German Bishops Visit Vatican to Discuss Controversial Synodal Way

The visits follow a critical open letter to Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German bishops’ conference, from Archbishop Stanislaw Gądecki, president of the Polish bishops’ conference, and other strong criticisms of the German synodal process.

Swiss Guard at the Vatican
Swiss Guard at the Vatican (photo: lorenzogallo / Pixabay / CC0)

VATICAN CITY — On the heels of a fraternal correction from the head of the Polish bishops’ conference and other trenchant criticisms of the Synodal Way, six German bishops, including Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, have visited the Vatican in recent days. 

The Register learned that their visits, which largely went unreported by the media, were mostly to discuss the Synodal Way after its latest synodal assembly drew considerable criticism and threatened to throw the entire enterprise into jeopardy. 

In early February, the participants of the process approved drafts in favor of same-sex union blessings; changes to the Catechism on homosexuality and the ordination of women priests; for priestly celibacy to be optional in the Latin Church; and for lay involvement in the election of new bishops.

Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück, deputy head of the German bishops’ conference and one of the main leaders of the Synodal Way, was received by Pope Francis on Thursday, according to the Vatican. 

He confirmed to the German Catholic news agency KNA afterwards that his meetings were about both the Synodal Way and the worldwide Vatican Synod on Synodality and that he had reportedly met Vatican officials in the Roman Curia.

According to Katholisch.de, a news portal run on behalf of the German bishops’ conference, he “encountered a great deal of openness and a willingness to talk.” The news report said “many times” it was signaled to him that the topics dealt with by the Synodal Way “were important for large parts of the universal Church — even if that perspective is not shared everywhere in Germany.”

Bishop Bode told KNA that he believed it was therefore good if the Catholic Church in Germany contributes, through the Synodal Way, to the worldwide Synod on Synodality currently underway until October 2023, and that other perspectives and key issues were also confronted during the German process. He added that talking to both heads of curial authorities and staff was “helpful.”

Bishop Gregor Hanke of Eichstätt also met the Pope in a private audience on Feb. 14. Bishop Felix Genn of Münster and Cardinal Rainer Woelki, who is one of the more vocal critics of the Synodal Way, were reportedly seen heading towards the Pope’s Santa Marta residence on Thursday, but neither the Vatican nor their diocesan media made any official announcement of their visits. Meanwhile, Auxiliary Bishop Rolf Steinhäuser of Cologne, who has been leading the archdiocese during Cardinal Woelki’s six-month leave of absence requested last year by Pope Francis, was also in Rome this week. Also earlier this month the Pope received Bishop Peter Kohlgraf of Mainz.

Asked if he could confirm these meetings, what the bishops’ reasons were for visiting, and which of them had private audiences with the Holy Father, the media spokesman for the German bishops’ conference, Matthias Kopp, told the Register, “I can confirm nothing,” and advised checking with the bishops’ offices themselves. The Register contacted their media representatives, but they had not responded by press time. 

The visits follow a critical open letter to Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German bishops’ conference, from Archbishop Stanislaw Gądecki, president of the Polish bishops’ conference. Archbishop Gądecki said he wished to express his “deep concern and anxiety regarding the information that has been recently received from some spheres of the Catholic Church in Germany.” 

In his letter — a very unusual gesture between two heads of episcopal conferences — the Polish archbishop wrote that “in a spirit of Christian charity” he was writing to Bishop Bätzing “full of fraternal care.” He warned the bishop and his German confreres against succumbing to five temptations: “To seek the fullness of the truth outside the Gospel;” “to believe in the infallibility of social science;” “of living with an inferiority complex” caused by the pressure of public opinion; “of corporate thinking;” and “to succumb to pressure” driven by a crisis of faith in the Church in Europe. 

 

Cardinal Woelki’s Visit

Indirectly connected to the Synodal Way was the visit of Cardinal Woelki, who is expected to return to his post as head of the archdiocese of Cologne on Ash Wednesday. 

Pope Francis asked the cardinal to take a leave of absence last September following the publication of a report on clergy sexual abuse in his archdiocese. The investigation found no evidence that the cardinal had acted unlawfully in relation to abuse cases. 

However, according to the Vatican, the report said Cardinal Woelki had made “major mistakes” in his approach to the issue and this had “contributed significantly to a crisis of confidence in the archdiocese that has disturbed many of the faithful.”

Some Church sources in Germany contend the cardinal has been a target of his brother bishops who want to see him leave Cologne, and these observers say they are using the faults found against him in the report, even though he was cleared of unlawful action, as a means to remove him. 

Another prominent Church figure to do so recently was Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg, who said in an interview this month that if he were Cardinal Woelki, he would resign. 

German Church sources critical of the Synodal Way have told the Register that the presence of so many German bishops in Rome this week, notably not on any ad limina visit, was unusual and points not only to a desire to “stay in control” of the Synodal Way but also, on the part of some of those bishops, to increase pressure on Cardinal Woelki to resign. As the Pope has the final say on such matters, the cardinal is likely to have visited to garner his support.

Cardinal Woelki is facing public opposition from some of his diocesan priests, as well as bishops. Düsseldorf city dean, Father Frank Heidkamp, ​​said recently that many people could not imagine the cardinal coming back. “It cannot go on as before,” Father Heidkamp said. “The cardinal cannot continue from the point at which he took his sabbatical. The people have made their judgment.”

 

Dangerous Precedent?

If he does resign, especially in contrast to other German bishops who are remaining in position despite facing worse accusations such as Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier, it could set a dangerous precedent, one already arguably set when the Pope accepted the resignation of Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris in December because the Holy Father said gossip had left the archbishop in a position where he could no longer govern.

Speaking to the Register, Bernhard Meuser, founder of “Neuer Anfang” (New Beginning), a lay group critical of the Synodal Way’s efforts at reform, said it is “of course frightening” that bishops can be effectively ousted “by pressure from below” and that it is “even more alarming that confreres are manifestly giving themselves up to it. 

“They do not know that they are sawing off the branch on which they themselves are sitting,” Meuser said. 

He also believes that it is not just the abuse report that makes the cardinal unacceptable to his opponents but rather two other reasons: that he has had to impose “severe cuts” on the diocese due to a shortage of priests, and “the decisive reason” that he, along with Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg, “have represented the clearest voice against the Synodal Way.”

Meuser said that although Bishop Voderholzer is “still in a relatively comfortable position, because his diocese is rather conservative, Cologne is a shark tank, and even the priests are very divided in their attitude to their chief shepherd.”

Bishop Hanke was publicly received by Pope Francis on Feb. 14, not this week as previously stated. The article has also been updated to include the visit of Bishop Kohlgraf. 

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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