Tension ahead of the second German-Vatican summit meeting

Tension ahead of the second German-Vatican summit meeting Irme Stetter-Karp, president of the Central Committee of German Catholics and co-chair of the Synodal Path, and Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German bishops' conference, attend the fifth synodal assembly in Frankfurt March 9, 2023. Photo: OSV News/Heiko Becker, Reuters
Ludwig Ring-Eifel (KNA)

For the second time, members of the German Bishops’ Conference and several Curia cardinals will meet in Rome on Friday for difficult theological and canon law discussions. The topics will once again be the reform proposals of the German Synodal Path, which met in Frankfurt from 2020 to 2023. The first meeting in Rome took place on 26 July 2023.

Observers assume that the question of what forms of joint consultation and decision-making are possible in the Catholic Church will also be discussed this time. The future decision-making body decided on by the Frankfurt Synodal Assembly, the “Synodal Council”, has so far been rejected by the Vatican, as has its precursor, the so-called Synodal Committee.

Following an objection from Rome, the Chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference (DBK), Bishop Georg Bätzing, removed a planned vote on such a body from the agenda at the Bishops’ Assembly in Augsburg on 19 February. This was preceded by an unequivocal letter from Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, the papal chief dogmatist Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandez and Cardinal Robert Prevost, who is responsible for the discipline of bishops. At the time, Bätzing said that the letter was being taken seriously and recognised “the need for good and successful communication with those responsible in Rome”.

He announced that an attempt would be made to rebut the concerns from Rome that a “synodal council” would diminish the authority of the bishops with good arguments. As Pope Francis, for his part, repeatedly advocates more “synodality” in the leadership of the Church, it is to be expected that the Germans will focus on explaining their reform ideas as a realisation of this principle.

A crucial point here is likely to be the fine line between consultation and decision. The Pope and the cardinals around him do want to involve the “people of God” – lay people, religious and ordinary priests – in consultations and votes. However, according to their understanding, the final authority for decisions always lies with the bishops and the Pope, in accordance with the current doctrine on the nature of the Catholic Church, because they are the successors of the apostles and no one else is called to do this.

For the Catholic lay associations in Germany organised in the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), however, effective co-determination in a joint body is a non-negotiable must. Without such a body, they see all the reform proposals of the German Synodal Path as being jeopardised.

As the Vatican has not yet come up with the idea of inviting representatives of the ZdK to top-level talks in Rome, a coordination conference of the ZdK and DBK in Germany was scheduled two days before the meeting of the bishops in Rome. The aim of the digital meeting on Wednesday was to clarify what a common line between the laity and bishops could look like for the talks in Rome.

This preliminary clarification does little to change the fact that the lay organisations can only follow the meeting in Rome from the position of onlookers. Especially as the topics to be discussed in Rome remained secret until the very end. Only the German participants were known: in addition to Chairman Bätzing, the heads of the Episcopal Commissions for Faith (Franz-Josef Overbeck), Pastoral Care (Peter Kohlgraf), Priestly Formation (Michael Gerber), Liturgy (Stephan Ackermann) and Universal Church (Bertram Meier) were to take part from Germany.

In addition to Cardinals Parolin, Fernandez and Prevost, the Swiss Curia Cardinal Kurt Koch and experts on liturgy and canon law are also expected to take part on behalf of the Vatican. It was agreed in advance not to disclose the location and duration of the talks. Even the date was kept secret – until one of the most important participants, Cardinal Fernandez of Argentina, spilled the beans.

Whether an agreement on a future mixed decision-making body will be reached in Rome on 22 March is likely to become clear in the following week: The foundation of an association was planned for 27 March, in which 23 of 27 German dioceses wanted to participate. This association is to form the financial basis for the future “Synodal Committee” (and later for the Synodal Council) in Germany.

If the association came into being against a renewed Roman veto – if the German arguments in Rome were not convincing – new stress would be pre-programmed. Because, according to an earlier warning by the Cardinal Secretary of State, the ecclesial communion between the majority of German bishops and Rome would then be jeopardised.