From November 14 to 19, 2022, the 62 German bishops were on an ad limina visit to Rome. They met with the pope, as well as the heads of the Roman dicasteries. On Friday, November 18, a special meeting, moderated by Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, brought together several heads of dicasteries and the German episcopate, regarding the Synodal Path of Germany.
This inter-dicasterial meeting had been “planned for some time,” the joint communiqué of the Holy See and the German bishops specified, “as an opportunity to reflect together on the Synodal Path in progress in Germany, convened in response to the cases of sexual abuse of minors by clerics.”
The Secretary of State spoke of the concerns that the Synodal Path arouses, and emphasized the risk of “reforms of the Church and not in the Church.”
Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German Episcopal Conference, recalled that the spirit of the German Synodal Path is “based on listening to the people of God and mourning the abuses committed by members of the clergy.”
The president of the Synodal Path also listed the subjects dealt with during the synodal assemblies: “power and the distribution of powers in the Church, community participation and missionary planning, priestly life today, the role of women in ministries and offices of the Church,” including also love “in sexuality and in relationships.”
Cardinals Luis Ladaria and Marc Ouellet, respectively prefects of the dicasteries for the Doctrine of the Faith and for bishops, also spoke. They spoke frankly and clearly “of the concerns and reservations regarding the methodology, contents, and proposals of the Synodal Path, proposing …that the demands that have emerged so far be included in the Synod of the Universal Church.”
Their intention is obvious: to neutralize these proposals by diluting them in the World Synod. But with an obvious danger: such as the World Synod being infected by this injection of virulent poison.
A Proposal for a Moratorium
During the discussion that followed, the joint communiqué specified that a proposal for a moratorium regarding the Synodal Path had been made by the Curia, a proposal which was not relished by the German bishops.
In conclusion, the Cardinal Secretary of State welcomed the discussion, not formal, but necessary and constructive, which “cannot be ignored” in the ongoing process. This process of
listening and dialogue will continue in the coming months, “in order to contribute to the enrichment of the German Synodal Path and of the Universal Synod of the Church.”
Bishop Bätzing gave a press conference on Saturday, November 19, in Rome. He spoke in particular of “the trying ad limina visit.” He did not diminish the confrontation with the Curia, claiming to having an exchange “tough on the substance and firm on the tone,” but welcoming the progress of the synodal culture that he observed within the Curia, more attenuative, according to him.
He explained that the preparation of the joint declaration issued the day before had posed difficulties. “We do not agree on important theological questions, especially with regard to the synodal path,” acknowledged the German bishop. He once again defended the process and dismissed the moratorium proposal that had emerged.
Asked about his positions regarding the blessings of homosexual couples: “I will not remove” the possibility of blessing same-sex couples who “believe and ask God's blessing,” he insisted. Regarding the Holy See, he finally confided that the question of the ordination of women is considered “closed.” Several bishops drew a mixed picture, but felt opposition.
Münster Bishop Felix Genn called the talks “tough, but fair on both sides.” On the questions discussed in Germany about the ordination of women and the abolition of compulsory celibacy for priests, the pope took a clear position. He called the first a dogmatic question and the second a disciplinary question.
The Bishop of Essen, Franz-Josef Overbeck, returned to his diocese “very thoughtful.” During the meetings with the Vatican authorities, the subject primarily focused on questions of faith and understanding of tradition. He affirmed that the German bishops will address the clear demands addressed to them, and will consider how to deal with them.
As for the Bishop of Trier, Stephan Ackermann, he was happy to have been able to speak with the Curia about the Synodal Path in person. But the themes and documents of the Synodal Path are already deploying their effects, continued Bishop Ackermann. “We will complete the synodal path as planned next February and present the results in Rome,” the bishop concluded.
Finally, the Bishop of Passau, Stefan Oster, saw no concessions from the Vatican on the Synodal Path. He perceived “a clear contradiction on the questions which, in my opinion, are the most intensely discussed among us”: the themes of Christian anthropology and ecclesiology, to which access to ordained ministries is linked. Some topics are “non-negotiable.”
The moderator of the meeting, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, emphasized that “these Roman interventions must be taken into account in the continuation of the synodal journey.” These proposals have made it possible to avoid a moratorium also proposed for the Synodal Path, “so that it can continue to advance taking the interventions made into account.”
This is undoubtedly the most interesting result of this visit. Some German bishops are asking questions about the legitimacy of certain elements incompatible with faith and tradition, which the Synodal Path wants to promote.
But they are heavily hampered by lay people who have had indignant reactions to the proposed moratorium. Thus, the Federal Association of German Pastoral Agents described as a “scandal” the fact that during the ad limina visit, a moratorium on the Synodal Path was negotiated without the entire presidium participating.
They add that it is good that a direct dialogue between the bishops and Roman critics has finally taken place, but at the same time there must be no more turning back on the understanding of synodality, namely that the laity and clerics deliberate and decide together.