News Analysis

German media accuse Francis of ‘stabbing bishops in the back’

A Vatican cardinal’s warning that plans for a binding synodal process in Germany appear to be “ecclesiologically invalid” and not in accordance with canon law has been met with outrage in Germany and dismissed in a terse rebuke by Cardinal Reinhard Marx.

In a letter responding to Cardinal Marc Ouellet that was leaked by local media, the president of the German bishops’ conference admonished the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops for not speaking to him before “sending off documents”. Cardinal Marx also reportedly dismissed the concerns raised by Cardinal Ouellet’s initial letter – and an accompanying four-page legal assessment by the Pontifical Commission for Legislative Texts – regarding the German plan to debate and pass “binding resolutions” on areas that pertain to the Universal Church.

As it currently stands, the synodal process, which is scheduled to begin on the first day of Advent, will deliberate and pass resolutions about four areas, all of which pertain to the life, structure and discipline of the Universal Church – namely, priestly celibacy, roles and ecclesial offices for women, sexual morality, and “authority and the separation of powers” in the Church.

Describing the German synodal path as a “process sui generis”, Cardinal Marx rejected the Vatican’s assessment that what the Germans are planning is a “particular council” by another name. According to canon law, particular councils must only be undertaken with approval from Rome.

Such reservations do not apply, the German cardinal asserted in his response to Cardinal Ouellet, according to local sources. At the same time, he has defended the design to involve a lay organisation, the Central Committee of German Catholics, as an equal partner.

Secular German media are reporting the conflict as a clash between the Pope and the German bishops. An opinion article in the broadsheet Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on September 14 accused Pope Francis of “stabbing the German bishops in the back”, and of having lured them into an “ambush” by first encouraging them and then declaring them incompetent.

Such perceptions of a Dolchstoß (“stab in the back”) ignore the fact that Pope Francis has repeatedly called on the German bishops to grasp that the crisis of the Church is above all a crisis of faith. He made this point both in his ad limina address to German bishops in November 2015 and his letter to German Catholics on June 29 this year.

Secular media reports of a notionally liberal pope who now is “backstabbing” the Germans are echoed by interventions in media outlets connected to the German Bishops’ Conference. One particularly provocative piece, originally published on Facebook, was written by Mgr Klaus Pfeffer. The vicar general of the Diocese of Essen accused the Vatican of interference and “threatening behaviour” aimed at stifling debate. “Apparently Rome has not yet understood just how enormous the crisis of the Catholic Church is, not only in Germany, but also worldwide,” Mgr Pfeffer wrote.

Polemical overtones aside, it is this firmly held conviction that German Catholicism knows best how to solve the current crisis and should therefore forge ahead on its own (presumably with the rest of the Catholic world to follow) that best explains not just the path taken by the synodal process, but also German influence on the forthcoming Amazon synod.

Certainly such a view would not be without precedent. In fact, observers point out, aspects of the synodal aims now pursued by Cardinal Marx and the majority of German bishops are already largely fulfilled and implemented in the Lutheran Church. As Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne has noted, “all those inside and outside the Church who so vehemently push for changes have not answered one question: why are Protestant Christians in Germany not flourishing? They have implemented all that is being demanded. Yet they are not in a better position.”

Cardinal Woelki, together with Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg, submitted an alternative proposal for the synodal process to the permanent council of the German bishops’ conference. This proposal, too, was leaked to the media.

Rather than proposing to deal with issues of sexuality, discipline and power, the Woelki-Voderholzer plan acknowledged a crisis of the faith in Germany and thus focused on spiritual renewal and evangelisation – as requested by Pope Francis in his letter in June. It would also have ensured a wider, more representative involvement of Catholics and Catholic organisations, and was written with a view to ensuring compliance with the requirements of canon law.

The German bishops voted 21 to 3 against the proposal at an August 19 meeting of their permanent council.

On September 13, the bishops’ conference announced that Cardinal Marx would travel to Rome to clear up “misunderstandings”, while informing the public, together with the Central Committee of German Catholics, that preparations would continue as planned.