Germany: Rome Warns the Synodal Path

January 26, 2023

On January 16, 2023, three Curia cardinals addressed an official letter to Bishop Georg Bätzing issuing a serious warning about the Synodal Path projects. This letter was to be communicated to the German bishops within a week. They responded with a press release dated January 23, 2023.

The genesis of this letter must be reconstructed to be able to consider its reception by the German bishops.

A Question Asked in Rome

The Cardinal-Archbishop of Cologne, Rainer Woelki, Bishops Gregor Hanke of Eichstätt, Bertram Meier of Augsburg, Stefan Oster of Passau, and Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg, on December 21, 2022, sent a letter to the Cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin, and to the prefects of the dicasteries for the Doctrine of the Faith and for Bishops, Cardinals Luis Ladaria and Marc Ouellet.

They asked Rome if they were obliged to participate in the “Synodal Committee,” set up by the last Assembly of the Synodal Path in September, and composed of 27 bishops and 27 members of the Central Committee of German Catholics, the ZdK, twenty additional members to be elected at the next Assembly. This committee aims to establish a stable “Synodal Council”.

This Council, composed “according to the proportions of the Synodal Assembly,” is intended to be a “body of consultation and decision on essential developments in the Church,” which must make “fundamental decisions, of supra-diocesan importance.” It would constitute a new leadership structure for the Church in Germany, placed above the authority of the Episcopal Conference.

Along the same line, a “Diocesan Council” is planned, which would function at the diocesan level in the same way the Synodal Council functions at the national level. Under these conditions, Rome replied, the bishops are not obliged to participate in the Synodal Committee. But Rome adds a capital clarification.

“Beyond the decision that will be made by each bishop with a view to possible participation in the “Synodal Committee,” and in the spirit of the foregoing, we would like to specify that neither the Synodal Path, nor any organ instituted by it, nor any episcopal conference has the competence to establish a “Synodal Council” at the national, diocesan, or parochial level. It is specified that this answer was approved by the pope “in forma specifica,” which gives it a particular authority.

This letter should have sounded the death knell for an important reform desired by the Synodal Path: the participation of the faithful in the authority of direction in the Church. 

The German Bishops Respond

On January 23, the Permanent Council of the German Bishops' Conference (DBK) met in Würzburg and discussed the letter signed by the three cardinals. At the end of this consultation, the president of the DBK published a press release.

He remarks that the decision of the Synodal Path concerning the future Synodal Council “refers to the canon law in force.” Which means that “the fear expressed in the letter, according to which a new body could place itself above the episcopal conference or neutralize the authority of the various bishops, is unfounded.”

He adds that where “the Holy See sees the danger of a weakening of the episcopal ministry,” the bishops live the synodal consultation as a reinforcement of this ministry. Because it is a question of “living the synodal culture in joint deliberation and decision-making.” Therefore, “the Synodal Committee remains unaffected by the Roman letter.”

Finally, he notes with satisfaction “that a large part of the Permanent Council has reaffirmed its desire to implement the decision of the Synodal Assembly concerning the Synodal Committee.”