Will the German Bishops Defy Pope Francis? All Eyes Are on Augsburg to Find Out

ANALYSIS: The German bishops are expected to decide on taking the next step toward a Synodal Council that has been forbidden by the Vatican.

German Bishop Stefan Oster, Bishop Franz-Josef Oberbeck, Bishop Georg Bätzing, Bishop Felix Genn and Bishop Bertram Meier in front of St. Peter's Basilica at the end of the World Synod October 29, 2023.
German Bishop Stefan Oster, Bishop Franz-Josef Oberbeck, Bishop Georg Bätzing, Bishop Felix Genn and Bishop Bertram Meier in front of St. Peter's Basilica at the end of the World Synod October 29, 2023. (photo: Christoph Sator / AP)

Has the Vatican’s strategy to contain the controversial German Synodal Way had any effect?

We’re about to find out.

The German bishops are set to meet Feb. 19-22 in Augsburg for their annual Spring plenary assembly, and the stakes couldn’t be much higher.

A major question hanging over the gathering is whether the bishops will take the next step towards establishing a Synodal Council, a permanent body of bishops and laity to govern the Catholic Church in Germany, which has been explicitly forbidden by the Vatican and criticized by Pope Francis.

To do that, the bishops would need to approve the statutes of a “Synodal Committee” that is currently laying the groundwork for the forbidden council. The committee already held its first meeting November 10-11, 2023, with a majority of German ordinaries taking part. Meanwhile, one of the driving forces behind the whole Synodal Way project, the lay lobby known as the Central Committee for German Catholics (ZdK), already approved the statutes on Nov. 25.

If the German Bishops Conference (DBK) endorse the committee, it would be a dramatic act of defiance of Pope Francis—and also an indication that the Vatican’s dialogue-heavy approach has thus far failed to slow Germany’s march down a path that many fear could lead to schism.

On the other hand, if Germany’s bishops don’t go through with the measure—or even if a significant number oppose it—it would be a blow to the Synodal Way, and a sign that the Vatican’s calls to cease and desist are gaining traction. 

One of these two possibilities will play out next week in Augsburg, the Bavarian city that is home to both the devotion to Mary, Undoer of Knots, but also one of the most important documents of the Protestant Reformation.


The Synodal Committee

According to the German Bishops Conferences (DBK), the upcoming assembly “will address further considerations on the Synodal Path of the Church in Germany”—a vague phrase that is nonetheless being widely interpreted as referring to the possible approval of the Synodal Committee’s statutes.

But although a vote on the statutes has long been expected, the DBK has not yet confirmed that voting will take place. In fact, the assembly’s precise agenda won’t be made public until a press conference with Bishop Georg Bätzing, DBK president and bishop of Limburg, on the opening afternoon.

Of all the problematic resolutions advanced by the Synodal Way, the Synodal Council has been the Vatican’s chief concern. 

In January 2023, after five German bishops wrote to Rome to express concern about the council’s formation, three high ranking Vatican officials wrote that the proposed Synodal Council would undermine episcopal authority “of teaching and of governing” by placing itself “above the authority of the German bishops’ conference.” The letter, which was approved by Pope Francis in its specifics, underscored that no body in Germany had the capacity to create such a council.

More recently, Pope Francis directly criticized the work of the preparatory committee itself. In a private letter penned by the Pope on the same day of the Synodal Committee’s first meeting and published a week and half later, he described the committee — not just the planned-for council — as one of “numerous steps being taken by significant segments” of the Church in Germany “that threaten to steer it increasingly away from the universal Church’s common path.”

But while Pope Francis and Vatican leadership have cautioned the DBK to put on the brakes, the country’s episcopacy is also receiving significant pressure from within Germany to move forward. 

The Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), the powerful lay lobby that co-sponsored the Synodal Way with the DBK, already approved the committee’s statutes on Nov. 25.

Archbishop Heiner Koch of Berlin, the spiritual assistant to the ZdK, said at the time that the lay group’s endorsement was “an important sign for the bishops’ conference.”

However, four of Germany’s 27 diocesan ordinaries have refused to participate in the Synodal Committee, and previously blocked financing it with the German bishops’ shared fund. One of them, Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau, said this decision was vindicated by the Pope’s November letter.

“When I read the letter with this explicitness, the Synodal Committee … from the Pope’s point of view is on forbidden territory,” wrote Bishop Oster in early December.

But how many of Germany’s 64 bishops feel similarly? And, more importantly, if the matter comes to a vote, how will they cast their ballots?


Bishop Watching

If a vote on the Synodal Committee doesn’t take place during the bishops’ assembly, it would be a dramatic indication that there is significant opposition among the German episcopacy to moving forward.

But if the bishops do vote on the adopting the statutes, there may still be signs worth watching for an indication that Vatican pressure is having an effect.

The key question will be if more bishops oppose the measure than have yet expressed public reservations about it or have typically voted against Synodal Way resolutions.

Although the DBK assembly is closed to the public, the conference typically publishes vote totals. For instance, 12 bishops voted against adopting the statutes for the Synodal Way at their fall 2019 general assembly.

Another point of reference may be how Germany’s bishops have voted at Synodal Way assemblies. In September 2022, only five bishops opposed a measure to establish a Synodal Council. Similarly, in March 2023, the number of bishops who opposed other controversial resolutions, such as approving liturgical blessings of same-sex couples or agreeing to petition Rome to allow for the attempted ordination of women, remained in the single digits.

One significant way the upcoming bishops meeting will differ from the Synodal Way assemblies is that the votes of individual bishops will not be disclosed. The change to make votes public during Synodal Way proceedings was largely seen as a way to suppress dissent, suggesting that more bishops may be willing to vote against the Synodal Committee behind closed doors in Augsburg.

Of course, bishops may publicly comment on how they voted — or be compelled to do so by German media, especially if there is significant opposition to adopting the Synodal Committee statutes.

If a vote does take place, the four bishops who have already boycotted the Synodal Committee can be expected to be in the opposition: Bishop Oster, Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, Bishop Gregor Hanke of Eichstätt, and Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg.

In fact, Bishop Oster has already challenged the Synodal Committee’s statutes, both for describing the DBK as a co-sponsor despite four dioceses not funding the venture, and for “automatically” counting him as a member, despite his non-participation. The committee claims as its members Germany’s 27 diocesan ordinaries, 27 ZdK representatives, and 20 additional members voted in at the March 2023 Synodal Way assembly.

Regarding others who can be expected to oppose adopting the Synodal Committee’s statute, a handful of auxiliary bishops who have consistently opposed some of the Synodal Way’s most radical resolutions, such as Cologne’s Bishop Dominikus Schwaderlapp and Augsburg’s Bishop Florian Wörner, are sure bets.

But who else might join them in Augsburg?


Meier’s Moment?

Perhaps the most important bishop to watch is the one whose diocese is hosting the assembly.

Augsburg’s Bishop Bertram Meier has been the consummate “man in the middle” of the Synodal Way — in more ways than one.

Not only has he voted against many of the Synodal Way’s most thorny resolutions, he has also emphasized the legitimacy of the process and even harshly criticized its detractors.

Similarly, while Bishop Meier joined Cardinal Woelki and Bishops Oster, Hanke and Voderholzer in writing a letter that prompted the Vatican’s January 2023 prohibition of the Synodal Council, the Augsburg bishop didn’t join them in blocking funding for the Synodal Committee. However, although he hasn’t explicitly refused to participate in the committee, he didn’t attend its November meeting, citing a standing commitment to participate in a diocesan pilgrimage. In fact, eight of Germany’s 27 ordinaries were absent.

A former staffer in the Vatican’s diplomatic services, Bishop Meier has consistently tried to play the role of liaison between Germany and Rome and may be something of a Vatican bellwether.

He even had a private audience with Pope Francis on February 9, where discussion of the German bishops meeting was likely discussed.

If the Augsburg bishop formally breaks from the Synodal Committee, it would be an important sign that Rome has zero tolerance for the continuation of its work— and could give other German bishops cover to join him.

Another bishop to watch is Archbishop-elect Herwig Gössl, Pope Francis’s recent appointment to lead the Archdiocese of Bamberg. Archbishop Gössl, who will be installed on March 2, said on Dec. 14 that he will continue participating in the Synodal Committee — though he added that he is “curious” to see how the proposed Synodal Council can be reconciled with “what is possible and what is not in view of the requirements from the Vatican.”

His comments may also indicate that perhaps an “up” or “down” vote on the committee’s statutes isn’t the only possible outcome in Augsburg.


The Bigger Picture

Whatever happens in Augsburg is likely to be a referendum of sorts of the Vatican’s current approach to Germany, which, aside from the occasional critical comment from the Pope or intervention from curial cardinals, is prioritizing dialogue.

DBK representatives met with dicastery heads in July to discuss the Synodal Way, and German bishop participants in Rome for the October 2023 Synod on Synodality assembly also met with Vatican leadership at the time. 

An Oct. 23 letter from Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin to the DBK also disclosed that three more meetings between the two parties were planned to take place in 2024 before October’s second session of the Synod on Synodality — though there has been no confirmation from either the DBK nor Rome that the meeting slated for January has taken place.

When asked to confirm that a meeting took place in January as Cardinal Parolin’s letter had described, spokesman Matthias Kopp said the DBK would not comment on any information contained in a document that had not been publicized by either the Holy See or the German bishops conference.

But while the Vatican and German bishops dialogue (or not?) in private, Synodal Way activists continue to apply rhetorical pressure.

For instance, while acknowledging that the Synodal Council still needs “the Roman seal of approval,” ZdK Vice President Thomas Söding also recently expressed his confidence that the Synodal Way will ultimately succeed.

Söding and Bishop Bätzing of Limburg have also both recently attempted to draw favorable comparisons between the Synodal Council and CEAMA, a conference of bishops, priests, religious and laity in the Amazon founded in 2020. Major differences exist between the two structures, but the move has been described as an attempt at “beating the Pope with his own weapons,” given the Holy Father’s support for CEAMA.

German ecclesial leadership’s continued push for Synodal Way priorities comes in the midst of renewed criticism of the entire project’s rationale. Synodal Way activists have long justified their call for changes to mandatory priestly celibacy, male-only holy orders, and episcopal governance as a response to the systemic causes of sex abuse in the Catholic Church, but a new study found that similar levels of abuse exist in Germany’s Lutheran church, which ordains women and allows for clergy to marry. Neuer Anfang, a lay group opposing the Synodal Way, said these findings undermine the Synodal Way’s claim to be addressing an “alleged Catholic-specific dimension of sexual abuse.”

Also looming on the horizon is the expected visit of Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández, the prefect for of the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. 

In the context of the Vatican’s recent guidance on blessing same-sex couples and how it differs from the German Synodal Way’s call for liturgical blessings, the Argentinian prelate said in late December that he was “planning a trip to Germany to have some conversations that I believe are important.”

The cardinal will likely want to address the Synodal Council, and the committee preparing it, as well. 

However, if the Vatican’s strategy to this point, as judged by the outcome in Augsburg, fails to deter the Germans from taking another decisive step down a forbidden synodal path, it’s unclear what more words alone will accomplish.

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.