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German bishops’ president rebukes Pope Francis for criticism of Synodal Way 

Bishop Georg Bätzing, chairman of the German bishops’ conference, meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican, June 24, 2021./ Vatican Media.

Bishop Georg Bätzing has criticized Pope Francis and dismissed the pope’s recent words that the controversial German Synodal Way is unhelpful, damaging, and ideologically poisoned, saying the Germans had “fundamentally different views of synodality” than Rome. 

In an interview published Jan. 27, the president of Germany’s Bishops’ Conference said he considered the pope’s “way of leading the Church by way of interviews” as “extremely questionable,” reported CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner. Bätzing was referring to comments Pope Francis made about the Synodal Way, among other subjects, in a wide-ranging interview last week with the Associated Press. 

Bätzing, the bishop of Limburg, noted that the German bishops had their ad limina visit with Pope Francis in November.

“Why didn’t the pope talk to us about this when we were with him in November?” Bätzing asked. “There would have been the opportunity, but he did not take the opportunity for discussion then.”

Previously, Bätzing’s co-president of the German Synodal Way accused the Vatican of “snubbing” German Catholics by raising “fundamental criticism” of the controversial process and resolutions at the November meetings.

In the interview published Friday, Bätzing said Pope Francis understood synodality to mean “a broad gathering of impulses from all corners of the church, then bishops discuss it more concretely, and in the end there is one man at the top who makes the decision.” 

This was not “the kind of synodality that is viable in the 21st century,” Bätzing added.

Pope Francis and other Church leaders have expressed serious concerns about plans to create a permanent synodal council for the German Church. Such a body would function “as a consultative and decision-making body on essential developments in the Church and society,” according to a Synodal Way proposal.

More importantly, it would “make fundamental decisions of supra-diocesan significance on pastoral planning, questions of the future, and budgetary matters of the Church that are not decided at the diocesan level.”

In response to warnings from Rome about taking such a step, Bätzing suggested he would pursue a “fallback option.”

“We in Germany are looking for a way of truly deliberating and deciding together without overriding the canonical regulations that affect the authority of the bishop,” the German prelate said.

“In Germany, we have already had the so-called Joint Conference since the 1970s, in which the Bishops’ Conference and the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) consult with each other, i.e. laypeople and bishops,” he continued. “This Joint Conference has been given certain tasks. So the fallback option is: We stay with this model and just add important tasks to it that are feasible under Church law.”

As to the objections raised at the meetings in the Vatican — and confirmed in the January letter approved by Pope Francis — Bätzing repeated his public dismissal of these concerns — and vowed the Synodal Way would continue pursuing its controversial agenda in the face of these.

‘This is not Catholic’

Confirming the Vatican’s warnings, the prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, said in no uncertain terms that the German push for a synodal council was unacceptable, CNA Deutsch reported

“If this is to be the way the Church in Germany is to be governed in the future,” he said, “I have already told the bishops very clearly [during the ad limina visit in November]: This is not Catholic.”

Speaking to the Spanish magazine Omnes, Ouellet said a synodal council “may be the practice of other churches, but it is not ours.” 

Such a German council would “not correspond to Catholic ecclesiology and the unique role of bishops, which derives from the charism of consecration and which implies that they must have the freedom to teach and to decide.”

Regarding attempts to bring German bishops to “renounce” voluntarily their authority to a new council or other overseeing body, Ouellet said: “The truth is that this is not possible; it would be a renunciation of the episcopal office.” 

On Jan. 30 the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had accepted Ouellet’s resignation at the age of 78, more than three years past the usual retirement age for bishops. He will be succeeded by Bishop Robert Francis Prevost, 67, effective April 12. How Prevost will handle the German controversy remains to be seen. The American prelate has served as a bishop of the Diocese of Chiclayo in Peru since 2015. As prefect he will lead the Vatican office responsible for evaluating new members of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy.

‘The brink of schism’

Cardinal Walter Kasper also warned the German bishops that they could not sidestep “the authority of the pope and ultimately the Second Vatican Council” or be undermined by “tricky reinterpretation.” 

A bishop cannot “subsequently renounce, in whole or in part, the authority conferred sacramentally in the succession of the apostles” by binding himself to a synodal council “without violating the responsibility conferred on him personally,” Kasper emphasized, according to CNA Deutsch

“Resistance to the letter from Rome, or attempts to slyly reinterpret and avoid it, despite all well-intentioned protestations, inevitably lead to the brink of schism and thus plunge the people of God in Germany into an even deeper crisis.”

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According to Ouellet, it was now important for the Holy See to continue the dialogue with the German bishops. 

“We will see how the dialogue will continue,” the cardinal said, adding it was now the obligation of Bätzing to respond to the letter approved by Pope Francis.

“Then we will see how to continue the dialogue, because it is obvious that we must continue it, also to help them remain in the Catholic channel,” Ouellet stressed.

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