German bishop says divisions within local Church are a ‘disaster for the faithful’

Bishop Stefan Oster Bishop Stefan Oster. | Credit: Diocese of Passau

A prominent German bishop and steadfast opponent of the controversial Synodal Way has leveled his harshest criticism yet of the state of the Catholic Church in his own country, describing the German episcopacy as deeply “divided”— and warned of potentially catastrophic consequences for Catholic believers.

In the latest in a series of high-profile critiques of the German Synodal Way, Bishop Stefan Oster of the Diocese of Passau did not shy away from identifying profound theological disagreements as the source of division within the Catholic Church in Germany.

“It is a tragedy that we, German bishops, have so little agreement on key issues of anthropology and ecclesiology,” Oster told the Polish Catholic publication Gosc Niedzielny in an interview published Nov. 30.

The divided episcopacy “is obviously a disaster for the faithful in Germany,” said the 58-year-old Oster, who was tapped by Pope Francis to participate in the Vatican’s recent Synod on Synodality assembly after he was not selected as a delegate by the German Bishops’ Conference (DBK).

Divisions in the German episcopacy recently came to the forefront when Oster and three other bishops — Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg, and Bishop Gregor Hanke of Eichstatt — boycotted a Nov. 10-11 meeting of a committee of Synodal Way leadership. 

The committee was created with the intent of establishing a permanent synodal council of laity and bishops to govern the Church in Germany — something explicitly forbidden in a January letter from top Vatican officials to the DBK specifically approved by Pope Francis.

While his decision to not participate highlighted divisions in Germany, Oster explained his choice was “aimed precisely at maintaining unity with Rome.”

“I was faced with a choice: to clearly highlight the existing polarization among bishops or to highlight my path of unity with the universal Church,” said the Bavarian bishop, whose diocese is in the southeast corner of Germany and has the highest rate of Catholics per capita.

Growing criticism

The Synodal Way, which began in December 2019 as an initiative of the DBK and the Central Committee for German Catholics (ZdK), a lobby of lay Church employees, has come under criticism in recent weeks as its proponents push forward with efforts to change Church teaching and practice related to human sexuality, sacramental ordination, and Church governance.

In a Nov. 11 letter to four German laywomen who had written Pope Francis to express their concerns about the Catholic Church in Germany, Pope Francis wrote that “numerous steps” being taken by some in the local Church — including the work of the synodal committee — “threaten to steer it increasingly away from the universal Church’s common path.”

One of the Vatican’s top officials, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, also informed the German bishops in an Oct. 23 letter that changes in the Church’s teaching on same-sex sexual relations and male-only holy orders were not on the table in meetings between Rome and Synodal Way delegates moving forward.

In addition, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, president of the Polish Bishops’ Conference, wrote to Pope Francis in early October criticizing the Synodal Way, calling many of its resolutions “extremely unacceptable and un-Catholic.”

The leadership of the Synodal Way has largely decried or deflected these criticisms and has shown no sign of backing down from its controversial aims.

A synodal solution

The ratcheting up of tensions between German Synodal Way leadership and other Catholic leaders — especially Pope Francis — has led many to express concerns about the possibility of schism.

But in his recent interview, Bishop Oster was not without hope that a solution could be found.

More in Vatican

He suggested that a “way out of the impasse” between Germany and the universal Church could be reached if the German Synodal Way “could now submit” and integrate with the Vatican’s Synod on Synodality — “with a clear acceptance of its content and decisions.”

“This would require great humility and would perhaps even mean withdrawing decisions already made in the Synodal Way,” such as the resolution to bless same-sex sexual unions.

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