German Catholic bishops’ leader replies to Nordic bishops’ ‘Synodal Way’ critique

Bishop Georg Bätzing at the closing press conference of the spring plenary meeting of the German bishops’ conference Bishop Georg Bätzing at the closing press conference of the spring plenary meeting of the German bishops’ conference. | Martin Rothweiler/EWTN.TV.

The chairman of the German Catholic bishops’ conference has responded to a letter from the Nordic bishops expressing alarm at the direction of the “Synodal Way.”

Bishop Georg Bätzing insisted in a letter dated March 28 that the controversial multi-year process presented no risk of schism. 

In the letter, seen by CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner, he said that the “Synodal Way” was not seeking to create a “Sonderweg,” a historically loaded term that literally means  special path, for the German Church in isolation from the worldwide Church.

He wrote: “I would like to counter the concern that Catholics in Germany might neglect their integration into the community of the universal Church or even take a special path away from this community.” 

“In contrast, I can assure you that in the deliberations and decisions of the Synodal Way very careful differentiation is made as to which changes and reforms can be realized within the framework of the diocesan responsibility of the members of the German bishops’ conference and which questions, concerns and reform wishes must be brought into the context of the world Church, in particular into the synodal path of the world Church.” 

Bätzing was referring to the Synod on Synodality, which will take place in Rome in 2023, following a two-year consultation process.

The Nordic Catholic bishops published an open letter to Bätzing on March 9 expressing fears about the trajectory of the Synodal Way, an initiative bringing together bishops and laypeople to discuss hot-button issues in the wake of a devastating clerical abuse crisis in Germany.

In the letter, they cautioned against “capitulation to the Zeitgeist” and “impoverishment of the content of our faith.” 

The bishops of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Iceland published the letter after Synodal Way participants voted in favor of draft texts calling for the abolition of priestly celibacy in the Latin Church, the ordination of women priests, same-sex blessings, and changes to Catholic teaching on homosexuality.

In his response, Bätzing said that he appreciated the bishops’ concerns, but their “expressed and implied fears do not correspond to the actual deliberations, discussions, and decisions of our Synodal Way.”

He recalled that the process followed an abuse crisis that shook the Church in Germany.

“Starting from the truly catastrophic and deeply shameful fact of sexual abuse and its cover-up in the midst of the Church, German Catholics are looking for new ways of Church practice with great care and well-founded theological recommitment,” he said.

“All these reflections and deliberations have the goal of making room for the Gospel in the life of the Church, to be able to collaborate more freely again in the coming of the Kingdom of God, and thus to create the basis for being able to give an account of the reason for our hope to all who ask.”

Bätzing then responded to the Nordic bishops’ comment that Church leaders are “commissioned to embrace as ours, with gratitude and reverence, the undiminished deposit of faith handed down through the Church.”

He wrote: “I would also like to make it clear here that the unchangeable and unalterable depositum fidei [deposit of faith] must not be understood in such a way that every ecclesiastical practice, every regulation and every social form of Church, which have been developed in the course of history and under very specific circumstances of time, of themselves already represent this unchangeable depositum.”

“Many organizational aspects, structures, and also assignments of competence in the Church were formed in response to concrete historical conditions and must then also be the object of change and renewal when they prove obsolete or even obstructive to the proclamation of the Gospel because of changed requirements.”

Quoting from the Vatican II document Lumen gentium, the German bishop continued: “The sacramental mystery of the Church is not affected by this, since the following always applies to the Church simultaneously: It is ‘at the same time holy and always in need of being purified, [and] always follows the way of penance and renewal.’”

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“These are the changes that the Synodal Way is concerned with, and in its search for new pathways towards this end, it is guided by the key sources of the Faith: Scripture and Tradition, the Magisterium and theology, as well as the sense of faith of the faithful and the signs of the times. ”

The bishop of Limburg, western Germany, presented a similar argument in a March 16 letter to Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki, the president of the Polish bishops’ conference.

Bätzing was replying to a strongly worded letter from Gądecki, which questioned whether the Synodal Way was rooted in the Gospel.

In his letter to the Nordic bishops, Bätzing picked up on their warning against “capitulation to the Zeitgeist,” or spirit of the age.

“I would like to assure you that the Synodal Way always takes this admonition to heart,” he wrote. “No one can be concerned with frivolously aligning Church action with prevailing fashions.”

“Nevertheless, the reflections of the Synodal Way, in good ecclesial tradition and in close connection with the statements of the Second Vatican Council, are based on the assumption that God, the Creator and Sustainer of the world, also reveals Himself in this world and in the history of mankind, and that his activity and his nature can also be seen in the events of history in a condensed form.”

In conclusion, the German bishop asked the Nordic bishops to stay in touch in the hope that they would be able to “strengthen and deepen” their exchange.

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