‘Astonished’ German Leaders Take Issue With Holy See’s Latest Warning About the ‘Synodal Way’

Organizers accused the Vatican of a lack of willingness to communicate, as others welcomed the Holy See intervention.

Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg speaks at a press conference of the German  ‘Synodal Way.’
Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg speaks at a press conference of the German ‘Synodal Way.’ (photo: Synodaler Weg / Max von Lachner / via CNA)

The latest warning by the Holy See about the risk of a new schism from Germany arising from the “Synodal Way” has been rejected and met with “astonishment” by its organizers, who in turn accused Rome of not acting like a synodal Church.

However, at least one German bishop and a reform group welcomed the new intervention from the Vatican, reported CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner.

Following the statement by the Holy See on Thursday, the presidents of the German Bishops' Conference and the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) said they were stunned by the intervention.

“In our understanding, a synodal Church is something else!” Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg and Irme Stetter-Karp declared in response to the Vatican’s intervention. “This also applies to the way today's communication has been handled, which has been a source of astonishment for us."

They added, “It is not a good example of communication within the Church, if statements are published which are not signed by name.”

While one German prelate, Bishop Bertram Meier of Augsburg, welcomed the statement from Rome, writing the concern for unity was clearly “virulent,” CNA Deutsch reported, the “Synodal Way” organizers accused the Vatican of a lack of willingness to communicate: “Unfortunately, the Synodal Committee has not been invited to a discussion [with Vatican bodies] to date.”

In its statement on Thursday, the Holy See said: “The ‘Synodal Way’ in Germany does not have the power to compel bishops and the faithful to adopt new forms of governance and new orientations of doctrine and morals.” 

The Vatican’s note said it seemed “necessary to clarify” this, in order to “safeguard the freedom of the People of God and the exercise of the episcopal ministry." 

The statement of July 21 warned: “It would not be permissible to introduce new official structures or doctrines in dioceses before an agreement had been reached at the level of the universal Church, which would constitute a violation of ecclesial communion and a threat to the unity of the Church.”

In reaction to Bishop Bätzing‘s and Stetter-Karp’s response, the secretary-general of the Nordic Bishops' Conference, herself a German religious, raised the question whether the controversial process itself suffered from a “communication problem.”

Sister Mirjiam Kaschner pointed to an apparent perception that the process was seeking to change — or depart, on its own “separate way” — from the Church’s teaching on a number of issues, including celibacy, the ordination of women, and sexual morality. 

Concerns over the risk of a departure from the universal Church’s teaching on the “Synodal Way” — a Sonderweg in German — were first raised in 2019, when Cardinal Reinhard Marx initated the process.

In their most recent statement, such concerns were again rejected by Bishop Bätzing and Irme Stetter-Karp: “​​We never tire of underlining that the Church in Germany will not follow a ‘special German path,'“ they said. ”Nevertheless, we see it as our duty to clearly state where we believe changes are necessary.”

Similarly, Kaschner noted, Bishop Bätzing had so far rejected concerns raised by hundreds of bishops as well as Catholics in Germany. 

Bishop Bätzing has previously also expressed his disappointment in Pope Francis

Immediately after the publication of this latest warning, the publicist and co-founder of the “New Beginning,“ a German initiative critical of the ”Synodal Way,“ said that the Vatican had pulled the ”emergency brake“ on the process: “The danger of a schism is over,” Bernhard Meuser said.

As early as 2019, Pope Francis warned of disunity in his letter to German Catholics.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German theologian considered close to Pope Francis, in June 2022 warned that the process is at risk of “breaking its own neck” if it does not heed the objections raised by a growing number of bishops around the world.

In April, more than 100 cardinals and bishops from around the world released a fraternal open letter to Germany's bishops, warning that sweeping changes to Church teaching advocated by the process may lead to schism.

In March, an open letter from the Nordic bishops expressed alarm at the German process, and, in February, a strongly worded letter from the president of Poland’s Catholic bishops' conference raised serious concerns.

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne attends a German Synodal Way assembly on March 9, 2023.

Four German Bishops Resist Push to Install Permanent ‘Synodal Council’

Given the Vatican’s repeated interventions against the German process, the bishops said they would instead look to the Synod of Bishops in Rome. Meanwhile, on Monday, German diocesan bishops approved the statutes for a synodal committee; and there are reports that the synodal committee will meet again in June.