Is Cardinal Woelki Being Targeted Because of His Concerns About Germany’s Synodal Path?

Sources in Germany say that the campaign against Cologne’s cardinal archbishop is aimed at removing him so that the synodal path can proceed without resistance.

Cardinal Rainer Woelki preaches at the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish in Tabgha, Israel, on Feb. 12, 2017.
Cardinal Rainer Woelki preaches at the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish in Tabgha, Israel, on Feb. 12, 2017. (photo: Jack Guez / AFP via Getty Images)

VATICAN CITY — At the same time as a newly leaked document shows just how determined German Church leaders are to push their synodal path, one of the controversial initiative’s most prominent critics, Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, is being targeted by opponents over his alleged failures regarding the handling of an abuse allegation. 

Over the past few months, the archbishop of Cologne has been subjected to fierce attacks from parish councils, priests and most recently the diocesan council over the alleged mishandling. The cardinal has also been unable to depend on the support of the head of Germany’s bishops’ conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, who said in December that the “crisis” has “not been managed well.”

“The pressure is immense,” said one German priest, speaking to the Register on condition of anonymity. “Cardinal Woelki and others resistant to the synodal path are being worn down by dirty press campaigns.”

At the center of the accusations is the claim that the cardinal failed to make public the results of a completed archdiocesan investigation of sexual abuse under current and previous leaders. According to the cardinal, however, the report had to be withheld because of legal concerns and its “methodological deficiencies.” 

He is also being faulted for not investigating serious allegations against a Düsseldorf priest alleged to have abused a boy of kindergarten age in the late 1970s. After Cardinal Woelki was appointed archbishop of Cologne in 2014, he decided not to take further action or notify Rome, as the priest was “unable to be questioned” due to advanced dementia. He has since died of natural causes. The victim reportedly also refused to testify, although this is disputed.

In a statement issued Feb. 4, the cardinal admitted that a commission he had set up to investigate abuse cases and name abusers had “made mistakes,” that “we did not communicate well,” and that he bore “ultimate responsibility” for the problems. But he insisted the commission’s goals hadn’t changed: “to clarify the situation” and do everything possible to help victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in the Archdiocese of Cologne. 

“I am really sorry that those affected are again exposed to new suffering, so to speak, because of what we have done here, but also all sisters and brothers in the other dioceses as well,” he said. The cardinal has already pledged to issue a new report on the investigation’s findings on March 18, and that it will “name those responsible.” 

In December, Cardinal Woelki asked Pope Francis to examine the accusations made against him. On Feb. 7, Welt am Sonntag reported that the case of the Düsseldorf priest had been referred to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which cleared the cardinal, concluding that he had “acted correctly under canon law.” 

In the meantime, Bishop Felix Genn of Münster, who clearly disagrees with Cardinal Woelki on the synodal path, has said he is looking into whether canonical investigations should be carried out against the cardinal. 

Sources within the Church in Germany, speaking to the Register on condition of anonymity, contend that the ferocity of the attacks against him is aimed at removing him, preferably before the report’s release on March 18, so that the synodal path can proceed without resistance.

Indeed, the harsh criticisms of Cardinal Woelki coincide with a resumption of the synodal path — a two-year process that began in January 2020 to tackle “key issues” arising from the clerical sex abuse crisis. Ostensibly with the aim of reforming the Church in Germany, critics say the process is more about bringing the Church into line with secular culture, notably regarding sexual morality, power structures and gender equality. 

Among the critics of the German synodal path is Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect emeritus of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who has characterized it as an attempt to “correct the Word of God.”

Cardinal Woelki likewise has been an outspoken critic of the path within the German hierarchy. In September, he warned that the “worst outcome” would be if the “synodal path leads to schism” and that the “worst thing” would be if a “German national church were to be created here.” 

Much will depend on how the Pope decides to respond, but little seems likely to sway most of the German hierarchy and their allies who appear determined to push through the synodal path reforms.

To date, the Pope has sent mixed signals, issuing a cautionary open letter to German bishops in June 2019 and expressing his “dramatic concern” over the process, while subsequently voicing his appreciation for the process last summer. 

The Congregation for Bishops and the Pontifical Commission for Legislative Texts also sent a letter to the German bishops in September 2019, warning that their plan to stage a binding synodal process was “not ecclesiologically valid.” But so far, the participants in the synodal path appear to be comprehensively disregarding the instructions from the Vatican.


Synodal Path Document

What is at stake emerged last week when a “Fundamental Text” detailing one of four of the synodal path’s forums, on reforming power structures in the Church, was leaked to the press and a copy was obtained by the Register. 

The 66-page report, which was adopted by a synodal working group on Dec. 3 , argues that the Church is in crisis and that various reforms are needed, including reforming power structures.

“Concrete changes are needed,” the report proposes, including the removal of “restrictions on access to the Church’s ministries.”

It also calls for a number of measures aimed at increasing accountability and thereby reducing risk of abuse, including “separation of powers” that would allow bishops to be overruled. It makes a case for greater synodality (essentially a more collegial Church), strong lay participation, and democratizing the Church, and argues for transparency in decision-making. In addition, it argues for more concerted attempts at achieving gender equality, ostensibly with the “common goal” of promoting evangelization.

Most notably, the document calls for mandatory priestly celibacy to be “reconsidered in view of pastoral challenges,” adding that such a proposed change “should lead to a vote in Germany, addressed to the Apostolic See” so that “different pastoral situations can be responded to in different ways locally.” 

The report sees women’s ordination as a “question of power and separation of powers,” and claims that Pope St. John Paul II’s 1994 clear stipulation that women cannot be ordained is “often questioned.” It is necessary, the report continues, “to reconnect again” Scripture and Tradition “with the signs of the times.” The synodal path, it concludes, should also vote on the issue of women’s ordination to the Catholic priesthood. 

One German priest, speaking to the Register on condition of anonymity, decried the document as a “master plan for protestantization of the Church,” and said the Church should “wake up” to what is “currently brewing in Germany, otherwise we will have a Reformation 2.0.” 

Like the rest of the synodal path, the document will eventually be voted on by the full assembly (Bishop Bätzing has confirmed voting on the synodal path will take place in September), but according to the Vatican, whatever conclusions are reached and motions passed, they won’t be binding. The synod’s architects think differently, however, and see it as binding on the local Church, and potentially influential on Rome.