Synodal SOS? Funding for German Synodal Committee May Be in Jeopardy

NEWS ANALYSIS: While very little has been said publicly, a statement from the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) suggests that closed-door conversations among some German bishops about blocking funding for the next phase of the synodal reforms may be a credible threat to the process.

Cologne Cathedral
Cologne Cathedral (photo: Unsplash)

Since the conclusion of the German Synodal Way’s final assembly on March 11, there has been a dearth of publicly available details about the status of the next phase of the process: the synodal committee, a transitory body set to begin Nov. 10, with the expressed purpose of laying the groundwork for the establishment of a permanent synodal council of bishops and laypeople, which has been forbidden by the Vatican as currently proposed.

But for the second time in as many months, the German lay association co-organizing the synodal proceedings with the German bishops has issued a public statement that may reveal what’s going on behind closed doors — and may indicate that “the synodals” (the name local media has given to backers of the Synodal Way) are worried that the process may be hitting a roadblock.

While the leadership of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) asserted in May that they would no longer accept the bishops’ ability to veto decisions in synodal proceedings, a possible sign that they don’t have the episcopal support needed to cross the Vatican’s “red line” and establish a Synodal Council, the ZdK addressed a very different topic in their June 1 press release: an appeal to the German bishops to fund the next step of the process.

In typical fashion, ZdK’s president, Irme Stetter-Karp, was assertive and brazen in her quoted remarks. “We expect the German bishops to continue the process of reforming the Synodal Path,” she said in the statement, which also described the “reluctance of some bishops, which has become public today, to provide the planned synodal committee with the necessary funds” as “irritating.” The statement goes on to describe Stetter-Karp’s ominous observation that “breach of word destroys credibility,” as a warning, and quotes  ZdK’s vice president, Wolfgang Klose, telling the bishops to “take responsibility; don’t duck away.”

But beneath the bravado seems to be a note of concern among ZdK leadership. After all, why would ZdK go public with a message demanding that the bishops fund the next step if there wasn’t a credible threat that they wouldn’t?

Although funding figures for the three-year synodal committee have not been publicly released, German Bishops’ Conference (DBK) spokesman Matthias Kopp told the Register in May that 5.5 million euros had been spent on the Synodal Way during its initial three-year phase of assemblies. It’s reasonable to think that costs for the synodal committee might be in the same ballpark, especially considering that Synodal Way costs were dampened by the shift to virtual meetings during the height of COVID-19 restrictions. 

Funding for the synodal committee depends upon the approval of the Association of German Dioceses (VDD), the legal and economic entity representing Germany’s 27 dioceses. The head of the VDD’s assembly is the chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, and its members are the 27 episcopal ordinaries of Germany — identical to the makeup of the German Bishops’ Conference’s “permanent council.” 

Approval for such an expenditure would require unanimity among all 27 members of the VDD. And while it’s likely that a supermajority of German bishops are willing to sign off on funding the synodal committee, there’s reason to think the needed unanimity might not be guaranteed; the ZdK communication says as much, arguing that the requirement for all the bishops to be on board “gives power to those who don’t want to fund the committee.”

DBK’s Kopp confirmed to the Register that the German bishops are currently “in talks” about funding for the synodal committee, but had no information to share. The bishops’ permanent council did not release funding for the synodal committee at its April 24 meeting. The permanent council is scheduled to meet next June 19-20 in Berlin.

The ZdK statement suggests that the reluctance of some bishops to fund the synodal committee has “become public today,” a reference to a report by the German Catholic news agency KNA, entitled, “Is the Catholic reform process in Germany failing because of money?” 

Although no bishops have publicly said they will not participate or fund the synodal committee, KNA reported that Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg, perhaps the most vocal critic of the synodal process, wrote in a letter to his brother bishops in April that it was not yet clear “whether the VDD would make money available for the synodal committee at all.” KNA added that there was reportedly “a fierce battle of words between Cardinals Reinhard Marx and Rainer Maria Woelki” — a synodal critic — at the April meeting of the bishops’ permanent council.

KNA also reported that Diocese of Passau Bishop Stefan Oster is also prepared to not support funding the synodal committee, although the bishop’s office has not confirmed this report. Bishop Bertram Meier of Augsburg, who, along with Cardinal Woelki, Bishops Oster and Voderholzer, and Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstatt, wrote to the Holy See in December raising questions about the legitimacy of a synodal council in Germany, reportedly said he is not ready to make a decision about participating or financing the project “as long as neither the exact objective nor the specific competencies of the synodal committee have been clarified.”

As the KNA article goes on the spell out, if there is not unanimity among the 27 ordinaries, funding for the synodal committee by a “coalition of the willing” without access to VDD funds would prove difficult. Some German dioceses are in the midst of austerity measures, making extra cash difficult to come up with. And the ZdK already derives 94% of its funding from the VDD — and presumably would not have enough to spare from its annual budget of 2.8 million euro. Of course, aside from the financial obstacles, it would be a serious blow to the credibility of the synodal reforms if one or more German bishops refused to fund the project — or opted out of participating entirely.

Resistance to  synodal reform in Germany has been ratcheting up from outside of the country, including from Pope Francis and the Vatican. Most recently, Synod on Synodality lead organizer Cardinal Mario Grech told EWTN that the synodal process in Germany has “sent negative vibes” throughout the universal Church. 

And now, it appears that internal opponents of the Synodal Way may have a silver bullet to stop the problematic process in its tracks — or at least seriously slow it down. 

But will the handful of bishops (or at least just one of them) who have expressed reservations about the synodal committee be willing to use it? We may find out in just over two weeks’ time.

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne attends a German Synodal Way assembly on March 9, 2023.

Four German Bishops Resist Push to Install Permanent ‘Synodal Council’

Given the Vatican’s repeated interventions against the German process, the bishops said they would instead look to the Synod of Bishops in Rome. Meanwhile, on Monday, German diocesan bishops approved the statutes for a synodal committee; and there are reports that the synodal committee will meet again in June.