For German Bishops Conference, Vatican Concerns are ‘Unfounded’

The president of the German Bishops’ Conference said he welcomed a new letter from the Vatican detailing concerns about the push for a permanent synodal council — a new controlling body of the Church in Germany.

Newsroom (24/01/2023 3:19 PM, Gaudium Press) — In a statement published on Jan. 23, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg said the German diocesan bishops had discussed the letter and would seek to discuss the matter further “in the near future.”

At the same time, Bätzing dismissed concerns that a German synodal council would have authority over the bishops’ conference and undermine the authority of individual bishops as “unfounded.” 

The bishops of Cologne, Regensburg, Passau, Eichstätt, and Augsburg wrote to the Vatican on Dec. 21, 2022. They raised what Bätzing acknowledged on Monday were “justified and necessary questions” — in particular, whether bishops could be compelled to abide by such a council’s authority. 

This was not the case, the Vatican’s latest letter noted. The message, written in German, reminded Bishop Bätzing that according to Lumen Gentiumthe Second Vatican Council teaches “that episcopal consecration, together with the office of sanctifying, also confers the office of teaching and of governing, which, however, of its very nature, can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and the members of the college.”

Running to four pages, the latest Vatican letter to Germany said Pope Francis approved it. It was signed by the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin; the prefect of the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Luis Ladaria; and the prefect of the Dicastery of Bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet. 

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Warning of a threat of a new schism from Germany, the Vatican already intervened in July 2022 against a German synodal council. 

The latest missive, dated Jan. 16, informed Bätzing “that neither the Synodal Way, nor any body established by it, nor any bishops’ conference has the competence to establish the ‘synodal council’ at the national, diocesan, or parish level.”

In his public statement on Monday, Bishop Bätzing said the latest “document from Rome will have the consequence for us in Germany that we will think much more intensively about the forms and possibilities of synodal consultation and decision-making in order to develop a culture of synodality.”

Bätzing said this was “helpful” with a view to how the council would be brought about. This would be discussed in further dialogue with Rome.

Participants of the German Synodal Way in September 2022 voted to create a controlling body that would permanently oversee the Church in Germany.

According to this document, such a synodal council would come about after a “synodal committee” was formed, which then would deliberate the details of the new national governing body.

Though the letter from Rome explicitly states that bishops are not required to participate in such a committee, Bätzing noted on Jan. 23 that the concept of such a committee itself “is not called into question by the [latest] letter from Rome.”

According to the Synodal Way’s plans, the synodal committee would consist of the 27 diocesan bishops, 27 members elected by the lay organization ZdK, and 10 members jointly elected by them. 

The committee would be chaired by the president of the bishops’ conference and “the president(s) of the ZdK.”

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The permanent synodal council would function “as a consultative and decision-making body on essential developments in the Church and society,” the German proposal states. 

More importantly, it would “make fundamental decisions of supra-diocesan significance on pastoral planning, questions of the future, and budgetary matters of the Church that are not decided at the diocesan level.”

Critics of the plan have drawn comparisons to communist Soviets and accused the German bishops of reinventing existing Protestant structures.

  • Raju Hasmukh with files from CNA

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