The Vatican and the German Synodal way

Aug 7, 2022
Bishop George Batzing, President of the German Bishops Conference
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The recent (21.7.22) unsigned “Statement” of the Roman Curia/Apostolic See should send shivers down the spine of those Catholics who are hoping that, under Pope Francis, there would be a more synodal approach to Church governance even among the Vatican bureaucracy.

Addressed, presumably, in the first instance at least, to the members of the German “Synodal Way”, the Statement of the Apostolic See reminded them that: “In order to protect the freedom of the People of God and the exercise of the episcopal ministry, it would appear necessary to clarify that the “Synodal Way” in Germany does not have the power to compel the bishops and the faithful to adopt new ways of governance and new approaches to doctrine and morals.”

To those of us who have long memories, such a preemptive shot across the bows of the Synodal Way may conjure up memories of the Roman Curia under Cardinal Ottaviani attempting to control the agenda and the processes of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. It was only by a concerted effort of the actual members of the Council, the bishops, that control was able to be wrested from the Curia and restored to the legitimate participants in the Council, the bishops themselves.

To those of us who have shorter memories, the Statement of the Apostolic See may also remind us of the fateful “Statement of Conclusions’ which was issued to the fifteen Australian bishops at the end of their ad limina visit to the Vatican in November, 1998. After a series of cordial and mutually enlightening meetings with the officials of the various Congregations, the Australian bishops were presented with a confronting and ill-informed critique of the situation of the Catholic Church in Australia. There were, apparently, crises in faith and in Christology; there were challenges to Christian anthropology; there were problems in morality and in ecclesiology. Yet the bishops themselves could not recall any of these matters being discussed in any detail in their dialogues with the Vatican officials. It was as if the Vatican was reminding the bishops and the local churches that it was Rome who was in control, and that they alone would determine, irrespective of what dialogue might have taken place, what problems and deficiencies the local churches should address.

The recent intervention of the Holy See smacks of the same arrogance, indeed, more so. Despite many approaches, the Vatican has refused to enter into dialogue with the leaders of the Synodal Way. Despite reiterated protestations by its members that the Synodal Way was exploratory rather than in any way prescriptive either for the German Catholic Church or for the Church globally, the German assembly has been characterised by the Curia as teetering on the brink of schism. Yet Bishop George Batzing, President of the German Bishops Conference, in an April letter responding to bishops from other countries criticising the German process, had explicitly recognised that all resolutions of the Synodal Way would have to be submitted to the Synod on Synodality in 2023. There was no suggestion that any projected reforms would be prescribed or implemented in Germany prior to the Synod.

Despite this and other admissions that explicitly recognised the limited powers and aspirations of the Synodal Way, the July intervention of the Roman Curia seems to suggest that the German Church had not accepted its limitations. The Curia seems to be more than a little uneasy with the way in which the Synodal Way is constituted and is proceeding.

Unlike the recently concluded Plenary Council in Australia, which was regulated by canons 441 – 446 of the Code of Canon Law, the Sy nodal Way is a much more informal Church assembly. Whereas the canonical prescriptions permitted only about a quarter of the 277 members of the Plenary Council to be laity, there are equal numbers of clergy and laity in the Synodal Way. In a Plenary Council the definitive vote is confined to the episcopal members, whereas in the Synodal Way the votes of both clergy and laity are definitive. Further, and most significantly, the agenda of the Plenary Council – as Bishop Mackinlay reminded the participants – has to be consistent with Church teaching. So issues like clerical celibacy, the blessing of same-sex marriages and the priestly ordination of women were not considered except in passing. On the other hand, the agenda of the Synodal Way is far more wide-ranging and responsive to the “hot button” issues in the Church: the power and separation of powers in the Church; relationships and sexuality; priestly ministry, including conversations about priestly celibacy; women in offices and ministries in the Church.

Not only is the agenda of the Plenary Council limited, but also all the acts of the Council have to be submitted to the Apostolic See, and the final decrees are reviewed by the same authority They are not to be promulgated until such a review is completed (Canon 446). One of the reasons, I suspect, why the Roman Curia is unhappy with the way in which the Synodal Way is proceeding is that it does not have a monitoring or reviewing role in their deliberations. While Bishop Batzing has assured its critics that the Synodal Way will submit its conclusions to the 2023 Synod, there has been no suggestion that there will be a prior review (and edit) by the Apostolic See.

So, once again, as at the Second Vatican Council and in the 1998 “Statement of Conclusions’ to the Australian bishops, the stage is set for conflict between the Roman Curia and those who would hope for a more radical consideration of the issues confronting the universal Church.

There are, however, some reasons for hope. They all rely on the continuing good health of Pope Francis.

The first is that the Pope has asked for “bottom-up” reforms rather than changes imposed and monitored from above.

The second is that the Pope , most notably in a series of recent exhortations and decrees, has, at least to some degree, constrained and diluted the powers and presumptions of the Curia. He has insisted that the Vatican officials are at the service of the bishops and the local churches. They are not, as it were, a filter and an editor through which the concerns of the local churches are conveyed to the Pope.

Finally, the theme of the 2023 Synod is Synodality. Dialogue is an integral part of such an enterprise. The refusal of the Roman Curia to dialogue with the leaders of the Synodal Way seems to be at odds with the way in which the Pope wants the Church to move. To this degree Curial interventions, as at Vatican II, may come to be defanged.

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