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.

Bishop Georg Bätzing during a meeting of the German Synodal Way in Frankfurt Sept. 9, 2022.
Bishop Georg Bätzing during a meeting of the German Synodal Way in Frankfurt Sept. 9, 2022. (photo: Maximilian von Lachner / Synodaler Weg)

The latest developments with respect to Germany’s increasingly disastrous “Synodal Path” are way beyond troubling. In fact, the local Church in Western Europe’s most populous and economically powerful nation has now veered to the brink of formal schism.

Consider what has happened this month: Germany’s Catholic bishops, and the lay Catholic delegates who are participating on an equal footing with them in the Synodal Path process, approved documents that called for endorsement of homosexuality and transgenderism and advocated for the ordination of women — in blatant contradiction to what the Church teaches regarding these matters of morals and faith. 

The delegates also formally approved the creation of a permanent Synodal Council that would supersede episcopal authority over some of the most fundamental aspects of the Church’s life in every diocese in Germany — in blatant contradiction to Catholic ecclesiology.

And when pushback came from a minority of the country’s Catholic bishops, who voted in sufficient numbers to prevent approval of another document that openly and sweepingly dissented from Church teachings on sexuality, the progressivist majority reacted with outrage. A faction of the delegates marched showily out of the meeting hall in protest, and Bishop Georg Bätzing, chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference and the co-chairman of the Synodal Path, signalled his full-throated support by insisting the document should be viewed as having been approved and promising to present it personally to the attention of the Vatican during the German bishops’ upcoming ad limina visit in November. The charade shows the duplicity of the whole German Synodal Path. For this group, synodality, defined in short as “journeying together,” only matters when it moves forward its own agenda of dissent.

After the losing vote, the Synodal Path broke its own rules in order to dispense with the provision for secret ballots when voting on documents. The intent of this procedural manipulation was obvious: Going forward, the dominant progressives intend to “name and shame” any orthodox bishops and lay delegates who remain brave enough to stand up against the tidal wave of dissent in Germany. The maneuver had its hoped-for chilling effect. Only a small minority of delegates were willing to cast their ballots against the other controversial documents when they subsequently came up for votes.

Such naked pressure tactics are completely alien to the healthy functioning of a collegial and fraternal Church. Equally alien is the new so-called Synodal Council, as it breaks decisively with the Church’s episcopal structure that was instituted by Jesus himself. Indeed, the proposed council has been denounced as anti-Christian by German Cardinal Walter Kasper, the president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, who warned in June that it resembled the communist government structures in the Soviet Union. 

Cardinal Kasper can’t be dismissed by Synodal Path supporters as a “knee-jerk traditionalist,” given that he was the cardinal who floated the possibility of reception of Communion for divorced-and-remarried Catholics in early 2014, following the election of Pope Francis.

So it’s obviously false to claim that strong opposition to the course being charted by Germany’s dissenting Church leaders is confined to “conservative” Catholic leaders. Well ahead of this latest session of the Synodal Path, in fact, a broad range of bishops from around the globe had already publicly warned against the potentially disastrous consequences of the events now unfolding in Germany. 

The most significant caution of all was delivered by Pope Francis himself in 2019: He wrote a letter to Catholics in Germany in the context of their Synodal Path discussions, warning against “preconceived schemes and mechanisms that end in alienation or limitation” of the Church’s fundamental mission of evangelization after it first became apparent that unrelated ideological agendas were driving the process. 

The German Church leaders pressing forward the Synodal Path have completely ignored this papal instruction, as well as several even more strongly worded communiqués from other senior Vatican leaders, including a July 2022 statement that warned the German process was not authorized to “oblige the bishops and the faithful to adopt new forms of governance and new orientations of doctrine and morals.”

The dissenting group of Germans are gambling that, by couching their dissenting agendas as being “synodal” expressions of the majority will of local Catholics, they will be able to persuade the rest of the Church to allow their grave breaches of Church doctrine and practice to stand without correction. Further, they appear to be banking that these agendas will be embraced by Pope Francis and the Synod on Synodality, when that global process concludes next year in October in Rome. 

The prospect that this German misinterpretation of “synodality” might prevail in next year’s discussions was one of the main reasons that a number of cardinals raised the issue of the term’s correct definition during their recent consistory in Rome. These cardinals are determined to get clarity on the matter to ensure that the outcome next year is constructive for the Church and its evangelical priorities, not destructive.

This awareness within the College of Cardinals about the damaging developments in Germany, and the very real possibility that progressives might attempt to “hijack” the Synod on Synodality in order to advance their cause nationally and internationally, is a positive sign. Another is that there are still many courageous German bishops, like Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne and Bishop Rudolph Voderholzer of Regensburg, who continue to publicly stand up for Catholic truth against the Synodal Path’s secularist agenda. 

From the Synodal Path’s outset, its leaders have tried to market their plans as necessary antidotes to the plague of clergy sexual abuse. It’s now inescapably clear that they’ve never been primarily interested in addressing the abuse crisis. Instead, the plan has always been to utilize the issue as an instrument to push the same tired secular and relativist ideas that members of this German faction (aided and abetted by progressive Catholics in Europe and in the United States) have promoted for decades. 

Pope Francis provided a papal corrective to some of these ideas when he discarded German-inspired calls during the 2019 Amazon Synod for the ordination of married men and women deacons from his subsequent post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Querida Amazonia

While we do not know what private discussions may now be taking place between the Holy See and the leaders of the Church in Germany, it is hard to see how this perilous situation can be resolved without the direct intervention of Pope Francis.

In light of all this, we should renew our prayers that the eyes of Bishop Bätzing and the other wayward leaders of the German Synodal Path will be opened to God’s truth before they do irreparable damage to German Catholics by breaking definitively from communion with the rest of the Church. And we can also pray that the Holy Spirit continues to fortify the resolve of the Holy Father and our other shepherds to keep the Church centered on its fundamental mission of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world.

God bless you!