The German Episcopal Conference (DBK) and the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) began a “synodal path” on Sunday December 1, 2019. The previous articles have shown the revolutionary intent which animates the DBK supported by the ZdK. Pope Francis intervened on June 29, 2019 with a Letter to the Church in Germany. The Curia has reacted in turn.
It should be mentioned, however, that the members of the Curia were not the only ones disturbed: some German bishops, without really joining in, have been very critical.
In his press release of March 13, 2019 announcing the establishment of the synodal path, Cardinal Reinhard Marx said that the bishops’ decision had been unanimous, but it was a lie. Four bishops had indeed disassociated themselves, but they were not asked to speak.
Bishop Konrad Zdarsa, Bishop of Augsburg, who celebrated his 75th birthday on June 7, gave an interview on the occasion of his resignation—Canon Law indeed requires a bishop to tender his resignation to the Holy See at age 75. Asked about the “synodal path,” he was not disingenuous:
“I categorically reject this term ‘synodal path.’ According to the etymology, it is a tautology, nonsense. Furthermore, I consider it to be ‘label fraud.’” The reporter was surprised: “Did you not support the decision? The short answer: “No, I obviously abstained during the vote, which unfortunately took place by a show of hands.” The answer sheds some light on the background of this decision-making process. Finally, he said, “There can be a renewal of the Church only through personal conversion, recourse to God, and a life of faith and the sacraments.”
But Bishop Zdarsa was not the only opponent. Two others have decidedly come forward. The bishop of Regensburg, Msgr. Rudolf Voderholzer, who also abstained, had very harsh words against the “synodal path”: “A synodal process, which aims to reinvent the whole Church, is committed to the way of destruction.” That statement has the merit of being clear.
As for Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, Archbishop of Cologne, another abstainer, he did not hesitate to declare that “this path involves great dangers,” and added that “a German national Church is emerging.”
The Declaration After the Joint DBK-ZdK Conference (July 5, 2019)
But these warnings did not hinder the synodal progress. On July 5th, at the end of the joint conference between bishops and members of the ZdK, Cardinal Reinhard Marx and Prof. Thomas Sternberg, president of the ZdK, published a press release “reaffirming the decided path.” And they announced the next steps: “Our common calendar anticipates that we will decide on the exact form of the synodal path in September and November during the respective plenary assemblies of the German Episcopal Conference and the ZdK.”
The two accomplices also relied on Pope Francis’ Letter to the Pilgrim People of God in Germany: “We understand it as a guideline, an encouragement and a mission to move forward together on the synodal path and to sincerely seek for answers to our existential questions and the concrete questions of the future, to seek challenges, in particular to get out of the crisis caused by sexual abuse.”
The Curia Criticizes the Synodal Way
On September 4th, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, sent a letter to Cardinal Marx. It contained an analysis of the draft statutes for the synodal path, carried out at his request by the Pontifical Council for the interpretation of legislative texts.
Every council or synod has specific regulations adapted to its particular situation, but its essential elements are defined by the law of the Church. Thus, the Second Vatican Council had specific regulations which were modified several times during its unfolding, under pressure from the liberal wing, in order to achieve its progressive objectives.
The judgment of the Pontifical Council is very instructive. Its criticism focuses mainly on three points.
1) The end envisioned by the synodal path is illegitimate
The subjects to be debated during the two years of the synodal path are grouped into four themes: “Power, participation, and separation of powers,” “Sexual morality,” “Priestly way of life,” “Women in Church ministries and offices.” Now, reasons the Pontifical Council, “it is obvious that these subjects do not concern only the Church in Germany, but the universal Church, and that these subjects—with few exceptions—cannot be the subject of resolutions and decisions by a particular Church.” This is expressly provided for by law.
In addition, the ZdK agreed to participate in the synodal route “provided that the opening of the consultation and the binding nature of the decisions are guaranteed” (Protocol, p.1, no.3). How can a particular Church make binding decisions “when the issues addressed concern the universal Church”?
2) The synodal path is a “particular council” which refuses to say its name
The Pontifical Council goes on to note that “it is clear from the articles of the draft statutes that the Episcopal Conference intends to convene a particular council in accordance with Canons 439-446, but without using this term.” And in this case, the German bishops must follow the procedure provided for by Canon Law.
This procedure involves: a convocation according to certain rules; confirmation by the Holy See of the election of the president of the council; obligations regarding the number and quality of members convened to the council; and, finally, the transmission of all the acts of the council to the Vatican Curia. They can only be promulgated after their recognition by the Apostolic See.
The Pontifical Council insists that they must follow the canonical rules for any “diocesan assembly” or, a fortiori, national. But this is precisely what Cardinal Marx, the German bishops, and the ZdK want to avoid, as the following point shows.
3) The composition of the Synodal Assembly is against the law
Articles 3 and 5 of the statutes, concerning the Synodal Assembly and the direction of the synodal path, show that the Episcopal Conference and the ZdK are equal: they send the same number of participants, they are part of the board with the same rights, they vote on all decisions. This parity between bishops and laity is contrary to Canon Law. Because, specifies the Council, the Church is not democratically structured, and decisions are not taken by the majority of the faithful.
In addition: “synodality in the Church, to which Pope Francis often refers, is not synonymous with democracy or majority decisions, but is a different way of participating in the decision-making process.”
The Pontifical Council justifies its position by citing the document on Synodality in the life and mission of the Church by the International Theological Commission, published on May 5, 2018, which distinguishes between elaboration and decision-making: “Elaboration is a synodal task; the decision is a ministerial responsibility,” in other words, the first is common to all, the second is the responsibility of the bishops alone. However, no difference is made between the two processes in the statutes.
It is good to read these details, but several facts take away from them.
Cardinal Marx’s Scathing Response
The first fact is the way in which Cardinal Marx responds to Rome. First, he claims that the Articles under criticism are obsolete. He reproaches Cardinal Ouellet for his way of doing things. Last but not least, he sweeps the objection away with the back of his hand: the synodal path is a “sui generis process” which must in no case be interpreted “through the prism of the instruments of Canon Law,” and, above all, not as a particular council. In other words: move along, nothing to see here.
He adds, with a certain effrontery: “We hope that the results of this effort in our country will also be useful for the universal Church and for other episcopal conferences.” Then he explains the reasons which justify the ZdK’s participation: the peculiarity of the Church of Germany in which the laity have a strong involvement, and the need to change the “factors of institutional influence” which allowed the abuses.
On the synodal path website (synodalerweg.de) the following explanation is given:
“Why not a synod? A synod is a format clearly defined by Canon Law, in which everything is settled, from the definition of themes to the composition of the participants and their competences. A synod requires the approval of the Holy See, which can often only be given after a long-term procedure. This slows down the speed required to process the issues under consideration.”
“In the current situation, a sui generis synodal approach opens up a debate focused on current challenges. It allows the discovery of a ‘wider horizon’ which opens up new spaces in which innovative actions can be undertaken.”
The second fact is that after this letter and the meeting between Cardinal Marx and the Pope in Rome in early September, the synodal path was no longer a threat.
The third fact is an observation: no correction has been made to the statutes on the essential elements looked at by the Pontifical Council for the interpretation of legislative texts.
One has to wonder, however, how this situation was made possible. The root is still to be found in ... the Second Vatican Council. By exaggerating and magnifying the function of the laity in the Church, by tending to assimilate the common priesthood of the faithful into the sacred ministry of the priest, by wanting to give as much space as possible to their activity in even priestly functions, it launched a destructive dynamic.
The responsibility falls especially on Paul VI. By approving the regulations of the Dutch pastoral council, he sanctioned the possibility of a synod with a distinct secular majority. As for the Würzburg Synod, held 45 years ago in Germany, and whose statutes were also approved by Rome, it included a parity of clerics and laity.
Finally, the new Code of Canon Law of 1983 authorizes the presence of laity in private and provincial councils, even if it limits the number so that it is less than that of the clerics. It is an open door, even if only half open. Cardinal Marx, DBK, and ZdK are opening it completely.
We must conclude by wondering at the naiveté—or, for some, the complicity—of those who think they can invite into an assembly, laypeople living in “democracy,” who have become “adults and responsible,” stuffed with the voting culture, and tell them: “you are not there to decide, but to advise.” While in Germany they already possess many decision-making powers in the Church.
The revolution is like a bicycle: when it does not advance, it falls. The two-wheeled bicycle— DBK and ZdK—is on the way of the synodal path.