German Bishops at Synod Find Fraternity Despite Deep Divisions Back Home

‘What unites us in faith, for example, the common Eucharist, is more than what separates us,’ Bishop Stefan Oster told the Register. ‘How should we not be able to have good conversations with each other?’

L to R: Bishops Georg Bätzing and Stefan Oster enjoy a good conversation and a laugh on the first full day of the synod.
L to R: Bishops Georg Bätzing and Stefan Oster enjoy a good conversation and a laugh on the first full day of the synod. (photo: Jonathan Liedl / National Catholic Register)

VATICAN CITY — Participants in the Synod on Synodality, a gathering of bishops and others to advise the Pope on how members of the Catholic Church can better “journey together,” have hailed the experience as a special time to build relations with Catholics from other parts of the world.

But for some members, the four-week gathering in Rome is also an opportunity to spend some quality time with fellow attendees from their own local Church — including those with whom they disagree on fundamental issues.

This certainly seems to be the experience of the delegation from Germany, a local Church that has been deeply divided by the controversial Synodal Way, a non-canonically recognized assembly that has pushed for contentious changes to Church teaching and practice related to sexuality, ordination and Church governance. 

Some of the leading figures on both sides of the showdown over the Synodal Way are in Rome together. But here, nearly 650 miles away from the German border, their disagreements, while not forgotten, have not gotten in the way of moments of fraternity.

Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German Bishops’ Conference, has been one of the most aggressive advocates of the Synodal Way, while Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau, one of four bishops who blocked funding for the next stage of the process, has been one of its most steadfast critics. But at the lunch break on the Synod on Synodality’s first full day, the two were spotted enjoying a good conversation and a laugh as they left Paul VI Hall.

Earlier in the week, Bishop Oster had shared a lighthearted photo of himself and another bishop on the opposite end of the Synodal Way spectrum, Bishop Franz Josef Overbeck of Essen. The German bishops had coincidentally ended up in the same small group at the synod’s opening retreat two times in a row — evidence, Bishop Oster wrote, that “God has a sense of humor.” 

Despite their “quite contrasting views on what synodality even is — and what the possible solutions out of the crisis in our Church are,” Bishop Oster shared that the two had the opportunity to “express these differences in a synodal way and hopefully in mutual appreciation.”

The German Bishops’ Conference (DBK) shared the post on its own Facebook account.

But the bishops from Germany at the Synod on Synodality aren’t merely crossing paths during synod proceedings. As Bishop Oster shared with the Register, many of them, including Bishop Felix Genn of Münster, are also housemates during their time in Rome. Also staying at the German synod house are Thomas Söding, vice president of the Central Committee for German Catholics and a theological “expert” at the synod, as well as Matthias Kopp, the spokesman for the DBK. The bishops also celebrate Mass and have meals together.

Some might find scenes of German bishops on opposite ends of the Synodal Way spectrum enjoying each other’s company surprising, or even suspicious, given the significant stakes at play not only in the Catholic Church in Germany, but at the Synod on Synodality. In fact, some of the comments on Bishop Oster’s social-media posts reflected this attitude, with one user mockingly commenting, “We all love each other so much!” followed by emojis indicating disgust. 

But for 58-year-old Bishop Oster, these moments of fraternity don’t deny that there are deep disagreements — instead, they point to something deeper.

“What unites us in faith, for example, the common Eucharist, is more than what separates us,” he told the Register. “How should we not be able to have good conversations with each other?”

Even so, it’s hard to imagine these public scenes of open fraternity between German bishops with such starkly different views having played out, for instance, in Frankfurt, during the Synodal Way’s final March 2023 assembly. After all, that event was characterized by pressure tactics and intimidation, as Synodal Way proponents regularly shamed bishops who opposed controversial measures and even employed altered rules to prevent anonymous voting.

This suggests that the German bishops’ Roman time away from home is also a reprieve from the heavy, even toxic atmosphere that presently characterizes German ecclesial life. At a synod free from the grip of the powerful Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) and the German Catholic media establishment, German bishops with deep disagreements may feel freer to treat each other as confreres instead of as competition.

These fraternal moments may also be a fruit of the atmosphere of prayer that has been woven in throughout the Synod on Synodality’s proceedings — and of the prayer efforts for the Synod on Synodality that have been launched back in Germany, such as in Bishop Oster’s diocese.

Anian Christoph Wimmer, editor of CNA Deutsch, said that scenes like the one between Bishops Bätzing and Oster might be an echo of the theme of “collegiality” that has been emphasized at the Synod on Synodality.

“Their amicable interaction might signify a broader willingness for engaging in respectful discourse despite ideological disparities,” Wimmer told the Register. “Or at least that would be my hope.”

Of course, as Wimmer indicates, laughs and photo ops do not do away with divergent convictions on fundamental teachings and practices of the Church; nor do they dismiss the reality that proponents of the Synodal Way have come to Rome with the expressed intention of promoting their views more widely in the Church. 

If and when the pro-Synodal Way bishops take the floor in Rome to advocate for their agenda, expect Bishop Oster, and possibly Augsburg Bishop Bertram Meier (now sick with COVID), to offer a countering German Catholic perspective.

Such a high-stakes confrontation in the midst of the Synod on Synodality would likely put relations between the German bishops to the test — but if fraternal bonds can survive such a showdown, the German bishops may be able to provide a witness to the kind of “journeying together” — even in the midst of disagreements — that synodality is meant to be all about. 

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Courts Look at the Abortion Pill, and More on the German Bishops (Dec. 16)

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take up a key abortion case in 2024. The nation’s highest court will weigh in on how patients can access the widely used abortion pill mifepristone. The Register’s National Correspondent Lauretta Brown brings us this story and more from the Register’s coverage of abortion in the United States. But first we get an update on what seems to be a standoff between the Vatican and German Bishops from Jonathan Liedl, who has been reporting on this ongoing story from Rome.