Pope Francis Receives Bishop Bätzing, Reportedly Encourages German Synodal Path

In a statement, the head of the German bishops’ conference said the Pope called on the Church in Germany to “help shape the path of synodality” for the upcoming Synod of Bishops for the universal Church.

Pope Francis greets Bishop Georg Bätzing for a private audience at the Vatican on July 24, 2021.
Pope Francis greets Bishop Georg Bätzing for a private audience at the Vatican on July 24, 2021. (photo: Screenshot / Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY — During a private audience this morning, Pope Francis urged the president of the German bishops’ conference to continue with a much-disputed Synodal Path for the Church in Germany.

According to a statement issued almost immediately by the German bishops’ conference after the meeting, Bishop Bätzing said the Pope “has encouraged us to continue on the Synodal Path we have chosen, to discuss the questions openly and honestly and to come to recommendations for a change in the way the Church operates.”

“At the same time,” he added, “he called for the Church in Germany to help shape the path of synodality that he has proclaimed towards the Synod of Bishops in 2023.”

Bishop Bätzing said the focus of their discussions was the sexual abuse crisis, that Pope Francis is “well informed about the situation of the Church in Germany,” and that the Pope “hopes tensions can be overcome.”

The bishop said he had informed the Pope “in detail” about the Synodal Path and he had “made it clear” to Francis that rumors of the Church in Germany wanting to “embark on a special path were baseless.” 

The Register asked the Holy See Press Office whether it could confirm the contents of the German bishops' conference’s statement. They responded by saying they “don't usually offer insight concerning the contents of these conversations.”

According to Vatican sources, today’s meeting was planned some time ago as Bishop Bätzing will be in Rome again in July for several high-level Vatican meetings, but because the Pope will not be receiving visitors next month, today’s meeting was scheduled.

It is only the second time the Pope and Bishop Bätzing have met since 2019 and comes amid growing Vatican concerns about the German Church’s Synodal Path, breaches of a Vatican directive on Holy Communion for Protestants, and the Pope’s recent non-acceptance of Cardinal Reinhard Marx’s resignation as archbishop of Munich and Freising over the clerical sex abuse crisis.

The Synodal Path in Germany, which grew out of the sexual abuse crisis and runs into 2022, is debating issues of power, sexual morality, priestly life and the role of women in the Church as part of an effort to ostensibly root out abuse. 

Critics have warned that the synodal process threatens to lead the Church in Germany into schism, as bishops and others use it to promote ideas at odds with the Church’s teaching and tradition, such as women’s ordination, the acceptance of homosexual relations, and an end to mandatory clerical celibacy. 

In late May, Cardinal Marx, Bishop Bätzing’s predecessor and a key figure behind the Synodal Path, submitted his resignation ostensibly for his own mistakes in dealing with the clerical abuse crisis as well as for the Church’s institutional errors. But in his resignation letter he also urged the continuation of the synodal project which he sees as a way out of the crisis. Unusually, his resignation letter was made public.

Pope Francis rejected Cardinal Marx’s offer to resign a few days after it was made public, telling the cardinal that he should “continue as you propose,” as priest and bishop, “but as archbishop of Munich and Freising.” 

Commentators saw this as a clear papal endorsement of the Synodal Path, and Marx’s attempt to resign as a means to exert pressure on Cardinal Rainer Woelki to similarly offer his resignation over the sexual abuse crisis. The cardinal archbishop of Cologne has been a leading critic of the Synodal Path and therefore seen as a main obstacle to its goals.

Today’s meeting also comes ahead of detailed reports on historical sexual abuse cases in Munich and Berlin. 

The meeting also follows Protestant and Catholic worshippers in Germany defying Vatican warnings by taking part in each other’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper at the Third Ecumenical Church Congress in Frankfurt last month. 

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had warned Bishop Bätzing against such a practice last September, saying doctrinal differences with Protestants were “still so weighty” and that “mutual participation in the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist” was not possible. 

In their meeting today, Bishop Bätzing said he was “grateful to Pope Francis that we were able to talk at length about ecumenical issues and the recent Third Ecumenical Church Congress, which I reported on and whose impact I explained.” 

Today’s audience follows at least one attempt by Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to summon Bishop Bätzing to Rome for talks over concerns about the bishops’ direction. 

The Pope, who also received Cardinal Ladaria in a separate private audience this morning, overruled that invitation, reliable sources told the Register in March.