent challenges for the Church in Germany. And the other one is for the whole Church. And the themes are absolutely different.”

Cardinal Grech also acknowledged that the Synodal Way has generated widespread concern in the rest of the global Church. 

“Unfortunately, the synodal path in Germany sent negative vibes in all the Church,” he said. “I was in Africa, I was in Bangkok, and I listened to people who were a bit hesitant and worried about what was taking place in Germany.”

Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, shown speaking to the media on the opening day of a congress of the Synodal Way, Feb. 3, in Frankfurt, Germany, had his resignation accepted by Pope Francis March 25.

A Fore-Bode-ing Sign for the Synodal Way?

ANALYSIS: Pope Francis’ acceptance of the resignation of Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, a major proponent of the Synodal Way in Germany, is widely seen as a blow to the controversial process. But was this a ‘strategic element’ of the Vatican’s decision?