The head of the German Bishops’ Conference has clapped back at the cardinal of Cologne after he warned of the danger of schism emerging from the German Church’s ‘synodal path’ reform process.

– “The Church in Germany is part of the universal Church and nothing will change that”

“The Catholic Church is a universal Church, which in turn consists of particular Churches. The Church in Germany is part of the universal Church and nothing will change that”, Bishop Georg Bätzing of the Limburg diocese said Friday in an interview with the General-Anzeiger newspaper in Bonn.

The head of the German Bishops was responding to Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, the Archbishop of Cologne, who told Germany’s Catholic news agency KNA on Thursday that “the worst outcome would be if the synodal path leads to a schism… with the universal Church”.

“That would be the worst thing, if something like a German national Church were to be created here”, Woelki warned.

The cardinal was full of praise for the synodal path regional conferences that were held September 4 instead of the planned assembly postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, since in his opinion those conferences facilitated debate in small groups better than a large assembly.

However, Woelki cautioned synodal path delegates against creating “unfulfillable hopes” with regard to women’s ordination.

“I cannot treat it as if the question were open”, the cardinal said. “In that case, the discussion takes place outside the teaching of the Church”.

Instead, Woelki urged synodal path participants to initiate “a true reform, which is definitely needed in the Church”. One that, he said, would “correct all manifestations and realities that have led away from the nature of the Church” and bring Catholics back to an understanding of the institution not as a “purely sociological entity” but rather “the work of God”.

Unlike Woelki, a number of German bishops believe that more talk of the ordination of women is essential for a “true reform” of the Church.

As recently as last month, for example, Archbishop of Hamburg Stefan Hesse said that the discussion on women priests “is still there, it is alive, and it cannot be stifled by a piece of paper”.

That was a reference to Pope John Paul II’s attempted veto of women’s ordination in his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.

– Church leaders refused to be bowed by scepticism, widespread indifference to reforming impulse

The two-year synodal path reform process is designed to win back confidence in the Church after the clergy sex abuse scandals by opening up debates on questions of power, sexual morality, compulsory clerical celibacy and the role of women in the Church.

Despite that noble aim, organisers are facing a new uphill battle with seeing the process through: the widespread disinterest of Germans, whether Catholic or not.

The Tagespost newspaper reported September 17 that 53% of German Catholics said they were not interested in the reform process – a percentage that rose to 63% among the German population as a whole.

Some German bishops, however, are refusing to get discouraged by the scepticism of figures such as Cardinal Woelki or by the apathy of seemingly large swathes of Catholics.

Bishop of Hildesheim Heiner Wilmer, for example, called September 15 for the “control of the power” of priests and bishops and for an end to clericalism.

“We need an open discourse, a Church that deals critically with its structures, some of which date back to feudal times”, the bishop said, calling for the reinforcement of ordained men’s co-responsibility for the Church with laypeople.

“We have to open ourselves to society… and the Catholic Church must also take a really radical approach” to respecting people’s freedom, Essen vicar general Klaus Pfeffer added for his part, explaining that the Church’s closure in on itself and its control over what people think “is the core of the crisis” of secularisation “and also the core of the debate” on the synodal path.

Archbishop of Luxembourg and president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE) Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, meanwhile, also recently backed the synodal path reform discussions, explaining that, with all the crises afflicting the institution at present, “very big questions” on Church reform “have to be asked”.

More on Novena on the German Church’s ‘synodal path’:

German bishop hopes for change in “discriminatory” Catholic sexual morality

German Catholic women decry “male dominance” in Church: “Instead of monarchy and hierarchy, democracy and empathy!”

“The discussion is still alive”: German archbishop, Austrian bishop want more debate on ordination of women

‘We Are Church’ Germany pleads for ‘synodal path’ reforms to continue despite COVID-19, “extremely irritating” Vatican parish instruction


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.