The Synodal Path to a German National Church (3): The Würzburg Synod

Source: FSSPX News

Intérieur de la cathédrale de Wurtzbourg où s'est tenu le synode conjoint des diocèses allemands

The Amazon clamor has died down in the feverish expectation of the post-synodal exhortation. Some are working with the pope to prepare, at least in broad terms, the final document. Others want to capture the Amazon River and make it flow into the Rhine.

The first article in this series provided an historical overview of the Church in Germany. The second described the “Dutch Pastoral Council” which, fifty years ago, asked for the mitigation of priestly celibacy. It is time to address the Synod of Würzburg, in Bavaria, which was held between 1971 and 1975. It benefited from the Dutch experience and was the precursor of the synodal path that will open this year on the first Sunday of Advent.

The Birth of the Synod

The initiative for the synod came from the rank and file. On October 9, 1968, the Christian Youth Workers (Christliche Arbeiterjugend, CAJ), the equivalent of the French Young Catholic Workers (Jeunesse Ouvrière Catholique, JOC), demanded a “pastoral synod” be held, in imitation of the Dutch Pastoral Council then in progress. The proposal, adopted by the Association of German Catholic Youth (Bund der Deutschen Katholischen Jugend, BDKJ), the umbrella organization for Catholic youth movements in Germany, was subsequently proposed to the German Bishops’ Conference (Deutsche Bischofskonferenz, DBK).

In February 1969, the DBK voted on a resolution for the convocation of a communal or “joint” synod of the dioceses of the Federal Republic of Germany. This way of proceeding avoided presenting this synod as a particular council of the Church of Germany, which would have required the prior agreement and convocation by Rome, and the approval of all its documents. The “synodal path” of today is therefore only a resumption of an old idea, to avoid the same pitfalls.

Draft Statutes of the future German synod were prepared, publicly debated, and approved between August and November 1969.

The Statutes of the Würzburg Synod

The German synod adopted statutes which bear strong resemblances to those of the Dutch pastoral council. The aim is set in Article 1: “The Joint Synod of the Dioceses of the Federal Republic of Germany has the task of promoting in its domain the implementation of the decisions of the Second Vatican Council and of contributing to the formation of Christian life in conformity with the faith of the Church.”

Article 2 is devoted to the members of the synod. The composition is as follows: 58 bishops are full members (22 ordinaries of dioceses and 36 auxiliaries); 154 members are elected, with each of the 22 dioceses of the country sending 7 representatives (3 priests and 4 lay men or women) or 66 priests and 88 laymen, elected by as many diocesan councils composed of priests, religious, and laity. There are also 40 lay people elected by the Central Committee of German Catholics (Zentralkomitee der deutschen Katholiken, ZdK) and representatives of the various Catholic movements; 40 members chosen by DBK (experts and lay people); 22 religious (10 men, 10 women and 2 brothers) elected by their peers. In total, the assembly has 314 members.

Article 4 provides for the participation of non-Catholic communities as observers and Article 5 defines the nature and functioning of the General Assembly: “The Plenary Assembly is the decision-making organ of the Synod and the assembly of all members. All members have the same right to vote.”

The presidium (Article 6) is composed of the president of the episcopal conference—Cardinal Julius Döpfner—and four vice-presidents: a bishop, a priest, and two lay people (one man and one woman), all elected by the members of the synod .

Decisions of the Plenary Assembly are taken by a two-thirds majority. However, the DBK has a right of veto to prevent the vote of a proposal that would be contrary to Catholic doctrine or a resolution contrary to discipline. The Statutes were approved by the Holy See in February 1970.

The Topics Discussed

The preparatory commission had classified the topics to be discussed in ten broad categories: faith and its announcement; divine worship, the sacraments, and the spiritual life; Christian service; marriage and the family; fields of social action in the Church; education, formation, and information; charisms, ministries, and the priesthood; forms of co-responsibility in the Church; the setting of pastoral structures; ecumenism, and cooperation at the level of the universal Church.

The documents presented and discussed in the Plenary Assembly were drafted by a preparatory commission after consultation with all the Catholics who wanted to participate in each parish or community.

Le cardinal Julius Döpfner

Holding the Synod

The synod met for eight plenary sessions of five days each between 1971 and 1975. The second session gave rise to a serious incident. The assembly intended to pronounce on the capacity of the laity, man or woman, to preach during Mass. There were strong oppositions, and Rome intervened to condemn the proposed text, while leaving an door open. The synod persisted in its resolution, wishing to disregard Roman intervention. It was then that some, including a certain Joseph Ratzinger, left the discussion.

Finally Rome maintained the principle that only clerics have authority to preach during Mass, but agreed—ad experimentum for four years—to the possibility of allowing lay people to preach under certain conditions, and in a measured way. The German bishops, in the decree of application, reduced this authorization a little more.

Result and Decisions

The General Assembly promulgated eighteen resolutions, of which the authority and binding force vary. These are ordinances, recommendations, and wishes.

Among the ordinances, it was decided that women would have access to leadership positions in dioceses; it was also decided to establish a Presbyteral Council and a Council of Catholics in all dioceses. – This feminization would be continued to excess, the bishops regularly appointing pastoral assistants with the title of “curé,” having authority over the priests who are then only distributors of sacraments.

Among the recommendations are the development of career regulations for lay pastoral ministries and the search for an effective form of membership of the Catholic Church in the World Council of Churches. – Which lowers the Church to the level of other religions or Protestant sects.

Among the resolutions brought before the Holy See were the appointment of women to the offices of lector and acolyte, the admission of women to the diaconate and the holding of a common synod every ten years. (Today, women’s access to the offices of lector and acolyte has henceforth been acquired.)


After the perilous experience of the Dutch Pastoral Council, Rome and the German episcopate exercised prudence. The Vatican demanded a majority of clerics in the Assembly. The German bishops vetoed the discussion on the ordination of viri probati - married men of middle age. However, the acts of the Synod testify how the advanced theologians and the most virulent progressives obtained pernicious results.

In addition to the decisions or resolutions presented, the participants decided to establish a regular meeting between the DBK and the lay people of the ZdK, in order to prolong the spirit of the Synod after its closure. Unlike the Dutch whose attempt was finally stopped by Rome, the Germans managed to put in place a kind of “permanent synod.”

The synodal path that will soon begin is an extension of the Synod of Würzburg. Already the same mechanisms are being reproduced. Only the time has changed: we are no longer in the 1970s, but after the Synod on the Amazon