VATICAN CITY — This week, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, travels to Rome. There, he will meet with Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, to clear up some “misunderstandings” about the German bishops’ intended synodal process.
The stakes of the closed-door meeting are high.
The German bishops seem poised to press ahead with plans for a “Synodal Assembly,” despite criticism of the plan from Curial offices and the Pope himself. The matter seems likely to escalate into an open conflict between the Apostolic See and one of the most influential bishops’ conferences in the global Church.
Cardinal Marx first announced the “binding synodal path” earlier this year. In addition to creating a new Synodal Assembly in partnership with the Central Committee of German Catholics, the bishops intend — indeed, have already begun — a review of universal Church teaching and discipline on a range of sensitive matters, including sexual morality, the role of women in offices and ministry, and clerical celibacy.
Critics say the German plan disregards, or defies, the universality of teaching and discipline that makes the Catholic Church catholic.
In June, Pope Francis wrote a letter to Germany Catholics offering a corrective to their bishops’ plans. He warned against a “new Pelagianism” and the temptation to “adapt” the Church “to the spirit of the age.”
Most specifically, the Pope warned the German bishops against striking out on their own. Communion with the whole Church, he said, and respect for the hierarchy, are vital to any authentic understanding of synodality.
“Every time an ecclesial community tried to resolve its problems alone, trusting and focusing exclusively on its forces or its methods, its intelligence, its will or prestige, it ended up increasing and perpetuating the evils it tried to solve,” he told the Germans.
Cardinal Walter Kasper summarized recently the Pope’s effect on the German bishops: “In Germany, the Pope's letter was much praised, but then put aside and [the process] continued as previously planned.”
On Sept. 4, Cardinal Ouellet wrote to the German bishops, presenting an official assessment of the German plans from the Pontifical Commission for Legislative Texts, which concluded that the synod’s proposed structures were “not ecclesiologically valid” and that its proposed subject matter “cannot be the object of the deliberations or decisions of a particular Church without contravening what is expressed by the Holy Father in his letter.”
Cardinal Marx has insisted that the Vatican’s critique is based on an old draft of their plans and that the current version renders them moot. But, as CNA reported, the most recent version effectively retained the provisions and themes opposed by Rome, and Vatican officials were already in possession of the new draft by the time Cardinal Ouellet’s letter was sent, to the point that Cardinal Ouellet’s letter even noted that he had seen the minutes of the Aug. 19 executive session.
One official at the Congregation told CNA that there is a sense in Rome that Cardinal Marx wants to deflect criticism onto past documents in the hopes of keeping the synodal process moving faster than Rome can keep up.
“We see this happening: The Germans say we have already made the changes you want, and by the time there can be a response saying: No, the concerns remain, the next step is already made,” an official at the Congregation for Bishops told CNA.
“If we come to [the point where] the Holy Father [is] saying, ‘Stop, do not begin the synod,’ they will reply, ‘We already began — now we must finish!’”
Any official account of this week’s meeting between Cardinals Marx and Ouellet is highly unlikely. The Congregation for Bishops has a long track record of declining to comment on its work, even on the most internationally pressing issues. Whatever account Cardinal Marx offers will likely be his own impression and may not be shared by the congregation.
The first tangible indication of whether an understanding has actually been reached will likely come next week, when the German bishops are scheduled to vote on the draft statues for the Synodal Assembly.
If the bishops pass an unaltered text from the one adopted by their executive committee last month, it will indicate either that the Vatican has acquiesced to the German plans or that Cardinal Ouellet’s letter has been “put aside,” as was the Pope’s in June.
If the German bishops proceed with their plans over Vatican objections, the Pope could be expected to address the matter during the upcoming Amazon synod.
Thus far, the language of Rome to Germany has been couched in terms of “concern” and “guidance.” But should the Germans ignore a further, perhaps even explicit, instruction by Francis to halt the synodal plans, it will raise serious questions: first about the legitimacy of the entire enterprise and then about the relationship of the Church in Germany to the Apostolic See.
Sources close to the German bishops’ conference have told CNA that Cardinal Marx sees the German synodal plans as the means of reshaping the global Church. “The cardinal believes it is the German Church’s duty to lead on the path for others to follow on these matters,” one senior German Church official said.
“There is no question of wishing to break the communion with the universal Church, but to remake it for a more modern Church.”
Some officials in Rome have told CNA they suspect that Cardinal Marx simply does not believe the Pope is willing to act decisively to halt the German plans.
“They [the German bishops] do not ask permission to begin or listen to the instructions given. They just continue, continue, and then what?” one senior official at the Pontifical Commission of Legislative Texts told CNA.
“In the end, the idea of schism is unthinkable for everyone. But if no one thinks it can happen, you can do anything you like, the Holy Father says No, but a cardinal can say Yes.”
The official at the Congregation for Bishops agreed, telling CNA that the German bishops’ continued action appeared calculated.
“Dialogue in communion means you listen to what the Pope says,” he said. “If you don’t listen, there is no communion.”