The Vatican has underlined that lay Catholics may not participate in the election of a bishop and has thus turned down another of the Germany synodal path initiative’s reform proposals.
Last September, the German archdiocese of Paderborn took up the synodal path initiative’s reform proposal titled “Involvement of the faithful in the appointment of the diocesan bishop”. By drawing lots, it chose 14 lay Catholics who would join the 14 members of the cathedral chapter in selecting a list of candidates that the chapter submits to the Pope.
The way bishops are appointed in German dioceses differs according to the rules laid down in the concordats between different German states and the Holy See.
In Paderborn the 14 members of the cathedral chapter draw up a list of possible candidates, submit it to the Vatican which chooses three names from the list and sends them back to Paderborn. The chapter then selects one of the three candidates as archbishop.
On 12 April, the 14 lay members in Paderborn received a letter from cathedral provost Fr Joachim Göbel informing them that in order to guarantee the legality of the episcopal election, the Vatican could not allow them to participate in it. The papal nuncio in Germany, archbishop Nikola Eterovic, had passed on the Vatican’s message, which had been “absolutely clear” on this, Göbel underlined in his letter.
Göbel regretted the Vatican’s decision. A majority of the chapter members in Paderborn had been in favour of expanding the right to vote to lay members of the faithful. The archdiocese has been vacant since 1 October (2022) when Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker retired on becoming 75. Becker is a strong supporter of the German synodal path initiative for church reform and very much approved of lay participation in episcopal nomination.
Paderborn played a pioneering role and was closely watched by all the German dioceses as it was the first diocese to become vacant after the synodal path’s decision to reform episcopal nominations.
That the Vatican has now expressly forbidden lay participation in episcopal nominations will have a signal effect on other German dioceses. At the end of March, the diocese of Osnabrück became vacant when the Pope accepted Bishop Franz-Josef Bode’s resignation. Bode was also very much in favour of allowing lay faithful to participate in the nomination of a new bishop.