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Catholic bishop: ‘Synodal Way’ procedures give impression of ‘authoritarian despotism’

Screenshot_2021_02_04_at_152331.png Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg. Credit: Diocese of Regensburg.

A German Catholic bishop said on Wednesday that he detected an “authoritarian despotism” in the procedures of the country’s controversial “Synodal Way.”

In an open letter issued Feb. 3, Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg criticized the format of an online conference of the Synodal Way.

He also challenged the Synodal Way’s executive committee to show greater transparency by, for example, making the minutes of meetings available to all participants. 

“Perhaps in this way, one could dispel the impression of authoritarian despotism that has at times arisen,” he wrote. 

“Such an approach would be a basic prerequisite for a trusting and successful further progression of the urgently needed renewal of the Church in our country.” 

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The “Synodal Way” is a process bringing together German lay people and bishops to discuss four major topics: the way power is exercised in the Church; sexual morality; the priesthood; and the role of women.

The first synodal assembly took place in Frankfurt in January 2020. The second gathering was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, but regional meetings were held in September 2020.

In the open letter, published in full by CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner, Voderholzer offered detailed criticisms of a two-day online meeting of the Synodal Way, which began on Feb. 4.

The 61-year-old bishop said that on Nov. 19, 2020, participants in the Synodal Way received a letter from the executive committee announcing the online event as a replacement for the second synodal assembly. He argued that the decision ignored the wishes of “a clear majority” of voting members.

He also asked whether diocesan contact people for the Synodal Way had been allowed to register for the online meeting in order to boost numbers. He noted that they were not allowed to participate directly in the first general assembly or the regional conferences. 

“If you take a closer look at the registrations, you can see that the interest in the online conference is rather low,” he wrote. “Only 80% of the members of the synodal assembly have registered, only 61% of the observers, 62% of the advisers, and only 50% of the additionally invited diocesan contacts.”

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This is not the first time that Voderholzer has criticized aspects of the Synodal Way, which has also been a source of tension between Rome and the Church in Germany. 

In an open letter published on Sept. 2, 2020, the Regensburg bishop said that a draft text prepared by the forum on “Women and Offices,” also known as Forum III, “lacks any theological level.”

Voderholzer, a professor of dogmatics, was referring to a document produced by a working group on the “Participation of women in leadership under the current conditions of canon law.”

He expressed concern about the text’s presentation of the establishment of the sacraments.

In his new open letter, the Regensburg bishop suggested that an online conference could be used as a way of creating “greater room for maneuver” than the statutes of the Synodal Way would normally allow. 

He said that he saw a similar problem overall in the Synodal Way, which is not defined as a synod or particular council, according to canon law, but rather as a unique process. 

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Voderholzer said: “Overall, one is left with the impression that the fact that the online conference is not defined in the statutes is exploited, if not even deliberately so chosen, in order to have greater room for maneuver in the composition.”

“This is also the case with the ‘Synodal Way’ as a whole, with which one has escaped the legal requirements of a particular council and has conceived a format in a legal vacuum.”

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