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German Catholic bishops’ leader: We are not ‘schismatics’

Bp batzing Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg./ Bistum Limburg.

The chairman of the German Catholic bishops’ conference has insisted that the country’s Catholics are not “schismatics” seeking to “detach ourselves as the German national Church from Rome.”

Bishop Georg Bätzing told ACI Stampa, CNA’s Italian-language news partner, that the Church in Germany remains close to Rome, despite tensions over same-sex blessings, Communion for Protestants, and the country’s “Synodal Way.”

He said: “It is absolutely clear that there are matters that we can only discuss at the level of the Universal Church. We will contribute from Germany with our reflections.”

“However, I would like to reject the accusation repeatedly used of us being schismatics or of wanting to detach ourselves as the German national Church from Rome. Our bond with Rome and the Holy Father is very tight.”

In the interview published May 6, the 60-year-old bishop of Limburg explained that the German hierarchy launched the “Synodal Way” in response to the clerical abuse crisis.

The multi-year process brings together bishops and lay people to discuss four main topics: the way power is exercised in the Church; sexual morality; the priesthood; and the role of women.

The German bishops initially said that the process would end with a series of “binding” votes -- raising concerns at the Vatican that the resolutions might challenge the Church’s teaching and discipline.

Bätzing pointed out that, in terms of church law, the “Synodal Way” is not technically a synod but rather “a sui generis format.”

He said: “The central question is: how can we talk about God today and come to a deeper faith? Faith can grow and deepen if we free ourselves from fears and mental closures, if we ask the questions and look for ways in which the Church today can be present for people.”

He suggested that Pope Francis encouraged German Catholics to address this question in his 2019 letter to the local Church.

In the letter, the pope warned German Catholics not to succumb to a particular “temptation.”

He said: “At the basis of this temptation, there is the belief that the best response to the many problems and shortcomings that exist is to reorganize things, change them and ‘put them back together’ to bring order and make ecclesial life easier by adapting it to the current logic or that of a particular group.”

In the interview, Bätzing explained that there is a “synodal forum” for each of the four major discussion topics.

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“The work of the forums is still in progress, so I cannot predict today what suggestions and results they will lead to,” he said, adding that the forums are the setting for theological debates that will lead to resolutions to be voted on by the full Synodal Assembly, consisting of the bishops and members of the lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK).

The bishop was speaking ahead of a day of protest on May 10 against the Vatican’s recent “no” to blessings for same-sex couples.

The event, organized by Catholic pastoral workers, is known as “Segnungsgottesdiensten für Liebende,” or “blessing services for lovers.” Organizers hope that same-sex couples across Germany will take part in the event.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) published a “Responsum ad dubium” March 15 replying to the question, “does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?” The CDF answered, “Negative,” outlining its reasoning in an explanatory note and accompanying commentary.

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Bätzing said last week that the day of protest was not a “helpful sign.”

The bishop told ACI Stampa that the issue of blessing same-sex couples was one of many topics to be addressed by the Synodal Way’s forum on sexual morality.

He said: “Homosexual couples, and couples who cannot and do not want to marry in the church, but who nevertheless desire the blessing of the Church, are part of our society and the Church.”

“In Germany and in other parts of the Universal Church there has long been a discussion about how to further develop the Magisterium with sound arguments -- on the basis of the fundamental truths of faith and morals, the progress of theological reflection, and in a spirit of openness to the latest results of the human sciences and the life situations of people today.”

He continued: “There are no easy answers to such questions. For this reason, the Synodal Way is striving, particularly with respect to the topic of effective relationships, to discuss in a broad context that also considers the need, possibility, and limits of developing the Church’s magisterium. The perspectives presented by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith will find space in these debates.”

Asked whether he believed that the time was ripe for women deacons or priests, Bätzing said that the “Synodal Way” would address women’s role in the Church.

He expressed satisfaction at the growing number of women in leadership positions within German dioceses.

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He said: “It is important to me to honestly mention the Church’s arguments as to why only men can enter sacramental ministry. I also realize that these arguments are becoming less and less convincing and that arguments have been developed in theology in favor of opening the sacramental ministry to women as well. This is why I often mention the female diaconate, because I see possibilities there.”

“Regarding the priestly ministry, popes from John Paul II onwards have said in unison that this question has already been answered.”

The bishop also commented on the debate in Germany over whether Protestants should be invited to receive Holy Communion in Catholic churches.

The CDF wrote to Bätzing in September 2020 criticizing an appeal by German theologians for intercommunion between Catholics and Protestants.

The Limburg bishop said that the current debate was not about a general invitation to Protestants to receive Communion, but rather about the Church’s approach to individual non-Catholic Christians who wish to receive the Eucharist.

He said: “I personally respect such a decision and do not deny Communion when someone presents themselves who believes what we Catholics believe and desires to receive the Lord.”

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“It is not a question of generically extending the invitation to Communion to all non-Catholic Christians.”

He noted that canon law permits non-Catholics to receive Communion on certain occasions, as long as they fulfill a number of conditions.

“We must undoubtedly continue the theological dialogue on the importance of the Eucharist and Holy Communion. And fortunately, there are already clear convergences in recent years,” he said.

Asked what kind of decisions the Synodal Way would be able to make, the bishop said that all participants were responsible for its conclusions.

He commented: “The binding implementation will, depending on the topic, be up to the Holy See and/or the local bishop. I repeat again: the Church in Germany is an integral part of the universal Church. This is beyond dispute and is evident in a great many areas. And so it will continue to be.”

“That is why we will proceed on the basis of the principle of subsidiarity by evaluating, within the framework of the Synodal Way, which steps we as a local Church can freely regulate and decide. And we will make a distinction between these steps and what is possible only in unity with the Universal Church.”

He expressed confidence that the Synodal Way would not result in failure but “lead to decisions that will help ensure that faith can once again be an option for people, and the Good News of the Gospel acquire meaning and strength in people’s lives.”

He added: “We must not stop looking for credible ways to proclaim the Gospel today. I remain confident.”

Chad Pecknold, associate professor of systematic theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., told CNA that in his latest comments Bätzing was “proposing the impossible.”

“He holds an erroneous view of what ‘doctrinal development’ means, arguing that the Church must be brought ‘up to date’ with progressive social norms,” he said.

“The Church cannot bless sin, and it cannot change eternal truths which Christ delivered once for all. What Bishop Bätzing is hoping to ‘develop’ amounts to nothing less than a different ecclesiology. It is not a Catholic ecclesiology, and it is not a new ecclesiology he proposes, but one which resembles Liberal Protestantism.”

He continued: “That he stands in such open defiance of Pope Francis, and the Faith Itself, should be evidence enough that Bätzing’s ‘Synodal Way’ is really not a ‘way forward’ but a way out of communion with Rome.”

Asked in the interview if the Synodal Way could serve as a model for Catholics in other countries, Bätzing referred to Pope Francis’ “historic” 2015 speech, in which he said that God expects the Church of the third millennium to take the “path of synodality.”

Bätzing said: “Well before the Church in Germany, Australia took this path, followed by other bishops’ conferences, I'm thinking of Ireland, the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM) and even us. The Italian bishops’ conference is considering how to follow a similar path.”

“You see, this is not a ‘German’ phenomenon but an interesting and valuable development of the local Churches -- each with its own particular traits -- within the community of the Universal Church.”

“Whether the Synodal Way is only a phase or whether it can become a permanent form for the life of the Church, this will be indicated to us by the Spirit of God, to whom we have entrusted ourselves by taking this path.”