German Bishops Pushing Forward With Controversial ‘Synodal Assembly’

The new body is envisioned as having ‘binding’ authority to address ‘key issues’ arising from the sex-abuse crisis, including clerical celibacy and the Church’s teaching on sexual morality.

The new Synodal Assembly would be presided over by Cardinal Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, and Thomas Sternberg, the current president of ZdK.
The new Synodal Assembly would be presided over by Cardinal Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, and Thomas Sternberg, the current president of ZdK. (photo: EWTN TV)

BERLIN — The German bishops are pressing forward with a controversial synodal program, creating a new Synodal Assembly in partnership with an influential German lay group. The decision to proceed comes despite a warning from Pope Francis to the German bishops that they must remain in step with the whole Church.

In March of this year, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich and Freising and head of the German bishops’ conference, announced that the Church in Germany would embark on a “binding synodal process” to tackle what he called the “key issues” arising from the clerical abuse crisis: clerical celibacy, the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, and a reduction of clerical power.

In line with a draft document under development by the German bishops’ conference, which was presented at a meeting of the conference’s permanent council in August, the Church in Germany will proceed to form a new “Synodal Assembly” to address these issues. While the preamble of the statutes is still being drafted and a vote will need to be taken on the entire final text, the conference executive is proceeding in the synodal process with “absolute certainty,” sources close to the German leadership told CNA.

CNA has obtained a copy of the draft statues.

The text would create a “Synodal Way of the Catholic Church in Germany,” which “aims to address and clarify key issues such as ‘authority and separation of powers,’ ‘sexual morality,’ ‘the priestly mode of life,’ ‘women at the service of ecclesiastical offices’” over a two-year period.

The Synodal Assembly would be given the authority to pass resolutions in the name of the Church in Germany. The assembly will have up to 200 members, with the largest block, 70, coming from the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK). 

German priests, religious, deacons, pastoral workers and other lay groups will also be represented. The 69 bishops who form the German bishops’ conference will be a minority of the membership. Each member — whether a bishop, a priest or a layperson — will possess a single vote.

Article 3 of the draft statutes provides: 

“The synodal assembly is the superior body and has deliberative power. Members of the synodal assembly have an equal right to vote in decision-making matters.”

The statutes also clarify that resolutions must receive a passing vote of two-thirds majority of the Synodal Assembly, including a two-thirds majority of the bishop members. 

The statutes also provide that resolutions “do not affect the power of the episcopal conference and of individual diocesan bishops, in the context of their own areas of competence, to issue normative acts and to exercise their proper magisterium.”

Article 11 of the draft statutes provides that “resolutions that concern issues reserved for control by the universal Church will be further transmitted to the Apostolic See.” 

In June, Pope Francis issued a letter to the entire Church in Germany, warning the bishops against “plans and mechanisms” that could prove “anything but helpful for a common path” for the Church. The Pope said that any “synodal path” would need to be the subject of careful reflection.

“What it means concretely and how it develops will certainly have to be considered even more deeply,” the Pope wrote, reminding the Germans that synodality “means going out together with the whole Church under the light of the Holy Spirit.”

Francis warned that “the synodal perspective does not resolve opposites or confusions, nor does it subordinate conflicts to the decisions of a ‘good consensus’ that compromise faith, to the results of censuses or surveys relating to this or that subject.”

Despite the Pope’s call for a deeper reflection on synodal mechanisms and a focus on faithful evangelization, senior sources in the German bishops’ conference told CNA that the conference is now in the final stages of completing the governing document.

The new Synodal Assembly would be presided over by Cardinal Marx, as the president of the German bishops’ conference, and Thomas Sternberg, the current president of ZdK. Each document and subject area will be treated by a smaller group, a “Synodal Forum,” membership of which is determined by the co-presidents.

A completed version of the statutes for the Synodal Assembly has yet to be released. 

Nevertheless, Sternberg and Cardinal Marx have confirmed on the ZdK website that the forum groups for three of the four subject areas have already been constituted and begun their work:

“The first three forums have already started work,” according to a quote jointly attributed to Cardinal Marx and Sternberg from July 5, in the days immediately following the Pope’s letter to the German leadership and faithful.

The membership of working groups assigned to develop resolutions on “separation of powers,” sexual morality, priestly life, and the role of women in the offices and ministries of the Church is also published on the website of ZdK.

“The aim of this forum work is to deliver the first interim results in the autumn, in order to prepare the actual synodal way. Our joint timetable states that we want to decide on the exact form of the Synodal Path in September and November at the respective assemblies of the German Bishops’ Conference and ZdK.”

The release of the interim reports is expected to coincide with the meeting of the Synod on the Amazon in Rome, in which members of the German hierarchy have taken a close interest and played an influential role in drafting the preparatory documents. 

While the Amazonian meeting is intended to deal with a range of pastoral issues concerning the region, including environmental concerns, much focus has been placed on the proposal to permit a limited exception to priestly celibacy in the region by ordaining so-called viri probati, or married laymen, deemed to be a proven worth.

Pope Francis has insisted that the ordination of married men should not be the focus of the Amazon meeting. But one German bishop, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, who is vice chairman of the German bishops’ conference, said in a 2018 interview that if the priestly ordination of married men is authorized for remote regions, German bishops will insist on the same authorization.

“This is obvious,” Bishop Bode said at the time. The bishop said that a “pastoral emergency” in Osnabrück, his diocese, and other German dioceses, is “different, but also very severe.”

Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, who also serves as president of Adveniat, the Church in Germany’s aid organization for Latin America, has called the Amazonian synod “a point of no return” for the Church and that “nothing will be the same as it was” after the synod.

Pope Francis has instructed the German bishops that they must proceed in communion with the universal Church. The statutes for the Synodal Assembly make clear that the bishops intend to pass binding resolutions on matters touching universal Church teaching.

Recent statements from the ZdK indicate an expectation that the Synodal Assembly will become the principal forum for debating, and deciding, ecclesial issues in Germany.

The ZdK’s 2019 Plenary Assembly concluded that its agreement to participate in the Synodal Assembly was conditioned on a guarantee from the German bishops that synodal resolutions would be binding.

“The ZdK will actively and constructively contribute, as long as the openness of the deliberations and the bindingness of the resolutions are guaranteed by the partners involved in the ‘Synodal Way.’”

ZdK Vice President Wolfgang Klose, who would have a senior organizing role in the Synodal Assembly’s presidency, told the Central Committee’s membership in May that the Synodal Assembly can and would treat issues of universal Church teaching and discipline.

"It is not right to use the level of the global Church as an excuse not to comprehensively face concrete problems on the ground,” he told members as he recommended ZdK participation in the Synodal Assembly. 

“This must not become a self-serving attempt to justify [the Church’s] behavior. Rather, it is the universal Church that is realized in the local Churches; she lives from the impulses of those people who strive to present the Gospel of Jesus in their concrete situations.”

Sources close to the German bishops’ conference have confirmed to CNA that, when finalized, the statutes of the Synodal Assembly will be made available in several languages. Several translations have already been prepared by the German bishops’ conference.

CNA spoke to several officials in different Curial departments in Rome, all of whom said that the statutes for the Synodal Assembly have not yet been submitted to Vatican authorities for consultation or approval.

On Sept. 4, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Köln told his diocesan newspaper that he has concerns about the plans for the “binding synodal process,” noting widespread anxiety that the plans would fracture the relationship between the global Church and the German hierarchy. 

Many Catholics, the cardinal said, fear “that we even risk the community with the universal Church and will become a German national church.”

Cardinal Marx told reporters in July: “No German bishop, no member of the ZdK wants to leave the universal Church, which is not an issue at all.”

Cardinal Marx added: “Reading the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel, that’s what matters.”