The Vatican’s Germany Strategy Is Coming into Focus — Including What Might Be Missing

ANALYSIS: Pope Francis’ archbishop picks for Germany and the Vatican’s guidance on blessing same-sex couples may indicate Rome’s plan for dealing with the problematic Synodal Way, but also underscore what’s still absent from the equation.

Auxiliary Bishop Udo Bentz of Mainz walks down the stairs to the tomb of St. Boniface at the beginning of the opening service of the Fall Plenary Assembly of the German Bishops' Conference on 25 Sept. 25, 2018. On Dec. 9, Pope Francis appointed Bishop Udo Bentz to head the Archdiocese of Paderborn and Bishop Herwig Gössl to be the next ordinary of the Archdiocese of Bamberg.
Auxiliary Bishop Udo Bentz of Mainz walks down the stairs to the tomb of St. Boniface at the beginning of the opening service of the Fall Plenary Assembly of the German Bishops' Conference on 25 Sept. 25, 2018. On Dec. 9, Pope Francis appointed Bishop Udo Bentz to head the Archdiocese of Paderborn and Bishop Herwig Gössl to be the next ordinary of the Archdiocese of Bamberg. (photo: Arne Dedert / AP )

VATICAN CITY — What is Pope Francis going to do about the situation in Germany?

The question has been asked ever since the Catholic Church in Germany launched the Synodal Way, an initiative begun in 2019 that has pushed for radical deviations from Church teaching related to governance, sexuality and ordained ministry. 

But the need for a more decisive response from Rome has seemingly reached a new level in recent weeks. Synodal Way leadership has pressed forward with preparations for a Vatican-forbidden “Synodal Council,” a permanent, mixed body to govern the Church in Germany that could see laypeople override the episcopacy in decision-making. And recently, some German bishops have either promoted or given approval for formalized, ceremonial blessings of same-sex couples in their dioceses, another Synodal Way priority at odds with previous instructions from Rome.

With the Synodal Way standoff between Germany and Rome more tense than ever, Pope Francis’ recent appointment of two new German archbishops and the Vatican’s new guidance on blessings of same-sex couples may give some indication of the Vatican’s strategy for addressing the situation — but also highlights what might still be missing if Rome is serious about deterring the German episcopacy from going further down a forbidden path.

The New Archbishops

On Dec. 9, Pope Francis appointed Bishop Udo Bentz to head the Archdiocese of Paderborn and Bishop Herwig Gössl to be the next ordinary of the Archdiocese of Bamberg.

Prior to the appointments, Germany had four dioceses without a bishop (two still remain unfilled). Observers had speculated that the Holy Father might use these openings as a strategic opportunity to redirect ecclesial affairs in Germany, perhaps by picking prelates who would join four other German ordinaries who have already refused to participate in a committee setting up the Synodal Council. After all, Pope Francis recently described the committee, which held its first meeting Nov. 10-11,  as one of many steps leading Germany “increasingly away from the universal Church’s common path.”

But by most estimations — and despite the Pope’s increasingly dire assessment of the Synodal Way — his archbishop picks do not appear to be direct-intervention-by-appointment instances.

Although Bishop Bentz, who will be installed on March 10, has yet to confirm that he’ll participate in the synodal committee, the now former auxiliary of the Diocese of Mainz has a consistent record of supporting the Synodal Way’s initiatives. At the March 2023 assembly, for instance, he supported resolutions to “embrace gender diversity,” push for including women in “the sacramental diaconate,” and bless same-sex sexual unions. After he was named archbishop, he emphasized union with Pope Francis, but few doubt that he will go along with the episcopal majority in Germany when it comes to the Synodal Way’s priorities.

Bishop Gössl’s views are more consistent with universal Church teaching: He voted against a Synodal Way text in September 2022 that proposed a heterodox account of human sexuality, saying that its style “disgusts me.” And following his appointment as archbishop, while he suggested that mandatory priestly celibacy could be decided differently in different contexts, he emphasized that Germany can’t go its own way on questions of Church structure and attempted women’s ordination. 

“That’s about the core. We have to agree on that,” he said.

But the Franconian prelate is not considered a stalwart of the Synodal Way in the same vein as the four bishops boycotting preparations of the Synodal Council. His vote against the base text on sexuality, after all, came while bishops could still vote anonymously in Synodal Way proceedings; after the rules were changed to make the votes public in the middle of the 2022 assembly, he voted in favor of a resolution calling on the Church’s magisterium to reconsider its teachings on homosexuality. At the March 2023 Synodal Way assembly, he abstained from voting on the same-sex blessing and gender-theory resolutions, while voting in favor of advocating for ordained women deacons.

Despite their somewhat different profiles, Bishops Gössl and Bentz are more moderate than either end of the German episcopal spectrum. Both are “known quantities” among the German bishops, and both voted in favor of establishing the synodal committee in March. While Bishop Gössl said recently that he is “curious” how the proposed German Synodal Council can be reconciled with Vatican guidance, he also confirmed that he will be taking part in the preparatory committee.

As one major German Catholic media outlet put it, the new archbishop picks “provide no indication of a targeted course correction that [the] Pope wanted to inflict on the supposedly stubborn German episcopate.”

Non-Intervention and Compromise 

However, just because Bishops Gössl and Bentz can’t be easily classified as papally picked disruptors of the Synodal Way doesn’t mean that they weren’t selected with the Vatican’s larger strategy for addressing the German situation squarely in mind. 

Similarly, the Vatican’s new guidance on blessings of same-sex couples, Fiducia Supplicans, was likely drafted with an eye to Germany. While allowing for a very narrow form of blessings for same-sex couples, the text explicitly bans any blessings that are formalized, promoted by the bishop or appear to legitimize sexual relations outside of marriage — all of which are elements included in the Synodal Way’s approved resolution

As Neuer Anfang, a German lay group critical of the Synodal Way put it, “the new declaration denies all changes to the teaching on marriage and sexuality called for by the ‘Synodal Way,’ as they have already been anticipated in practice in many dioceses.”

If the archbishop selections and Fiducia Supplicans are part of the Vatican’s strategy to bring the German bishops to heel, they’re consistent with what’s been done up to this point. 

While Pope Francis has issued strong criticisms of the Synodal Way, Rome has refrained from direct interventions into German ecclesial affairs, likely out of concern that a heavy-handed approach would exacerbate an already-tense situation between the German bishops and the Synodal Way’s other prominent backers, a powerful association of mostly lay elites called the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK). The ZdK, which has no parallel in the Catholic Church in the United States and most other countries, exercises major influence in ecclesial administration in Germany. 

Instead of confrontation, the Vatican is prioritizing a series of dialogues between leadership of the Roman Curia and a delegation of the German Bishops’ Conference (DBK).

The first meeting between the parties was held on July 26 in what a joint statement described as a “positive and constructive climate.” Three more meetings between the DBK delegation and the Vatican are expected this coming year in the lead-up to the Synod on Synodality’s second assembly in October 2024. 

Notably, the DBK’s delegation to Rome thus far has not included any of the four bishops who have boycotted the synodal committee: Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg, Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau and Bishop Gregor Hanke of Eichstätt.

The Vatican’s hope seems to be that by keeping channels of communication open, by adding moderate voices like Bishops Gössl and Bentz to the mix, and by offering a sort of “compromise” form of same-sex blessings, it can make conditions favorable for the German bishops to choose against prohibited Synodal Way priorities in favor of unity with the universal Church, if and when a moment of decision arrives.

A Missing Element

However, if this is the Vatican’s strategy, a vital element is still missing from the equation: any compelling reason for the German bishops to have to choose between commitment to forbidden elements of the Synodal Way and unity with the universal Church.

Because without the Vatican turning up the pressure in Germany, it’s unlikely that any significant number of bishops who have not already publicly broken from the committee preparing the Synodal Council will be inclined to do so; nor that they will prohibit Synodal Way-style same-sex blessings from being carried out in their dioceses. 

This isn’t because the German bishops are all irrevocably committed to the tenets of the Synodal Way. In fact, several sources on the ground, including among the episcopacy, tell the Register that if push came to shove, the vast majority of the country’s prelates have no interest in breaking from Rome if that’s what sticking with the Synodal Way would cost.

But at the same time, most German bishops are not likely to abandon the synodal ship on their own initiative. They either favor elements of the Synodal Way or are deeply fearful of reprisal from the ZdK and the German media if they deviate from it — or, in most cases, both. 

In other words, even though sources believe the majority of German bishops would choose unity with Rome over going down a prohibited Synodal Way path, the Vatican has not created the conditions in which most German bishops feel they have to make a decision.

And in the absence of those conditions, it’s not clear how any amount of dialogue, compromise, or moderate archbishop picks will do anything to alter the episcopal status quo. The disincentives for breaking ranks with the ZdK are likely perceived as too high.

Put plainly, if push doesn’t come to shove, most German bishops will just keep on doing what they’re already doing. The alleged Synodal Way stop signs the Vatican has laid down will simply continue to be taken as Synodal Way suggestions.

In fact, the Vatican’s efforts thus far, including a November 2022 request to put a moratorium on the Synodal Way and Pope Francis’ semi-frequent criticisms of the process, have not resulted in significant defections from the Synodal Way by Germany’s bishops. 

The Vatican’s January 2023 prohibition of the Synodal Council has been cited by the four German bishops boycotting the synodal committee as their grounds for disengaging — but they were the ones who wrote to the Vatican in December 2022 seeking clarification in the first place. 

In fact, the only other prelate who co-authored that letter, Augsburg’s middleman-inclined Bishop Bertram Meier, has not rejected the committee in principle (though he, along with three additional German ordinaries, did not attend its November meeting, citing scheduling conflicts).

Similarly, while Synodal Way-style same-sex blessings are clearly at odds with Fiducia Supplicans, they were also in clear contrast to the DDF’s 2021 guidance on the topic — and that didn’t deter most German bishops from approving the proposed blessings at the March assembly or, in some cases, effectively promoting them in their dioceses since.

In actuality, many German bishops have received the new DDF guidance as confirmation of the Synodal Way’s direction. Bishop Heinrich Timmerevers of Dresden-Meissen said Fiducia Supplicans puts the Church “on a path that will take us further, and who knows what will happen in 10 to 15 years.”

In fact, several German sources, including one bishop, told the Register they fear it is too late for the Vatican to stop the worst of the Synodal Way from taking effect in Germany, given the momentum that has been allowed to build up behind it.

Shifting the Dynamics

Whether the Vatican shares this assessment is unclear. But it also seems like opportunities to sufficiently shift dynamics in Germany before Synodal Way resolutions begin to take hold may be running out.

If the Vatican is serious about compelling German bishops to drop their commitment to prohibited elements of the Synodal Way, like the Synodal Council and formalized blessings of same-sex couples that legitimize extramarital sex, they’ll likely make their move in the new year.

One point of inflection could come early. The DBK is expected to meet in Augsburg in February for its annual pre-Lenten plenary session and will vote on formalizing the statutes of the committee preparing the Synodal Council.

Prior to that meeting, Vatican leaders are slated to hold another meeting with the DBK delegation. Recently, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin communicated with the DBK that any talk of changing Church teaching on sexuality or male-only holy orders is off the table in bilateral discussions moving forward, even reiterating that attempting to ordain women is an excommunicable offense. The Vatican could also make clear that formalizing the synodal committee is likewise a nonstarter.

The communication would likely need to be public and direct, with explicit consequences attached. 

The Vatican’s most serious known warning about the synodal committee, Pope Francis’ Nov. 10 letter on the topic, was actually addressed to four German laywomen who had previously written to him, not the German bishops. When asked for a response to the Pope’s criticisms of the synodal committee, the DBK’s press secretary said the German bishops wouldn’t be commenting on a letter that wasn’t sent to them.

If the Vatican is looking for a model for dealing with the German bishops directly, they could turn to the example of Pope St. John Paul II. In 1999, the Polish Pontiff formally requested that the German bishops clarify that certificates issued to pregnant women by Catholic counselors as part of state-mandated crisis counseling could not be used to obtain abortions. 

The Polish Pope provided explicit guidance on the topic, even giving the German bishops language to be included in their certificates, “so that the juridical and moral quality of this document may be unambiguous.” The German bishops added the language, but when it was found that they could still be used to obtain abortions, the Vatican demanded that they stopped being issued altogether, and nearly all the German bishops complied. The lone bishop who resisted, Bishop Franz Kamphaus of Limburg, was stripped of his authority over the counseling centers in his diocese in 2002.

If he desires, Pope Francis could offer similar explicit instructions to the German bishops to end their participation in the synodal committee — and could canonically punish those who ignore his request. He could also choose to forcefully intervene on deviations from Fiducia Supplicans, possibly by removing a bishop who crosses the line and formalizes blessing ceremonies incompatible with the DDF declaration.

 Waiting for the Synod?

Perhaps the most significant decisive moment in German-Vatican relations will come after the conclusion of the universal Church’s Synod on Synodality in October 2024.

The Vatican has consistently said that Germany’s proposals to change Church teaching and practice on issues related to sexuality, ordination and governance must be submitted to the Church’s wider synodal process

Bishop Oster, one of the German bishops boycotting the synodal committee, said in a recent interview that a “way out of the impasse” between Germany and the universal Church could be reached if the German Synodal Way “could now submit” and integrate with the Synod on Synodality, “with a clear acceptance of its content and decisions.”

But if the fact that the term “LGBTQ+” couldn’t even make it into the first synod session’s synthesis report due to significant pushback is any indication, it seems unlikely that many of the Germans’ priorities will receive explicit approbation next October, or in whatever formal teaching Pope Francis chooses to issue as a follow-up to the Synod on Synodality.

If this is the universal synod’s result, the Vatican could tell the Germans that their proposals were expressed but ultimately rejected by the Pope and the universal Church, perhaps giving more weight to demands for compliance — or at least more cover for the German bishops to break ranks with the ZdK.

Bishop Oster suggested that accepting the Synod on Synodality’s outcomes as binding for the German Synodal Way would require “great humility” on the part of the Germans. 

But it also seems clear that, barring an infusion of apostolic courage that most German prelates have not demonstrated to this point, any scenario in which a majority of the episcopacy in Germany breaks from the Synodal Way will also require the Vatican to increase the pressure.

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

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