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German bishops, laity reject “authoritarian clericalism” behind Vatican threats

The German Church is holding firm in its desire to carry out a “binding synodal process” to discuss reforms to faith and doctrine.

Driving the news

As The Tablet reports, a new salvo in the escalating tensions between Rome and Germany came last week from Fulda, where German bishops and laity of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) met for a two-day Joint Conference.

On the agenda at the meet was a letter and legal assessment from Rome which warned German Church draft plans for the “synodal path” ran the risk of schism and were “not… valid” according to Church law.

Though the letter was dated September 4, the German Bishops’ Conference only confirmed its existence September 13, the first day of the Fulda meet.

But the response of the German bishops and laypeople came in the form of a reply to the Pope’s June letter “to the pilgrim People of God in Germany”, in which Francis urged German Catholics to two things: evangelisation first and Church unity.

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Go deeper

In their response to Pope Francis’ letter, the participants at the Fulda Joint Conference said “we realise our approach to the entire procedure must be based on the primacy of evangelisation”.

“We are determined that the synodal procedure will be a ‘spiritual process’ [and] we, too, have our eyes both on unity with the world Church and on the local situation here”, the letter continued.

ZdK President Thomas Sternberg added that the catalyst for the planning of the synodal process – the Church sex abuse crisis – had revealed systemic problems in the Church that obscured the credible proclamation of the Gospel message”.

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Why it matters

The Tablet said that while the synodal process statutes were discussed at Fulda, they have not yet found a definitive form and have not yet been published.

More revisions are planned at the German Bishops’ Conference Autumn Plenary Assembly September 23-26, and at the next ZdK meeting.

Both bodies will have to agree on the final form for the statutes before the two-year synodal process – currently scheduled for December – gets underway.

But discussions papers have now been published on the synodal path’s four major themes: “power and checks and balances”, “sexual morality”, “the priestly lifestyle” – including compulsory celibacy – and “the place of women in the Church”.

That last theme is marked “of utmost urgency”, though The Tablet said the priestly ordination of women is now off the synodal path’s agenda.

All four themes will be an important test of how seriously the Church really wants reform, the Fulda meet participants said.

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For the record

That of the Fulda meet participants has not been the only sharp reaction in the German Church to the Vatican attempts to shut down the synodal process.

German Bishops’ President Cardinal Reinhard Marx blasted the Vatican documents and said he could not see “why questions about which the Magisterium has made determinations should be withdrawn from any debate”.

“Countless believers in Germany consider [these issues] to be in need of discussion”, Marx added.

Essen vicar-general Fr Klaus Pfeffer seconded Marx’s criticisms of the Vatican’s attitude, and said: “Whoever still believes today that warnings or even threats can nip discussions in the bud won’t solve a single problem”.

“On the contrary, they will merely make the disagreements and rifts worse”, Pfeffer lamented.

As The Tablet recalls, Süddeutsche Zeitung religion correspondent and committed Catholic Matthias Drobinski also entered the fray, and said of the Vatican documents: “Whoever is still looking for proof that authoritarian clericalism is alive and well and thriving in the Catholic Church – here it is”.

“Not a word about the reason that made the [synodal] procedure necessary, namely the Church’s massive loss of credibility because of the abuse scandal.

“Not a word about the Pope’s encouragement to discuss the future of the Church honestly and candidly.

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“If the German bishops obey these instructions from Rome, then the synodal procedure is dead before it has even begun”, Drobinski warned.

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