25 January 2023, The Tablet

Vatican 'no' to synodal council reignites row with German Church

Canon lawyers said that the response from Rome meant the end for the German Synodal Path.

Vatican 'no' to synodal council reignites row with German Church

Pope Francis with Bishop Georg Bätzing in the Vatican in 2021.

In a letter specifically approved by Pope Francis, the Vatican has told German Synodal Path initiative that they do not have the competence to establish a nationwide permanent “synodal council”.

Such a council would see bishops, priests and the laity discuss and decide key issues concerning the Church.

The letter dated 16 January was addressed to the president of the German bishops’ conference, Bishop Georg Bätzing, and signed by Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, DDF Prefect Cardinal Luis Ladaria and Prefect for the Dicastery for Bishops Cardinal Marc Ouellet.

It was published by the German bishops’ conference on Monday evening 23 January.

The letter states that it is an answer to a letter the Vatican received at the end of December 2022 from five German bishops, asking Rome whether bishops were obliged to take part in a synodal commission to discuss the erection of a synodal council, but also whether they might take part should they wish to.

The five were Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, Bishop Bertram Meier of Augsburg, Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau, Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg and Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstädt.

The Vatican letter emphasises that the bishops are not obliged to take part in a “synodal commission” whose chief task is to prepare a “synodal council”.

Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German bishops' conference, was quick to react to the Vatican letter by publishing his decision to carry on with plans to establish a “synodal council” that same evening on the bishops’ conference’s website.

“While the Holy See is convinced that the establishment of a Synodal Council would weaken the episcopal office, in my experience synodal consultations virtually strengthen the office of bishop,” Bätzing said.

“No-one is calling the episcopal office into question. For us Germans, the letter from Rome will have the following consequences – it will make us think all the more intensively about the forms and possibilities of synodal consultation and decision making in order to develop a culture of synodality.”

Two of Germany’s best-known canon lawyers, Thomas Schüller and Norbert Lüdecke, immediately pointed out that the letter from Rome meant the end for the German Synodal Path.

The “stop sign” from Rome was “final”, Schüller said on social media.

The text of the letter had been accepted by the Pope in forma specifica, he pointed out. The letter was therefore a “papal decision” and thus “non-appealable”.

And Lüdecke explained that the Pope had taken the matter into his own hands. It was no longer a matter for Curia.

“Against curial decisions one can still always appeal to the Pope but one can do nothing against a decision by the Pope himself.”

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