The conflict between Catholic reformers in Germany and the headquarters of the Church in Rome continued to escalate as the Vatican issued a new stop signal at the start of the spring plenary meeting of the German Bishops’ Conference in Dresden on Monday.
The Pope’s ambassador to Germany, Nuncio Nikola Eterovic, reiterated Roman concerns in his welcoming address and drew new red lines. The president of the Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Georg Baetzing, had insisted shortly beforehand that the bishops wanted to stick to the reform process despite all the opposition to it.
This resistance relates above all to the planned establishment of a so-called Synodal Council, an advisory and governing body in which bishops, other clergy and laypeople are to discuss and take joint decisions on fundamental Church issues and on the use of financial resources.
Conservative clerics, several canon lawyers and top representatives in the Vatican see this as curtailing the authority of the bishops and have rejected the plan.
In a letter on January 16, the Vatican said the Catholic Church in Germany did not have the authority to establish a joint governing body of laypeople and clergy that would place itself above the authority of the bishops. The letter was expressly approved by Pope Francis.
In his written reply which Baetzing made public at the meeting, he recalled the ad limina visit of the German bishops to Rome in November where an agreement had been made “that we remain in dialogue with each other. In this respect, letters are always difficult”.
Baetzing, the bishop of Limburg, added that he did not share fears of a looming split between the Catholic Church in Germany and the Universal Church. “People who speak of a split are pursuing an agenda. I don’t speak of it because nobody wants it.”
Baetzing added: “We are ready at any time at short notice to go to Rome and continue the talks there”. A Synodal Committee would be formed next week as planned. He said this would in turn set up the Synodal Council in such a way that it complied with canon law and did not weaken but strengthen the authority of a bishop in his diocese.
Ambassador Eterovic rejected this plan on Monday. In his greeting message to the bishops, he said he had been officially commissioned to clarify the letter sent by Rome in January – namely to the effect “that according to a correct interpretation of the content of this letter, not even a local bishop can establish a Synodal Council at the diocesan or parish level”.
This new stop signal barred a possible solution to the dispute aired by Bishop Gerhard Feige of Magdeburg who had said: “The letter says that neither the Synodal Path nor a bishops’ conference could set up such a council. But it says nothing about a bishop not being able to do it himself”.
Rome’s “No” in January came in response to a letter from the local bishops of Cologne, Augsburg, Eichstaett, Passau and Regensburg who had asked the Vatican whether they were obliged to participate in a Synodal Committee whose purpose is to prepare the Synodal Council.
Baetzing said the bishops in question were in the minority. “The overwhelming majority of the Bishops’ Conference at least wants the Synodal Path to succeed,” he said. “We have to give signals that we are changing. Otherwise people will no longer believe us and will run away in droves.”
The Synodal Path is also aimed at taking action in response to the scandal over the widespread abuse of children by clerics. In Dresden, the bishops will try to find a common line for the final Synodal Assembly in Frankfurt from March 9 to 11. The main themes of the reform consultations are sexual morality, the priestly way of life, power and the division of powers and the role of women in the Church.
Various groups demonstrated in Dresden ahead of the opening service of the plenary assembly. Conservative Christians called on the bishops to remain Catholic and to prevent a split from the Universal Church. Other groups demanded more rights for women and homosexuals in the Catholic Church and urged the bishops to pursue more far-reaching reforms.
Reform groups and abuse victims called the bishops’ meeting a “litmus test” for the future of the Church in Germany. “We will see how serious the majority of the bishops are about their will to reform,” said Christian Weisner of the pro-reform group “Wir sind Kirche” (“We are the church”). He called on the bishops to do more to combat the abuse of power, sexual abuse and discrimination against women and sexual minorities.
Brigitte Vielhaus, the federal executive director of the German Association of Catholic Women (kfd), called on the bishops to agree on a stronger involvement of women in Church duties and ministries.
The spokeswoman of an eastern German victims’ initiative, Sabine Otto, said the Church must publicly ask state authorities to take responsibility for reappraising abuse. Furthermore, the bishops should reconsider how they treated victims.
The initiative “Offen.Katholisch” (“Open.Catholic”) made up of young Catholics from the host diocese of Dresden-Meissen demanded that women be admitted to the priesthood and that Church marriages be allowed for homosexual couples. The group plans to present a petition to this effect to the bishops on Tuesday.
Originally reported by KNA Germany.