A theologian considered close to Pope Francis has warned that the German Synodal Way is at risk of “breaking its own neck” if it does not heed the objections raised by a growing number of bishops around the world.

Cardinal Walter Kasper also said organisers were using a “lazy trick” that in effect constituted a “coup d’etat” that could result in a collective resignation, reported CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner.

The 89-year-old German cardinal is President Emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and was Bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart from 1989 to 1999.  

He spoke at an online study day on June 19 of the initiative “New Beginning” (Neuer Anfang), a reform movement critical of the Synodal Way.

Kasper warned that the Church was not some substance to be “re-molded and reshaped to suit the situation”. 

In April, more than 100 cardinals and bishops from around the world released a "fraternal open letter" to Germany's bishops, warning that sweeping changes to Church teaching advocated by the process may lead to schism.

In March, an open letter from the Nordic bishops expressed alarm at the German process, and in February, a strongly-worded letter from the president of Poland’s Catholic bishops' conference raised serious concerns

Such concerns “will be repeated and reaffirmed and, if we do not heed them, will break the neck of the Synodal Way," Kasper warned in his speech.

It was "the original sin of the Synodal Way" that it did not base itself on the pope's letter to the Church in Germany, he said, with its "proposal of being guided by the Gospel and the basic mission of evangelization”. 

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Instead, the German process, initiated by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, "took its own path with partly different criteria”, Kasper said.

In June 2019, Pope Francis sent a 19-page letter to Catholics in Germany urging them to focus on evangelization in the face of a “growing erosion and deterioration of faith.” 

The president of the German bishops' conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, has repeatedly rejected all concerns, instead expressing disappointment in Pope Francis in May 2022.  

In an interview published earlier this month, Pope Francis reiterated that he told the leader of Germany’s Catholic bishops that the country already had “a very good Evangelical Church” and “we don’t need two.”

“The problem arises when the synodal way comes from the intellectual, theological elites, and is much influenced by external pressures,” the pope said.

Bätzing, who serves as president of the Synodal Way, is also a signatory to the “Frankfurt Declaration”. This petition demands German bishops should declare their commitment to implementing resolutions passed by the process, CNA Deutsch reported

On Sunday, Kasper decried this push for “commitment”, saying it was "a trick and, moreover, a lazy trick."

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"Just imagine a civil servant who allows himself to be appointed, then renounces the exercise of his legal obligations," the cardinal said. "He would be sure to face proceedings under civil service law. Ultimately, such a self-commitment would be tantamount to a collective resignation of the bishops. Constitutionally, the whole thing could only be called a coup, i.e., an attempted coup d'état."

The Church can never be governed synodally, Kasper stressed: "Synods cannot be made institutionally permanent." Instead, he said, a synod constituted "an extraordinary interruption" to ordinary proceedings.

The Synodal Way, also referred to as Synodal Path, describes itself as a process bringing together Germany’s bishops and selected laypeople to debate and pass resolutions about the way power is exercised in the Church, sexual morality, the priesthood, and the role of women.

Participants have voted in favor of draft documents calling for the priestly ordination of women, same-sex blessings, and changes to Church teaching on homosexual acts.

Cardinal Kasper has repeatedly expressed concern about the process.

On Sunday, Kasper used the close-sounding German words Neuerung (“renewal”) and Erneuerung (“innovation”) to say one could “not reinvent the Church,” but rather one should contribute to renewing it in the Holy Spirit: "renewal is not innovation. It does not mean just trying something new and inventing a new Church."

Instead, Kasper continued, true reform was about "letting the Spirit of God make us new and give us a new heart." 

Analogously, he said, the term "reform" applies to bringing the church back "into shape," "namely, into the shape that Jesus Christ wanted and that he gave to the Church. Jesus Christ is the foundation, no one can lay another (1 Cor 3:10 f); he is at the same time the capstone that holds everything together (Eph 2:20). He is the standard, the Alpha and Omega of every renewal."