In what was described as a “frank” discussion in Rome Friday between Vatican department heads and German bishops over their contested “Synodal Path” reforms, a proposal to cease and desist the process was made and rejected.
62 German bishops were in Rome this week for their ad limina visit, which bishops’ conferences make every few years in order to meet with the pope and various Vatican departments to provide an update on local church affairs.
Notably, the German bishops this week did not hold separate meetings with the pope and Vatican curial offices, but rather, in an unusual move, a joint meeting was scheduled with all of them together, however, Pope Francis reportedly did not attend, but met the German bishops Thursday.
According to a Vatican statement released Friday night, the meeting between the German bishops and Vatican curial officials had been planned “for some time,” and was an opportunity to “reflect together on the Synodal Path underway in Germany.”
The so-called “Synodal Path” was convoked in 2019 to respond to the clerical sexual abuse crisis in Germany with an aim of giving laypeople more prominent roles in church leadership. However, the process has become increasingly controversial due to the outspoken calls of prominent participants, laypeople and bishops alike, for women to be ordained priests and for priests to administer blessings to same sex couples.
There have also been votes in favor of eliminating mandatory priestly celibacy and allowing clergy to marry, and to declare that same-sex marriage is not sinful. The process has also insisted that laity have a greater say in the election of bishops.
Over the summer, the Vatican issued a statement warning the German bishops against stoking division, and insisting that the process “has no power to oblige the bishops and the faithful to adopt new ways of governing and new approaches to doctrine and morals.”
In a response, the German bishops said they were “astonished” at the Vatican’s remarks and hoped to discuss potentially controversial matters in a more formal setting.
That setting took the form of Friday’s meeting, held at the Augustinianum – an academic institute in Rome with ties to the Pontifical Lateran University and which is located just outside of Vatican walls – and presided over by the Vatican Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
According to the Vatican’s statement, Parolin in his opening remarks pointed to “the bond of communion and love that unites the bishops among themselves and with the Successor of Peter,” and he also stressed the importance of the meeting as “a moment of sharing and grace, of unity in differences.”
He also voiced concern over certain elements of the German church’s Synodal Path, cautioning against the risk of carrying out “reforms of the Church and not in the Church.”
In his own remarks, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, President of the German Bishops’ Conference, outlined the work of the Synodal Path thus far, and stressed its guiding spirit as being rooted in “listening to the people of God and on the pain of the abuses committed by members of the clergy.”
He highlighted the topics discussed in the Synodal Path assemblies thus far, listing them as: Power and division of powers in the church – common participation and missionary planning; Priestly life today; Women in Church ministries and offices; and, Living in relationships that work – living love in sexuality and in the couple relationship.
Bätzing also thanked Pope Francis, who was not present, for his ongoing Synod of Bishops on Synodality, and for his recent decision to extend the process by another year.
After Bätzing finished, “theological reports” were then made by Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops, both of whom “spoke frankly and clearly about the concerns and reservations relating to the methodology, contents, and proposals of the Synodal Path.”
According to the Vatican statement, Ladaria and Ouellet proposed, “for the benefit of the unity of the Church and her evangelizing mission,” that the requests made as part of the German Synodal Path be folded into the broader, ongoing synod on synodality.
In the “open dialogue” between German bishops and curial officials that followed, “the importance and also the urgency of defining and deepening in some of the themes highlighted” was stressed, specifically in regards to church structures; priestly ministry and access to the priesthood; and Christian anthropology.
“At the same time there was a full awareness on the part of all of being on a journey with the entire holy and patient People of God, even in the confrontation between different opinions,” the statement said, noting that many remarks touched on the centrality of “evangelization and mission” in the process, “as well as the awareness of the unavailability of some themes.”
To this end, a proposal was made “of applying a moratorium on the German Synodal Path,” however, this proposal was rejected, but rather, further “reflection and mutual listening in light of the perplexities” was encouraged.
The meeting ended, according the Vatican, not with a clear decision, but with an agreement “to continue listening and mutual dialogue in the coming months” as the German Synodal Path moves forward.