German Bishops Reject ‘Priority of Evangelization’ Plan in Synodal Path

The proposal was voted down in an August meeting of the executive committee of the German Episcopal Conference.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising and Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne.
Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising and Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne. (photo: Paul Badde/CNA)

BERLIN — The German bishops have rejected an alternative proposal for a synodal process centered on the “priority of evangelization” called for by Pope Francis.

The proposal was voted down in an August meeting of the executive committee of the German Episcopal Conference, during which they decided to continue with plans for the creation of a Synodal Assembly under the joint leadership of the head of the German bishops’ conference and the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK).

Like the plan developed under the leadership of Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, the alternative plan would have created a Synodal Assembly made up of bishops, other clergy and laity. It would also have sponsored a number of synodal fora to discuss and develop responses to pressing ecclesiastical issues.

But, unlike the Cardinal Marx plan, the alternative proposal was specifically drafted to include the instructions of a June letter of Pope Francis to the German faithful, which laid out clear priorities for an authentic synodal process.

The draft plan was submitted to the Permanent Council of the German Episcopal Conference at its Aug. 19 meeting. It was jointly proposed by Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne and Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg.

CNA has learned from officials and observers present at the meeting that the proposal was rejected in a 21-3 vote, with three members abstaining. The committee is made up of the sitting diocesan bishops of the country.

The document proposed “a comprehensive and thoroughgoing spiritual renewal consistent with the universal Church and its faith in the sense of the ‘Priority of Evangelization’ called for by Pope Francis,” who warned the Germans against a synodal approach focused on bureaucratic and structural considerations without being animated by the Church’s essential mission to spread the faith.

While it mirrors many of the structural proposals of the Cardinal Marx plan, including the involvement of the ZdK, the Woelki-Voderholzer plan placed the Pope’s call for communion with the universal Church and the primacy of evangelization at the center of the synodal deliberations.

Both plans called for the incorporation of lay groups, including the ZdK, as well as representatives from religious orders and the diocesan clergy.

But unlike the Cardinal Marx plan, which incorporated all the bishops of the country into the Synodal Assembly, in which they form a minority of members, the Woelki-Voderholzer would have limited episcopal membership to the 27 diocesan bishops and 13 auxiliary bishops elected by their peers. According to sources present in the room, Cardinal Woelki and Bishpp Voderholzer told the other bishops that their intention was to underscore that the bishops’ conference remained a separate and authoritative body whose authority was not subsumed into the assembly.

In his June letter, Pope Francis warned against a version of synodality that only proceeds “from the bottom up” and lacks a complimentary “synodality from top to bottom that allows, in a specific and singular way, for the collegial dimension of the episcopal ministry” in the universal life of the Church.

Unlike the Cardinal Marx plan, the Woelki-Voderholzer proposal also called for observers from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization to attend the synodal sessions and would have had provided for the full bishops’ conference to consider each synodal resolution, amending and voting on them as necessary, before submitting each resolution to Rome for “official review and recognition.”

In contrast, the Cardinal Marx plan, which was approved during the August meeting, defines the Synodal Assembly as “the superior body” that “has deliberative power.” While the statutes of Cardinal Marx’s plan note that the assembly does “not affect the power of the episcopal conference and of individual diocesan bishops,” neither does it provide any mechanism for them to review its resolutions.

Similarly, under that plan, “resolutions that concern issues reserved for control by the universal Church will be further transmitted to the Apostolic See,” but will neither request Roman approval nor wait for a response before considering the resolutions approved for application in Germany. 

In his June letter, Pope Francis warned that the German synodal process must avoid the temptation of “a new Pelagianism” that seeks “to tidy up and tune the life of the Church, adapting it to the present logic.” The result, Francis said, would be a “well-organized and even ‘modernized’ ecclesiastical body, but without soul and evangelical novelty.”

The Pope specifically warned the Church in Germany against pursuing any course that aimed at “simply adapting to the spirit of times” and urged them to preserve the sensus ecclesiae of the whole Church on the faith.

“The universal Church lives in and of the particular Churches, just as the particular Churches live and flourish in and of the universal Church, and if they are separated from the whole ecclesial body, they weaken, wither and die. Hence the need to always keep alive and effective communion with the whole body of the Church,” Francis wrote.

In its original text, obtained by CNA, the Woelki-Voderholzer proposal suggested seven topics for synodal consideration: sexual abuse; delegating laity to serve in evangelization; youth ministry and catechesis; marriage ministry and family counseling; vocations ministry; theology and religious instruction at the service of evangelization; and spirituality and evangelization.

The plan also emphasized that magisterially clarified topics such as the ordination of women, which Pope Francis has consistently rejected in line with perennial Church teaching, would remain outside the synodal discussions. 

Sources close to the German bishops’ conference told CNA that there was concern among several bishops that creating a venue to vote against Church teaching could create “unrealistic expectations” for change and even “sow the seeds of dissent between the particular and universal Church.”

But despite the warning from the Pope and the proposal of a Francis-inspired synodal response, the draft plan approved by the German bishops, expected to be published soon, listed four key areas for the synodal fora to consider and propose resolutions on: “authority and separation of powers” in the Church; teaching on “sexual morality”; clerical discipline and “the priestly mode of life”; and “women at the service of ecclesiastical offices” in the Church.

The ZdK, whose members make up a significant portion of the proposed assembly, have already published the names of participants in each of the for a, and their work began even before the Aug. 19 meeting. In each case, the ZdK members have a public record opposing settled Church teaching and discipline, including “demanding” women’s ordination and calling for a “radical break” with the Church’s teaching on sexual morality to incorporate new clinical and academic conclusions.

Public statements from the ZdK leadership underscored that the participation of the group in the synodal process was conditional on “the openness of the deliberations and the bindingness of the resolutions” being “guaranteed” by the German bishops, and the constitution of the Synodal Assembly in the Cardinal Marx plan has raised concerns that the group’s deliberations could trigger a break with universal Church teaching, despite the Pope’s warnings.

In a homily delivered Sept. 8, Cardinal Woelki spoke about the dangers of reforming efforts that are not grounded in the Pope’s vision of the sensus ecclesiae.

“A Church that adapts itself to the world in its faith is not the work of the Holy Spirit, but that of our human spirit,” he said in his homily on the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

He also warned against the temptation for the Church to behave “like a parliament,” leaning on “the social and human sciences to negotiate about the faith and doctrine of the Church.”

The aim of bringing about “so-called reform of the Church,” the cardinal said, often proposes nothing more than “an adaptation to the thinking of the world.”