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German bishops vote to adopt statutes for Synodal Assembly

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The bishops voted 51-12, despite previous Vatican concerns that the plans were not 'ecclesiologically valid'

The bishops of Germany have voted to adopt a set of statutes for their long-planned “Synodal Assembly.” The decision was taken in a vote on Wednesday, September 25, the final day of the plenary session of the German bishops’ conference.

The bishops voted to adopt the statutes by a margin of 51-12 with 1 abstention. The vote followed hours of debate concerning several amendments. Various changes were proposed and considered in response to Vatican concerns that a previous draft of the plans was “not ecclesiologically valid.”

Senior figures within the conference told CNA Tuesday night that “some minor changes” had been adopted by the conference, but that the revised text of the statutes would not be released until Wednesday at the earliest.

Sources also told CNA that the final version of the document includes a revised preamble which makes direct reference to the synodal priorities outlined by Pope Francis in his June letter to all German Catholics.

The preamble will include specific reference to “the primacy of evangelization, the Sensus ecclesiae, and the consideration of unity with the universal Church,” CNA has confirmed, but the subject areas for consideration by the synod’s working groups (synodal fora) will remain as previously announced – review of Church teaching on sexual morality, the role of women in Church offices and ministries, priestly life and discipline, and the separation of powers in Church governance.

On Tuesday night, Bishop Rudolph Voderholzer of Regensburg issued a statement explaining that while some changes had been made from previous versions, he remains opposed to the statutes.

“I voted against the statutes,” the bishop said. “In a many-hour debate some improvements were achieved in detail. But I have made it clear on several occasions that the thematic orientation of the [synodal] forums seems to pass by the reality of the crisis of faith in our country.”

Voderholzer added that while he remains committed to the premise of synodality as called for by the pope he wanted to put “on the record” that “there is at least a minority of the bishops who are filled with the concern that the true problems [facing the Church in Germany] cannot be addressed” by the plans as approved.

The bishop noted that, despite the new preamble, there will be no synodal forum on evangelization.

In August, the bishops’ executive committee voted down an alternative synodal proposal, drafted by Voderholzer and Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, to conform with a letter sent by Pope Francis to all German Catholics in June. That document would have focused the synodal fora on the themes of evangelization, lay formation, catechesis, and vocational ministry.

In an apparent reference to pressure from some synodal participants to insist on women’s sacramental ordination and other reforms at odds with settled Church teaching, the bishop said that “by raising certain expectations and hopes only more frustration is generated.”

“I also think – and I have always said this – that there is a dishonesty at the beginning of the Synodal Process. To conclude from the cases of sexual abuse that renewal [in the Church] is about the issues of priestly celibacy, abuse of power, women in the church, and [teaching on] sexual morality is not possible, given the lack of scientific studies in other institutions.”

In his June letter, Pope Francis warned the German bishops against a “new Pelagianism” and the temptation to try to conform the Church to the zeitgeist. Francis also warned the bishops to preserve communion with both Rome and the universal Church.

On September 4, Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Congregation for Bishops in Rome, wrote to Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, presenting a four-page legal assessment of the German plans, which concluded that the German synodal themes involved universal Church discipline and settled doctrinal teaching and were beyond the proper scope for the bishops of a single country to consider.

Underscoring his commitment to continuing with the synodal process despite his own reservations, Voderholzer said that he would “not be accused of denying the dialogue to which Pope Francis expressly encouraged us.”

“But,” he said, “I do not expect much, because I cannot see how the conditions for a true ‘dialogue’ have been provided for.”

The statutes create an assembly in partnership with the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), the leaders of which have openly insisted on an end to clerical celibacy, the immediate ordination of women to the diaconate and eventually to the priesthood, and the blessing of same sex unions in churches.

“In my opinion,” Voderholzer said, “there is a lack of a theological hermeneutics and an affirmation of the principles of the Catholic foundation of faith recognized by all those involved – one which makes a reference to Scripture, Tradition, Magisterium and Councils etc. as the strongest arguments.”

The ZdK have previously made clear that their participation in the synodal process is predicated on the assembly’s ability to pass “binding” resolutions. It is unclear if the statutes as approved retain articles granting the body “deliberative” power.

The German bishops have been meeting in Fulda since Monday to discuss a range of topics of concern to the Catholic Church in Germany. Media attention before and during the session was focused on plans for the “binding synodal process” announced by conference president Cardinal Reinhard Marx earlier this year.

Bishop Voderholzer concluded his statement by noting that as a bishop and theologian, he had sworn to proclaim and defend the Catholic faith, “I feel bound to it, but I see this promise as being particularly challenged at the moment.

“As far as the synodal process is concerned,” he said, “I reserve the right, if necessary, to quit altogether after the initial experience. The criterion is the observance of the ‘guard rails’ urged by Pope Francis and recorded in the preamble of the statute: primacy of evangelization, sensus ecclesiae, consideration of unity with the universal Church  — and thus fidelity to the doctrine of the Church.”

“I hope and pray that the Synodal Process, despite what I believe to be the wrong course, will help to bring about a true renewal of the Church.”