Cardinal Kasper on German Synod: ‘Many Wonder Whether All This Is Still Entirely Catholic’

In a Sept. 17 lecture in Rome, the German cardinal said the German path deviated from Vatican II, especially in the area of “the sacramental understanding of the Church and the episcopate.”

Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, Germany, at the presentation on the Armenian Genocide at the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on April 24, 2015.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, Germany, at the presentation on the Armenian Genocide at the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on April 24, 2015. (photo: Bohumil Petrik / CNA/EWTN)

VATICAN CITY — Cardinal Walter Kasper has again expressed his concerns about the “Synodal Path” of the Church in Germany, this time lending his firm support to the counterproposal that a German bishop critical of the process presented earlier this month.

In a lecture given in Rome on Sept. 17, Cardinal Kasper criticized the official text of one of the themes of the “Synodal Path” — on the exercise of power and authority in the Church — saying that it attempts to “reinvent the Church, so to speak, with the help of an erudite theological and theoretical framework.” 

There is “much that is correct in it,” he said, but added there is also “much that is hypothetical” and that “in the end, many wonder whether all this is still entirely Catholic.” 

“Some statements,” he went on, “clearly deviate from the basic concerns of Vatican II, for example, in the sacramental understanding of the Church and the episcopate.” 

By contrast, the German cardinal said an alternative to the official text, entitled “Authority and Responsibility” and published Sept. 3 on a new website by Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg, clearly analyzes the existing problems, is consistent with the Second Vatican Council, and proposes effective and feasible steps to reform.

“It places itself clearly on the foundations of the Council, which should be common to us all,” the president emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity contended. “It recognizes the open questions that the Council left behind and seeks to continue on the path of the Council, on the secure foundation of the Council.”

He added that in doing so, it shows it is “not necessary to turn everything upside down,” and that “one can go beyond the Council, in the spirit of the Council, without coming into conflict with the teachings of the Church.”

“This is the way of the living tradition, the way of the Church,” Cardinal Kasper added. “It understands tradition not as a forbidding fortress, but as an invitation to set out on the way of the Church and to be surprised by new insights.”

The 45-page counterproposal released by Bishop Voderholzer was co-authored by a group of four laity and clergy: Father Wolfgang Picken, dean of the city of Bonn; Marianne Schlosser, a theology professor in Vienna, Austria; journalist Alina Oehler; and Auxiliary Bishop Florian Wörner of Augsburg. 

Their stated aim was to “outline concrete steps for reform that can be implemented in faithfulness to the faith of the Church and in accordance with its legal structure, but which also show that questions that society brings to the Church are taken seriously.” 

But a motion to discuss their contribution within the synodal process was rejected by the leadership of the Synodal Forum, Claudia Lücking-Michel and Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen.

The forum is one of four that make up the “Synodal Path,” a multi-year process which grew out of the sexual abuse crisis and ends in February 2022. The other three deal with sexual morality, priestly life and the role of women in the Church. 

Father Picken said he saw Cardinal Kasper’s statements as confirming the view “that the official forum text is partly based on untenable theological hypotheses and is therefore likely to fail in world Church terms.” 

“Cardinal Kasper emphasizes how important it is on the “Synodal Path” to struggle for solutions that everyone can support,” Father Picken said. “He thus supports our demand for an open and lively debate. Unfortunately, those in charge of the synodal journey refuse to do just that. 

“To our dismay, the chairs of the Synodal Forum rejected a member’s request to discuss the alternative text in the forum. They are thus blocking open dialogue and excluding whole groups. I see this as an indictment of a forum concerned with power, the separation of powers and participation. 

“We have had to repeatedly experience being screened out, marginalized and silenced,” Father Picken said, adding that this “openly and directly contradicts the meaning of synodality and everything that Pope Francis has proposed” ahead of the upcoming 2021-2023 synod on synodality for the universal Church. 

In June, Cardinal Kasper said he was “very worried” about Germany’s “Synodal Path and wondered why those involved in the process had not taken Pope Francis’ 2019 letter urging them to take caution “more seriously and, as befits a synod, consider the critical questions in the light of the Gospel?” He also criticized the Synodal Path’s high media profile, saying “it truly does not give a good public image.”

“I am very worried, but I am cautious about making a final overall judgment,” he said.

Bishop Voderholzer has been a longstanding critic of aspects of the “Synodal Path.” In 2019, along with Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, he drafted alternative statutes to guide the process, but the proposal was voted down by the German bishops’ permanent council in August 2019. He also voted against statutes for the process the same year. 

In February 2020, he said that he detected an “authoritarian despotism” in the procedures of the “Synodal Path” and in September of the same year, he sharply criticized a text produced by the forum on the role of women, Catholic News Agency reported. 

On Sept. 3, Bishop Voderholzer announced the new website on the “Synodal Path,” which aims to make contributions to the synodal process through texts that are faithful to the teaching and tradition of the Church. The online resource will eventually contain alternative texts for the three other synodal forums. 

The second plenary session of the Synodal Assembly, the supreme decision-making body for the “Synodal Path,” will take place in Frankfurt from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2. 

The assembly consists of the German bishops, 69 members of the influential lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), and representatives of other parts of the Church in Germany.

In his Rome lecture, Cardinal Kasper said it is “not necessary to turn everything upside down; it is only necessary to continue courageously along the path of the Church and of the Council. Then we need not be afraid; then we have the promise of the Lord on our side.” 

But he expressed his hope “that both sides are big enough to approach each other,” adding that if a “new departure” is truly desired, “then we need, according to synodal tradition, a unanimous answer that does not divide, but brings us together.”