'Take the pope very seriously!' Cardinal Woelki tells German bishops

CNA 5137c9e1beb57 18685 1 Cardinal Rainer Woelki arrives at the Vatican on March 5, 2013. | InterMirifica.net

The Church in Germany must revise its synodal plans in line with the pope's leadership and the universal Church, Cardinal Rainer Woelki told the plenary session of the German Episcopal Conference Tuesday morning.

Speaking on the second day of the three-day meeting, Woelki, who is the Archbishop of Cologne, told the bishops that Pope Francis had offered them essential "fatherly advice" in his June letter to the Church in Germany.

"Let us take the pope very seriously!" Woelki told the bishops, as he called for key changes to be made to the synodal plans in order to bring them in line with Francis' recommendations.

The bishops are meeting in Fulda from Sept. 23-25. Tomorrow they are expected to vote on the adoption of draft statutes for the "binding synodal process" announced by Cardinal Reinhard Marx earlier this year.

Woelki outlined several key themes in the pope's letter which, he said, the bishops must honor, especially noting Pope Francis' call for a focus on evangelization and communion with the wider Church.

The Church in Germany must begin by "re-evangelizing itself" is an "indispensable prerequisite" for its wider mission, Woelki said, noting that Francis' letter made clear that this required the bishops to remain rooted in the essential unity of faith, in Christ, and with the whole Church.

"This is the indispensable sign for our Synodal Way, which has to run like a thread through it, so that the Synodal Way can bear true fruit. The Pope's letter leaves no doubt about that."

The pope's letter has become a focal point for debate as the German bishops continue their deliberations on the creation of a Synodal Assembly in partnership with the Central Committee of German Catholics. Yesterday, the Apostolic Nuncio in Germany, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, wrote to the German bishops, reminding them that the June letter was the first time a pope had written to all the German faithful since the rise of Nazism, and that it is essential that they listen to Francis.

Woekli said that the pope's warning against a synod inspired by a "new Pelagianism," focused on structural reform and bringing the Church into conformity with the zeitgeist, is an important exhortation.

"It is no coincidence that the Holy Father warns against a tendency that seems to me to be typical for Germany," Woekli said, quoting the pope as he described "this old and ever new temptation of the promoters of Gnosticism [...] who, in order to make their own name and reputation, to increase their doctrine and glory, have tried to say something always new and different from what the Word of God has given them."

 While it is important to enable the broad participation of believers in the life of the Church, Woelki said, this cannot be conflated or confused with the legitimate teaching and governing authority of the bishops, "the guarantor of apostolicity and catholicity."

Referencing the recent Vatican assessment of the draft statutes for the Synodal Assembly, the cardinal reminded the bishops that there is a crucial difference between a parliamentary approach to Church governance and the proper role of discussion and consultation before the exercise of legitimate decision-making authority.

"The Synodal Way must not be walked without the universal Church. The [pope's] letter urges this perspective when it says: 'It is about living and feeling with the Church and in the Church[…] The universal church lives in and out of the particular churches, just as the particular churches live and flourish in and out of the universal church; if they were separated from the universal Church, they would weaken, corrupt and die.'" 

The German synodal plans include the formation of working groups, called synodal fora, which are considering the themes of increasing women's participation in Church ministries and offices, reforming Church teaching on sexual morality, and revising discipline in priestly life.

Several of these groups, formed in partnership with the Central Committee of German Catholics, have already begun work and are expected to advance proposals at odds with universal Church teaching, something Woelki said would go against the pope's clear instructions.

"Pope Francis reminds us that the faith of the particular Churches is always located in the faith of the whole Church and must be found there," he said. "In the long run, there cannot and should not be different ways of dealing with fundamental issues of faith and morality that would not only jeopardize, but possibly violate, the high good of unity that we profess in the Creed as an attribute of the Church."

"The stipulations of the faith, which belong to the unchangeable existence of doctrine of the Church, cannot and therefore must not be put up for debate in the Synodal Way. The impression must not be conveyed that there would be a quasi-parliamentary vote on the faith," Woelki insisted.

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Vatican criticism of the German plans, put forward in a Sept. 4 letter to Cardinal Reinhard Marx from Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, raised a number of concerns. Foremost of these is the plan to invest the Synodal Assembly with "deliberative power" to pass resolutions on issues touching Church teaching and governance.

Woelki also said that listening to the pope's instructions does not mean halting the synodal process.

"The Pope's letter emphasizes that this does not mean 'not going forward, not changing anything, and perhaps even not debating or arguing.' But this must be done with the consciousness, as the pope says, 'that we are essentially part of a larger body that claims us, that waits for us and needs us, and that we claim, expect and need.'"

He concluded by urging the other German bishops to make necessary changes to the synodal structures and topics for consideration, pointing to the alternative version he presented in August, which made explicit that the synodal body had a strictly consultative role and suggested alternative topics for consideration, centered on the evangelization.

"Together with the Holy Father, I again warn against taking a substantial and formal path that would take us out of the worldwide body of Christ. Our involvement in the faith of the universal Church, whose integrity we serve not least in the episcopal ministry, excludes any negotiation or a vote on matters of faith. This also applies to ecclesiastical discipline, insofar as it is embedded in the overall church context."

 "Let's take the pope really seriously," Woelki concluded. "We do not need agitated activism, but the serenity of all who are fully committed to Christ."

"It is crucial that the Church in Germany shows with words and deeds how beautiful it is to live in the presence of the Lord, to know that He accompanies and surrounds us: For the joy of the Lord is our strength."

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