The Synodal Path to a German National Church (5): The Role of the ZdK

November 29, 2019
At the ZdK General Assembly in Bonn-Bad Godesberg, 2017.

Although the decision for the “synodal path” was taken by the German Bishops’ Conference (DBK), it was only possible with the agreement of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK). The latter is in fact an essential element of the process: through its representation, its material means, but especially through its co-responsibility, according to the term to which it lays claim.

Before defining the relationship between the two entities that seek to accomplish this synodal path and the mechanism of their collaboration, it is necessary to know the nature of the ZdK through its history.

The Birth of a Catholic Lay Organization

The revolution of March 1848 gave to the confessional associations a certain freedom of action which had hitherto been refused them. On March 23, 1848, Adam Franz Lennig, Canon of Mainz, founded the Pius Association (Piusverein)—named after Pope Pius IX, then reigning—for religious freedom. This initiative was immediately reproduced everywhere, so that a chain of Piusvereine was created throughout Germany.

The movement was so extensive that, as early as October 1848, a large gathering was organized in Mainz: it was the first Katholikentag, Catholic Day. The associations then united in a great union: the German Catholic Association. The latter immediately sent a deputation to the National Assembly to protest against the suppression of the Jesuits and to demand the freedom of Catholic education. The success achieved on these two points had a great impact.

The rapid development of the association movement and the annual organization of the Katholikentag required some centralization. In 1868, a Central Committee was elected for the preparation of the Catholic Days and the implementation of their resolutions. Direction was entrusted to Prince Charles VI of Löwenstein-Wertheim-Rosenberg who would maintain it for 30 years. This noble German, a member of the Reichstag for the Zentrum, the Catholic Center Party, twice married and twice widowed, took the Dominican habit in 1907 and was ordained a priest in 1908.

Clemens Heidenreich Droste succeeded him until 1920 and was succeeded by Prince Aloys of Löwenstein-Wertheim-Rosenberg, son of Prince Charles VI, who held the office until 1949. Under the Nazi regime the committee was suppressed and Catholic Days suspended. They did not resume until 1948. During this period, to overcome the suspension of the central committee, Catholic groups were formed at the parish, deanery, and city levels, which were integrated into diocesan committees.

The ZdK

At the end of the war, the Central Committee had to unite and coordinate the diocesan committees at the national level with the associations. This integration movement lasted eight years (1945-1953). In fact, they needed to reach an agreement on the place of the episcopate’s power over the Central Committee. Here we find the usual difficulty then posed by Catholic Action’s statutes. In 1952, in the presence of Cardinal Josef Frings, President of the Episcopal Conference, the Central Committee was established according to statutes drawn up by the President of the Central Committee and the President of the Episcopal Conference.

From the first paragraph it was stated that “the Central Committee of German Catholics is the union of active forces in the lay apostolate of the Catholic Church in Germany, supported by the authority of the bishops.”

Starting in 1950 the Katholikentag meet every two years, in different cities, under the authority of the ZdK Central Committee, now headed by Prince Charles VII of Löwenstein-Wertheim-Rosenberg, son of Prince Aloys. He remained in office until 1968.

Emancipation of the Laity (1967)

At the Second Vatican Council, the new conception of the Church upset the role and place of the laity. The decree Apostolicam actuositatem on the apostolate of the laity declares that: “The apostolate of the laity derives from their Christian vocation and the Church can never be without it” (no.1). The text explains that the lay apostolate does not come from the clergy as the holder of the ordained ministry, but directly from Christ or from the union of the laity “with Christ the Head” and “as a part of the salvific mission of the Church herself”(nos. 2&3).

The ZdK was transformed by this upheaval. Its definition was renewed: the 1952 Statutes spoke of a “union supported by the authority of bishops,” the new 1967 Statutes describe a “union recognized by the German Bishops’ Conference.” The supported, and therefore dependent, union became an independent union and responsible for the lay apostolate. As a result, the diocesan representatives of the ZdK are no longer appointed by their respective bishops, but by the diocesan council or its equivalent (1967 Statutes, §4).

The members appointed by the Plenary Assembly no longer needed episcopal approval (1967 Statutes, §4). In addition, the competence and responsibility of the departments moved from bishops to the newly created ZdK General Secretariat (1967 Statutes, §11). Finally, the work of the ZdK no longer depended on the explicit agreement of the bishops and its decisions were no longer subject to their confirmation. Therefore, the new task of the ZdK had become to advise bishops on matters of social and ecclesial life (1967 Statutes, §2b).

Friedrich Kronenberg, the first secretary general of the committee, summarized this evolution in 1970: in a century of history, the ZdK “has become aware of the value of the plurality of structures. It knows, through its knowledge of ecclesiastical integrism (sic), the value of a certain autonomy of its own work. This is why, today, the ZdK has the particular task of ensuring that a structural unification of the Church is not achieved according to misunderstood ideas of unity, but that in this matter a healthy plurality is also respected.”

Thomas Sternberg, President of ZdK.

The Mark of the Würzburg Synod (1975)

The Würzburg Synod (1971-1975) brought about a new update of the statutes, especially as it was decided to hold a biannual meeting of a joint conference between DBK and ZdK—a way of almost permanently continuing the synod. Other changes came after the reunification of Germany in 1990, but also in 1995 and 2001 to allow foreigners to be members of the ZdK.

Thanks to the successive versions of its Statutes, the ZdK has asserted its autonomy more and more. Thus, in the 1975 version, the responsibility and the independence of its decisions are clearly expressed:

1. The Central Committee of German Catholics is an association of representatives of diocesan councils and Catholic associations as well as lay apostolate institutions and other personalities of the Church and society. 2. It is the organ recognized by the German Bishops’ Conference in the meaning of the Council Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (no. 26) for the Coordination of the Forces of the Secular Apostolate and for the Promotion of the Apostolic Activity from the Church. 3. The members of the Central Committee make their decisions under their own responsibility and are therefore independent of the decisions of other bodies. (1975 Statutes, §1).

What remains Catholic in this institution? Essentially two points: 1) Any modification of the statutes elaborated by the Plenary Assembly requires the approval of the Bishops’ Conference of Germany. 2) The President elected by the Plenary Assembly must be confirmed by the Episcopal Conference. This last point is not only theoretical, since it has happened at least once that a recommended president has not been approved by the DBK.

A Kind of “Catholic” Political Party

Today, the ZdK has become the official structure that ensures a true representation of Catholics in the German public space. It regularly participates in the consultations of political parties and intervenes in the debates of society. So, in a way it is the political party of the Church, but made up of “independent” laity.

This evolution manifests itself on the one hand through the personality of ZdK leaders. Since 1968, the seven successive presidents have all come from the political milieu, especially from the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU), or its Bavarian twin, the Christian Social Union (CSU).

On the other hand, according to the 2001 Statutes currently in force, the ZdK is composed of Catholic associations and institutions, diocesan councils as well as personalities from the world of science, the Church, and society. The associations nominate 97 delegates, the diocesan councils 84 and, together, they elect 45 personalities. Today, almost half of these personalities or important figures are active members of political parties: CDU, CSU, the Greens, and the Social Democrat Party (SPD). This gives an idea of ​​the tendencies of the committee members, since “such elected representatives, such electors.”

This composition probably explains the very advanced positions of the ZdK on Catholic morality. Here are some examples:

In 1998, the Committee supported groups opposed to the encyclical Humanae Vitae, in particular the association Donum Vitae, which provided the government-mandated counselling services women are required to receive before they can obtain an abortion and which was banned by John Paul II. This support continues. In November 2012, the ZdK proposed the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to communion. In May 2015, it advocated the blessing of homosexual couples.

In December 2017, the ZdK adopted the seven “Theses of Osnabrück” on the question of “Women in ecclesiastical offices.” These theses, developed during an ecumenical congress, state that “it is not women’s access to the ministries and offices of the Church that must be justified, but their exclusion; the question of knowing whether God has given an immutable rule to designate the holder of an ecclesiastical office can and must remain open.” In 2019, the demand for women’s access to all ecclesiastical functions is reaffirmed.

ZdK's Participation in the Synodal Path

On November 23-24, 2018, the ZdK Plenary Assembly issued a resolution on the MHG study (see previous article) entitled: “Resolute joint action, now!” This resolution deplores the timidity of the DBK and the drastic inadequacy of the measures taken in Fulda two months earlier. It is boldly states:

“The structures of ecclesiastical and clerical power must be quickly dismantled, because the problem lies in the system!...It needs to be changed. This is why we demand:

- The separation of the executive and the judiciary in canon law. We demand an independent ecclesiastical administrative jurisdiction in the territory of the German Bishops’ Conference.

- The equal participation of laypeople and consecrated persons in the direction of the Church in order to promote total transparency and to thwart the clericalization denounced by Pope Francis.

-Women’s access to all ecclesiastical functions in order to place them on an equal footing with men.

- The abolition of compulsory celibacy.

- The recognition of the multiple forms of life and realities of life in the sexual morality of the Church.

- Recognition of the decision-making authority of all baptized and consecrated persons at all levels of the Church.

“We call on the German bishops to take the offensive, with committed laypeople (women and men), among others in the co-responsibility committees, to discuss future issues and draw conclusions. The ZdK is ready to engage in the necessary reform process. But it is useless to offer the people of God a calming and soothing therapy. What we need now is courageous, goal-oriented joint action!” These demands were presented to the DBK during a joint conference.

When the decision to launch a synodal path was announced on March 13, 2019 in Lingen, the ZdK had been consulted beforehand. Its president, Thomas Sternberg, agreed to participate only on the express condition that the process be “binding,” as specified in the ZdK press release dated March 14, 2019. On March 22nd , the Presidium of the ZdK provided the following clarifications:

“In the [preparatory] forums of the ‘Synodal Path,’ people should be called upon to prepare a binding format for cooperation in decision-making. There should not be a dual structure for the Joint Conference, but rather a clarification of how the processes around the ‘Synodal Path’ will be linked to the Joint Conference. The ZdK should participate in this process on an equal footing. The rules of procedure must be established jointly by ZDK and DBK.”

Finally, the ZdK Plenary Assembly on May 10-11, 2019 endorsed this decision:

“The ZdK Plenary Assembly welcomes DBK’s decision to form a binding ‘synodal path’ with the ZdK, and reaffirms the resolution of November 24, 2018: “Resolute joint action now!” It tasks the Presidium to continue co-operation with DBK in a binding manner and under a common direction The General Assembly instructs the Presidium to create a forum parallel to the forums already proposed by DBK on the theme of “women’s access to ordinations.”

Without any possible error, Catholics engaged in Germany are already on the road to a new national church, where they are making great strides. They see themselves as the pioneers of a radical transformation of the Church’s constitution, which has become obsolete in their eyes. They persuade themselves that history will prove them right. Synodality serves them as a weapon of mass destruction of the sacred hierarchy to achieve a total democratization of the Church.

The synod on the Amazon may have been a test balloon for what is being prepared under the leadership of the DBK and the ZdK.