German Bishops Take Perilous Detour From Unity With Rome

COMMENTARY: What recently unfolded in Rome with the German bishops is devastating for the unity of the Church.

Pope Francis meeting with the German bishops at the Vatican, Nov. 17, 2022.
Pope Francis meeting with the German bishops at the Vatican, Nov. 17, 2022. (photo: Vatican Media )

Rome asked — begged, actually — the German bishops to take an off-ramp from their Synodal Way, which demands significant changes in Catholic doctrine, sacramental practice and ecclesial governance. The Germans refused. At the speeds traveled on the autobahn, the coming crash is going to be dreadful.

What recently unfolded in Rome was devastating for the unity of the Church. That the threat of division would come from Germany is absolutely to be expected in the long view of history, but it remains something of a surprise under Pope Francis. 

While Pope Francis initially dreamt of a “poor Church for the poor,” he pursued instead an agenda for the rich: Holy Communion for those in invalid marriages, more national control over liturgical books, pastoral priorities light on sexual morality and heavy on climate change. No matter. The richest of all local Churches is now committed to rebellion, and there is nothing that Rome can do about it. The Pope inveighs against “backwardism” but finds himself, vis-à-vis Germany, in the morass of the 1970s. It will be different this time around, though. The rest of the Church is not similarly situated. Thus the Holy Father’s synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church will soon become a high-speed multi-vehicle crash.

The German bishops — more than 60 of them — were in Rome for their visit ad limina apostolorum (to the threshold of the apostles), the mandatory periodic visit to the Holy Father and Roman Curia, the last of which took place in 2015 for the German dioceses. An occasion to report on their local situation, the ad limina is also intended to strengthen the bonds of communion with the universal Church. The regular routine involves meetings with the heads of the various Roman departments (“dicasteries”).

The Germans got something else in addition — the “interdicasterial,” in Vatican parlance. That is a meeting of all the heads of all the Curial dicasteries. The Holy Father convenes them from time to time to discuss problems of wider concern. It is exceedingly rare for an “interdicasterial” to be held with a national episcopate. The most notable recent example was in 1998, when an interdicasterial was held with the Australian bishops. The “statement of conclusions” from that meeting, signed by all parties, committed the bishops Down Under to end an array of liturgical malpractice and doctrinal errors.

There would be no such (enforced) consensus this time. While Pope Francis was originally scheduled to attend the interdicasterial, he did not. He had met personally with all the German bishops together the previous day. The interdicasterial was thus presided over by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state, with addresses given by Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops. 

As an aside, it was notable that Cardinal Luis Tagle, pro-prefect of the Dicastery of Evangelization, had no notable role. His dicastery is supposed to be the highest ranking in the reform of the Curia promulgated by Pope Francis earlier this year. Given that this interdicasterial unfolded exactly as it would have before the recent reform, it seems that there is less to the reform than meets the eye. 

Cardinal Parolin, in language clearly intended to evoke the specter of the Protestant Reformation, warned the Germans that they risked “reform of the Church, not reform in the Church.” The former is the path to schism; the latter is the ongoing task of a Church semper reformanda — a Church always being reformed to be more deeply who Christ founded her to be.

Cardinals Ladaria and Ouellet then “frankly and openly” detailed how the German Synodal Way had become wayward. Cardinal Ouellet frankly called for a “moratorium.” The Germans flatly refused. Determined to continue, they plan to move ahead with those matters which are in their local authority. More profound matters for the universal Church will be forced by the Germans onto the agenda of the Synod of Bishops on Synodality next October. 

Thus the crisis has come.

The conflict between the German bishops and Rome is fixed, and it will heat up over the next year. The Holy Father’s synodal process on synodality for a synodal Church will now be entirely consumed by the German matter, as bishops from around the world make the same points as Cardinals Ladaria and Ouellet — but without the diplomatic language customarily employed in Rome.

Pope Francis is powerless to do anything about it, but not for lack of trying. Observers of the modern papacy note that Pope Francis has the most autocratic governing style of any pontiff since Gregory XVI (1831-1846). Yet his exercise of authority is often ineffective. 

He has tried to stop the German Synodal Way. He wrote — personally, without assistance from advisers, he later revealed — a lengthy letter to all German Catholics in June 2019, warning them against proceeding down the path they had set out. They did so anyway. 

In the intervening three years, clear statements condemning the German process have come from the most senior Curial dicasteries — the Secretariat of State, doctrine, bishops and legislative texts. Each one has been batted away. The difference this time was that, instead of being dismissed at a press conference in Germany, the Holy Father and his principal collaborators got it up close and personal, face-to-face.

It is not clear what else Pope Francis can do. In 2017, he wrote to priests in Ahiara, Nigeria, who had been protesting for years the bishop whom Benedict XVI had appointed. The Holy Father demanded that they “must clearly manifest total obedience to the pope” and “must be willing to accept the bishop whom the pope sends and has appointed,” Eight months later, Pope Francis removed the bishop. The defiant priests won that showdown.

This year, a great number of priests in the Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala, India, have been refusing to follow the liturgical decisions taken by their synod in the 1990s. Pope Francis has decreed that they must now submit. They refused, and subsequent protests have included burning their bishops in effigy and putting their residences under siege. The Holy Father’s interventions are defied.

Even in the Roman Curia, in recent years, the legal decrees of Pope Francis relating to financial authority have simply not been implemented according to the deadlines he determined.

A collapse in papal authority is a crisis for the Church. The collapse is now evident. The German defiance will consume whatever resources Pope Francis has left.

Bishop Georg Bätzing during a meeting of the German Synodal Way in Frankfurt Sept. 9, 2022.

The German Problem

A NOTE FROM THE PUBLISHER: The naked pressure tactics on display at the most recent gathering of the German ‘Synodal Path’ are completely alien to the healthy functioning of a collegial and fraternal Church — essentially, they betray the concept of synodality itself.

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.