VATICAN CITY (LifeSiteNews) — As the German Catholic bishops march down the path of changing Church doctrines, morals, liturgy, and hierarchy, the Vatican just intervened, declaring they have no authority to establish a permanent “Synodal Council” envisioned by the German episcopacy as a replacement of the bishops’ conference and standing above individual bishops.
“We wish to make it clear that neither the Synodal Path, nor any body established by it, nor any Episcopal Conference has the competence to establish the ‘Synodal Council’ at the national, diocesan or parish level,” Rome declared in a Jan. 16 letter sent to the German bishops.
The letter was signed by Cardinals Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State; Luis Ladaria Ferrer, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith; and Marc Ouellet, Prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops. It was approved “in forma specifica,” meaning Pope Francis took authorship of the letter, making it final with his own immediate authority.
The stated purpose of the “Synodal Council” was to “take fundamental decisions of supra-diocesan significance on pastoral planning, future perspectives and budgetary issues of the Church that are not decided at the level of the dioceses.”
In order to establish the council formally, the German bishops wanted to set up a transitional “Synodal Committee” composed of 74 members from the episcopacy and laity, chosen by vote during an upcoming session of the “Synodal Path.” The committee’s sole purpose was to plan for and organize the future permanent “Synodal Council.”
In answer to a question of five German bishops in a December letter sent to Rome regarding whether individual bishops would be obligated to participate in the “Synodal Committee” should they be elected to it by the “Synodal Path,” Rome said they were not so obligated, reaffirming an instruction given last summer that the German bishops have apparently ignored.
The Vatican wrote,
The Holy See has expressly stated that the Synodal Path ‘has no authority to oblige the bishops and the faithful to adopt new forms of governance and new orientations of doctrine and morals,’ which would be ‘a violation of ecclesial communion and a threat to the unity of the Church’ (Declaration of July 21, 2022). According to this statement — the content of which we confirm here — the bishops are not obliged to participate in the work of the ‘Synodal Committee,’ the main purpose of which is the preparation of the ‘Synodal Council’ until 2026.
The fundamental reason Rome gave against the establishment of a “Synodal Council” was that it would “form a new governance structure of the Church in Germany, which … seems to place itself above the authority of the German Bishops’ Conference and, in effect, to replace it.” Rome likewise prohibited any “Synodal Council of the Diocese” envisioned by the German bishops, since such a council “seems to be above the authority of the individual bishop and could put itself above the authority of the individual bishop within his diocese.”
Referring to the teaching on the episcopal office articulated in Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, n. 21, the Vatican reaffirmed,
Episcopal ordination, together with the office of sanctification, also confers the offices of teaching and governance, which, however, by their nature can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and members of the college.
Rome sent its letter on Jan. 16 to Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg as president of the German Bishops’ Conference and instructed that it be forwarded to all bishops in Germany by Jan. 23.
In response to Rome’s prohibitions, Bätzing scoffed at the instructions, calling its concerns “that a new body might stand above the bishops’ conference or undermine the authority of individual bishops” “unfounded.” “In view of synodality, it is not primarily about dogmatic questions, but about questions of lived synodal culture in joint consultation and decision-making. No one questions the authority of the episcopacy,” Bätzing responded.
He further indicated that the “Synodal Committee” will continue going forward despite the fact that its sole purpose is to set up and order a future permanent “Synodal Council.”
“The synodal council, which is to be prepared by the synodal committee, will therefore operate within current canon law in accordance with the mandate contained in the resolution,” Bätzing touted.
Paying lip-service to Rome’s instruction, the bishop said it will mean thinking more intensely about “synodal consultation and decision-making.” He wrote,
The 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. I consider this to be helpful and feasible in the task portfolio of the synodal committee, while respecting the limits and possibilities given by church law. The synodal committee is not called into question by the Roman letter.
This is not the first time Bätzing has ignored corrections from Rome regarding proposals of the German bishops. Both Bätzing and Irme Stetter-Karp, the pro-abortion co-president of the “Synodal Path,” issued a lengthy statement on July 21 expressing “irritation” with a Vatican intervention at the time and rejecting its criticism of heretical changes being pushed by the German episcopacy.
Taking issue with Bätzing’s clear defiance of a papal prohibition against what is essentially an attempt to restructure the divinely instituted hierarchy of the Church, the German Lay Initiative New Beginning, Neuer Anfang, published an analysis and press release concerning the prelate’s reaction to Rome’s instruction.
In the analysis, Neuer Anfang stated:
The President of the Bishops’ Conference, contrary to the papal order, is not ready to abandon the Synodal Council project … In fact, Bishop Bätzing’s refusal to comply with papal orders and authority comes dangerously close to the legal reality circumscribed in Can. 751 CIC: ‘ … schism is called the refusal of submission to the pope or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.’ Bätzing’s refusal is an act of schism in substance. We are on the verge of the dogmatic and moral quality of this act becoming legally manifest and creating a reality that is also formally schismatic.
An urgent appeal must be made to all German bishops who still have theological discernment, conscience, and ecclesiastical sense to stop a chairman who single-handedly threatens to drag the particular churches in the area of the German Bishops’ Conference into the abyss of a schism. The Catholic Church and its bishops are therefore at the moment in a situation of decision, either for a German ‘Sonderweg,’ leaving the communion of the universal Church, or for maintaining communion with the Pope by complying with his directive.
In a press release, Neuer Anfang issued a petition to all German bishops that Bätzing’s proposed schismatic plan to go forward with a “Synodal Committee” with the purpose of establishing a permanent “Synodal Council” be immediately brought to an end. The petition states:
As laity, we want an end to structural, pseudo-democratic and synodality-simulating debates, as we have now experienced for years on the Synodal Path, and instead finally a turn to the beauty of our faith, an honest reappraisal of the abuse debate and a genuine reform of our Church by turning to evangelization and mission – as Pope Francis has already formulated in the, letter to us Germans in 2019.
As a lay initiative, we urgently appeal to all German bishops to stop a chairman who singlehandedly threatens to drag the particular churches in the area of the German Bishops’ Conference into the abyss of a church schism. We do not want to be “differently” Catholic, but to remain Roman Catholic.
As has been noted by various news outlets, the plan for a permanent governing ecclesial “council” has been compared with the model of communist Soviets and current Protestant structures.
Within the German episcopate itself, Cardinal Walter Kasper — although progressively liberal himself on such things as divorce and remarriage, being the architect behind the proposals in Amoris Laetitia — said in June 2022 that there could be no “synodal council.” He based his criticisms of the plan on Church history and tradition, saying,
Synods cannot be institutionally made permanent. The tradition of the Church does not know a synodal Church government. A synodal supreme council, as is now envisaged, has no basis in the entire history of the constitution. It would not be a renewal, but an unheard-of innovation.
Kasper said such a council would be akin to the supreme soviet of a communist regime. “It was a political scientist, not a theologian, who recently expressed this notion somewhat strongly, referring to such a synodal council as a supreme soviet,” he said.
The cardinal rejected the adoption of such a model of governance as something far from Christian, saying,
‘Soviet’ is an old Russian word that means exactly what we call a ‘Rat,’ a council in German. Such a supreme soviet in the Church would obviously not be a good idea. Such a council system is not a Christian idea, but an idea coming from quite a different spirit or un-spirit. It would choke off the freedom of the Spirit, which blows where and when it wants, and destroy the structure that Christ wanted for his Church.”
Similarly, German theologian Jan-Heiner Tück warned that a “synodal council” would effectively transfer ecclesial authority “from sacramentally ordained persons to bodies, a conversion of power that shows a clear closeness to synodal practices in the Protestant Church in Germany.”
In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Pope Francis criticized the German “Synodal Path” as elitist, saying, “The German experience does not help.” Hinting at the danger of schism, the Pope said he hopes to “help this more elitist (German) path so that it does not end badly in some way, but so is also integrated into the church.”
As LifeSiteNews reported in April 2022, over 70 cardinals, archbishops, and bishops wrote an open letter to Germany’s Catholic hierarchy at the time, warning that the country’s Synodal Way would “inevitably” lead to “schism.” It remains to be seen what choices individual bishops will make in the escalating battle with Rome, and whether Rome will finally take any disciplinary measures against Bätzing and other prelates for formal acts of schism.