A Catholic bishop has criticized leaders of Germany’s “Synodal Way” for delaying a debate on gender-neutral language.

In a Jan. 7 open letter, Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg accused organizers of failing to keep a promise to hold a discussion at the Synodal Way’s next plenary session in February, reported CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner.

“I protest against this approach. Once again, the [Synodal Way’s leadership] disregards a request from the members of the Synodal Assembly,” the bishop said.

The debate centers on a proposal to use the so-called “gender star” in Synodal Way documents. The linguistic innovation, which dates to around 2013, places an asterisk after the stem of a German noun, rendering it neither masculine nor feminine.

For example, the German word for “friend” is usually written as either Freund (masculine) or Freundin (feminine). But under the new system, criticized by the Association for German Language, it is spelled Freund*in.

Two Catholic youth organizations have controversially opted to render the German word for God with an asterisk.

A Jan. 10 news release from the Diocese of Regensburg said that the debate was “urgent” since it concerned “not only the style and readability of the texts to be voted on.”

“‘Starred texts’ would also be an unmistakable commitment to gender ideology and thus a contradiction to biblically based anthropology,” the diocese said.

Voderholzer, whose diocese is located in Bavaria, southern Germany, is a prominent critic of the Synodal Way, a multi-year process bringing together bishops and laypeople to discuss four main topics: the way power is exercised in the Church; sexual morality; the priesthood; and the role of women.

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

Bishops and theologians have expressed alarm at the process, which is due to end in 2023, but bishops’ conference chairman Bishop Georg Bätzing has vigorously defended it.

Voderholzer launched a website in September presenting alternative texts for the Synodal Way, which he has accused of using the abuse crisis in Germany to reshape the Church on Protestant lines.

The 62-year-old bishop addressed his open letter to members of the Synodal Committee, the body responsible for preparing meetings of the Synodal Assembly, the Synodal Way’s supreme decision-making body.

The Synodal Committee is composed of the chairman and the vice chairman of the German bishops’ conference and the president and vice president of the powerful lay Central Committee of German Catholics (Zdk).

The Synodal Assembly consists of the German bishops, 69 ZdK members, and representatives of other parts of the German Church.

The second meeting of the Synodal Assembly ended abruptly in October 2021 following votes in favor of a text endorsing same-sex blessings and a discussion of whether the priesthood is necessary.

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In his letter, Voderholzer said that participants were told that they could discuss gender-neutral language for Synodal Way texts at the next assembly on Feb. 3-5.

But he noted that the item did not appear in the agenda for the February meeting and an invitation to the event explained that the debate would take place at the fourth Synodal Assembly on Sept. 8-10.

“This is justified by the fact that only then do the deliberations on a text of the Synodal Forum IV about trans- and intersexual persons take place,” he wrote.

He added: “From my point of view, this justification is not valid. The debate about gender spelling has been going on in public for years. Scientific contributions on this can be found by everyone in sufficient numbers.”

“In order to be able to conduct this debate in a meaningful way, the Synodal Assembly is not dependent on a resolution of Synodal Forum IV.”

Voderholzer concluded: “I request that the third Synodal Assembly, as announced and recorded in the minutes of the second Synodal Assembly, deal with the topic of ‘Gender spelling in texts of the Synodal Way’ in a separate agenda item.”

“Logically, this debate must be held before the final adoption of texts of the Synodal Way.”

At the start of 2022, Pope Francis received a manifesto, backed by almost 6,000 Catholics, challenging the Synodal Way.

The pope was presented with the document, “New Beginning: A Manifesto for Reform,” after his general audience on Jan. 5.

He addressed concerns about the Synodal Way in an interview with the Spanish radio station COPE aired in September 2021.

Asked if the initiative gave him sleepless nights, the pope recalled that he wrote an extensive letter expressing “everything I feel about the German synod.”

Responding to the interviewer’s comment that the Church had faced similar challenges in the past, he said: “Yes, but I wouldn’t get too tragic either. There is no ill will in many bishops with whom I spoke.”

“It is a pastoral desire, but one that perhaps does not take into account some things that I explain in the letter that need to be taken into account.”